Tag Archives: motivation

Is goal setting past its peak? Some new data.

How long has there been serious interest in goal setting?  You might be forgiven for thinking it has always been a key approach to changing human behavior.  However according to PsycInfo (the largest and most authoritative database on published psychological research), between 1900 and 1980, a search of this data base on the terms “goal setting” yielded only 39 publications.  The first being in Harry Spillman’s chapter Tides of Life in Personality: Studies in Personal Development. New York: Gregg Publishing US.

The 1980s were not much better, in fact they were worse than the average of 0.5 a year, with only 2 publications (both in 1986).

The 1990s were when goal setting really started, well, kicking goals. A whopping 335 publications turned up in the search – more that the previous 90 years combined.

But it was the 2000s when we became totally obsessed with goal setting as the answer to just about everything, a whopping 1168 publications came out about goal setting.

However, something interesting may be happening.  Have a look at the graph below that shows the search results for “goal setting” across all types of publications by year.

It seems that goal setting publications peaked in 2008 and have been in decline ever since.  (Note the figure for 2011 has been adjusted by taking the figure produced at the end of September, dividing it  by 9 to get a monthly figure and multiplying that by 12 to get a comparable annual number – given the dramatic drop off, this probably over-estimates the true figure for 20110.)

There are a few intriguing things here.  Firstly, are we over goal setting?   Regular readers will appreciate that from my theoretical perspective of the Chaos Theory of Careers, goal setting can be seen to be limited in its efficacy, especially for longer-term behavioral change (because complexity and change serve to move or obliterate the goal posts) this is not an unwelcome thing if it turns out to be true.

Secondly, is it the case that goal setting has been in decline since the GFC?  The GFC really hit in mid to late 2008 (see graph below of S&P 500 since 2006).  2008 was the peak year for goal setting papers, and 2009 was not far behind.  However journals and other forms of academic publications and outputs (like theses) tend to reflect work that was done or submitted 2 or 3 years earlier.  So there is likely a lag effect in operation here.  And sure enough if you look at 2009, and 2010 and almost certainly 2011, we see an exponential drop off in papers on goal setting.

So, is it a little like the financial markets, that people are beginning to appreciate that the world is more uncertain and changeable than we realised, and that maybe we need techniques that are not so firmly rooted in the idea that the future (goal) is relatively unchanging and predictable.

It is truly fascinating, and reminds me of the Peak Oil debate, have goals reached their zenith – have we reached a tipping point on goal setting? Is this just a temporary blip? Is goal setting so accepted there is nothing more to say, or is it the case as I am hypothesizing that we are beginning to appreciate goal setting as useful, but an over-simplified response to complex and changing problems?  Or is it simply turbulence in the numbers?

Who knows for sure, but this graph certainly makes interesting reading to me.  I guess we must wait to see how it emerge over time, and on that chaotic and complexity-laden bombshell, I shall leave it to you to ponder!



Note: Psycinfo is “Unrivaled in its depth of psychological coverage and respected worldwide for its high quality, the database is enriched with literature from an array of disciplines related to psychology such as psychiatry, education, business, medicine, nursing, pharmacology, law, linguistics, and social work” according to Proquest.

Diary of a loser – by Simon Says, Motivational Speaker, Coach & Horse Doctor

Coaching – Simon Says, Motivational Speaker, Coach

I have received an unusual request by a motivational speaker, who I must confess I have never heard of, but assures me is an International legend.  He asked me if he could use this space to share his year with you. So Dear Reader, thanks for reading me in 2010, please come back in 2011, and for now in the spirit of seasonal generosity I hand over to this interloper…

demotivation motivational poster

Diary of a loser – by Simon Says, Motivational Speaker, Coach & Horse Doctor


Simon Says is the world’s leading self-acclaimed thought and feelings leader.  Having spoken to many people including psychiatrists, correctional officers and judges, he is well placed to share his insights and wisdom, which are always at the leading edge of recently published self-help guides and tweets.  He brings his extensive knowledge culled from channel hopping and waiting at the Dentist and packages it neatly into a 45 minute powerpoint template.  Simon Says will leave you speechless, and if you think you know nothing now, just wait until you’ve heard Simon Says!

January. Kindly invited to give a Keynote to the Dumfrieshire, Scotland Octogenarians Annual Gymkhana.  The title of my motivational talk, kindly sponsored by Viagra, was “Up and At em!” Unfortunately, in attempting some of my engaging team bonding exercises, the lady at the top of the human pyramid, Agnes bunting, 87, fell 10 feet headlong into the green chartreuse punch.   She put up a brave fight as paramedics tried to drag her out of the punch bowl, and managed to break free several times returning to the bowl and consuming half its contents before passing out.  Alas George Windbreak, 92 and Harold Bongers, 97, who recklessly formed the bottom of the pyramid were unable to keep it up giving us the rare sight of a synchronized coronary.  The organizers, rather rudely I felt, prevented me from proceeding with the high ropes exercises but at least they offered me a bonus if I would leave immediately.

