I’ll be the first to advocate that well-defined goals often mean the difference between success and mediocrity. The most effective professional goals are generally those that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, and accomplished employees regularly – and proactively – discuss goals with their managers and keep them top of mind so the goals impact results and facilitate upward movement.
But goal setting does have its negatives. The large-scale financial disasters of 2008 were in large part due to executives with tunnel vision, who blindly set and followed goals without paying attention to developments around them that should have prompted them to stop and think.
Sometimes, setting a goal works so well that we become irrational and unethical in our attempts to achieve it. A classic example is the top-notch student who cheats on tests and plagiarizes term papers in order to maintain her straight-A average. Her goal is useless because the means don’t satisfy the end.
In 1999, psychology researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons set out to investigate the phenomenon that goals can have a negative effect on performance. They told subjects to watch a video and count how many times the people in the clip passed a basketball among themselves. The subjects concentrated so intently on the goal that they failed to notice anything else taking place in the testing room – including when a woman in a gorilla suit took her place among the group!
You’ll get an edge by setting goals for sure, just be aware of the potential pitfalls. Remember that even well-formed goals require adaptation and be sure that you’re consistently revisiting your professional objectives to ensure that you’re on the right track and being true to yourself in the process.