February. On to outback Australia and the Lightning Ridge Opal Diggers Annual Fossicking Fete and Chutney judging contest.  I gave them my “Success? In you dreams” talk. I tried to get creative, like Norm Amundson, by using a metaphor.  My metaphor linked the opal prospectors to truffle pigs. Curiously my use of metaphor did not elicit the same overwhelming positive audience response that Norm routinely enjoys.  Although some of the audience laughed and clapped as I was chased from the stage by a pack of dingoes let loose by some miners who evidently hadn’t got into metaphors in a big way.

March. Was invited to speak at the Trappist Monks Biannual Variety Performance and Telethon.  The title of my talk was “Brain Science: a whole new income stream for motivational speakers”.  My speech was greeted with silence, which I took as a positive but the telethon was not such a success as the several callers made police reports about hearing nothing but heavy breathing on the lines.

April. LA international airport.  Nasty moment in the Airport motivational bookstore as five self appointed ‘thought leaders’ tried to blind each with their laser pointers while squabbling over the last copy of the international bestseller(self designated) ” Emotionally intelligent customer focus/leadership/life lessons/parenting/logarithms and everything: lessons from Brain Science” by renowned thought leader and Master Major General in Fijitsu-based Neural Pathway Nerve Architecture(r) and Baltimore’s most preferred plumber, Trent Triteman.

With all of them going for the only win win that counts, things got dirty. Fred Facile-Bender, could not make his voice heard and died of Lack of Attention Deficit Disorder.  Sheena Simple-Sooths temporarily blinded by her own PowerPoint projector stumbled into a remainder pile of her own book “I know better than you, you idiot” and choked to death on indigestible prose.  The inevitable Gen Y expert Pieter Band-Wagon, made it clear he wanted it and he wanted it right now, and promptly wet himself and was sent to sit in the Naughty corner (quite appropriately on top of an unsold pile of Tony Tonsure’s “ 7 Lessons God learned from me”).  Mary-Lou Touchy-Feel saw her opportunity, and with fangs bared (recently upholstered in Beverly Hills) and ears pinned back (also care of Beverly Hills) dived headlong at the remaining copy, and was concussed when she collided head on with the ego of George Monetized-Banal-Utterings  III Jnr.

Luckily for me I managed to distract George with the old ruse of a fake dollar note and a mirror.  George was unable to resist the lure of an easy dollar and an admiring audience in the mirror.  I was about the grab that last copy of the book, when George was hit by a bolt of lightning. It was a close run thing, and the lightning had to spend a week in hospital recovering.

Sadly the resulting clash of ego and lightning released so much energy that last copy was completely obliterated.   So I suppose it is back to the Reader’s Digest and Christmas Crackers for my key messages for my keynotes.

May. Went to a Himalayan retreat in Wembley, North London to learn from the great Teacher, His Holiness the Lada (aka Monty Parsons, second hand car dealer and silver dealer).  Was most impressed by the Lada’s teachings. First he said that there were four planes:  the back plane (where we obsess about money); the premium back plane (where we delude ourselves we dont care about money); the business plane (where our Managers control our money) and the front of the plane (where the Lada likes to sit after we have given him our money).  He says spiritual enlightenment only comes after spiritual boarding which apparently involves making a left turn on entering the plane.

June. Was invited to MC the “Get a Grip” Skydiving Challenge for the terminally anxious.  Unfortunately my impromtu speech in the jump plane entitled “Failing Successfully: if you are not failing you are not trying hard enough” was taken to heart by several of the audience on the first dive.  However at least this freed up some spare chutes for the subsequent dives.


July. Rejection!  I was invited to speak at the Beating Your Own Online Addictions Conference held in MoneyBags Casino, Las Vegas.  Would you believe the organizing committee withdrew their invitation saying my proposed talk “Getting Off Online” was not what they had in mind.


August. Received a huge number of invitations to the top parties.  Elton’s Annual Ball, the Oscar’s party, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, and the opening of the Empire State Building.  It is amazing what memorabilia you can pick up on ebay


September. I was on television!  I didn’t realize they’d started televising local court matters.  Anyway I thought the fine was a little steep, especially as I had no previous convictions for streaking at a sports event, and still have no memory as to how I managed to end up in the middle of Fenway Park Baseball Park in nothing but Red Socks.  At least what attire I was wearing was appropriate and probably a good thing I didn’t pull that stunt at the Giants stadium…


October. Spent the whole month on Twitter.  Now suffering from Twitter twitch.


Nov. My last gig of the year. School speech day.  My children are no longer speaking to me though, as they claim it was the Principal who was supposed to be giving the speech and I was supposed to sitting with the rest of the parents.  None the less I think they appreciated my talk “Why education is for losers: don’t waste your time”.


Dec. Had planned on spending a relaxed and happy holidays with the family.  Embarrassingly the family I had chosen challenged me on the second day and I had to admit that they did not know me.  However they did not throw me out immediately. Oh no!  They insisted on searching my room and luggage beforehand.  I felt this was an outrage, as I had planned to gift the silverware they discovered to my self-managed charity – Largesse Intended To Totally Lousy Engagement Speakers of Distinction – LITTLE SODS.


Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting

Recently Harvard academics  Lisa D. Ordonez,  Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman wrote a piece in the Academy of Management Journal highlighting a range of serious problems with the overuse and uncritical use of goal setting (link here). They essentially argue that goal setting often comes with a series of side effects that are rarely considered that can have significant negative effects for individuals and organizations.  Some of their arguments echo ones I have made about the overuse and abuse of goal setting as a panacea for all career development problems for instance see this piece and this one.

The authors pose these questions (and suggestions for addressing issues) that we should ask before jumping into goal setting.

1. Are the goals too specific? – Narrow goals can blind people to important aspect of a problem.

Suggestion: Be sure that goals are comprehensive and include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality).

2. Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy?

Suggestion: Provide skills and training to enable employees to reach goals. Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal.

3.  Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy-to-reach goals.

Suggestion: Allow transparency in the goal-setting process and involve more than one person or unit.

4.  Is the time horizon appropriate? Short-term goals may harm long-term performance.

Suggestion: Be sure that short-term efforts to reach a goal do not harm investment in long-term outcomes.

5.  How might goals influence risk taking? Unmet goals may induce risk taking.

Suggestion: Be sure to articulate acceptable levels of risk.

6. How might goals motivate unethical behavior? Goals narrow focus. Employees with goals are less likely to recognize ethical issues, and more likely to rationalize their unethical behavior.

Suggestion: Multiple safeguards may be necessary to ensure ethical behavior while attaining goals (e.g., leaders as exemplars of ethical behavior, making the costs of cheating far greater than the benefit, strong oversight).

7.  Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness? Individual differences may make standardized goals inappropriate, yet unequal goals may be unfair.

Suggestion: If possible, strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation.

8.  How will goals influence organizational culture? Individual goals may harm cooperation and corrode organizational culture.

Suggestion: If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based rather than individual goals.Think carefully about the values that the specific, challenging goals convey.

9.  Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Goal setting can harm intrinsic motivation. Assess intrinsic motivation and avoid setting goals when intrinsic motivation is high.

10.  What type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate given the ultimate objectives of the organization? By focusing on performance goals, employees may fail to search for better strategies and fail to learn.

Suggestion: In complex, changing environments, learning goals may be more effective than performance goals

Goal setting in my mind can encourage people and organisations to focus too narrowly on only a couple of things in their environment, and this runs the risk of them failing to see the bigger picture, and being ill-prepared to deal with change, complexity and innovation in their environments (see this piece).

Goals appear to be most effective in relatively unchanging environments, in the short term and where the problem the goal is addressing is clear and relatively straightforward.  The trouble is that these circumstances do not occur in real life as often as many people assume when they chose to set goals or blindly engage in goal setting.

Another problem is the type of goals that people try to set.  We can distinguish between performance and learning goals. Performance goals are the ones we usually associate with goal-setting, for instance -” I will increase my results on the test by 30% by the end of the quarter“.   A very common version of these are SMART goals – Specific Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic and Time-based.

Learning goals generally refer to increase knowledge skills and abilities in a defined area.  “Increasing understanding of Monty Python sketches”, “mastering the use of the comfy chair”, “remembering your wife’s recipe for lemon ice cream” are all examples of learning goals.

Changing circumstances mean that SMART performance goals can become less tenable, or even impossible. Furthermore the desirability of attaining such goals can become questionable as the scene changes over time.  If your company’s goal was to sell twice of much of the drug “Bowel-shatterer-Pro” over the next 12 months, this goal might become inappropriate if during that time clinical trials demonstrated the drug to be a danger to the health of those taking it.

Learning goals are less susceptible to change in this way, and thus are more likely to be a useful strategy in a changing environment, or even over the longer term.  However outside of specific learning environments like schools, colleges and Universities, the use of learning goals is less common.

To my mind both forms of goal setting – Performance and Learning – still suffer from inducing a form of selective blindness – to focus on one or two things at the expense of all else.  It is not at all clear there is any evidence that people in real life (ie not in psychology laboratories) really can or do behave like this – unless they are the rare few that has a coterie of minders and managers surrounding them to shut out distractions and hold back change, most of us have to deal with change and complexity on a daily basis.   Think about how we spontaneously look to support students completing High School exams as parents, or coaches supporting elite athletes – we eliminate distractions like cooking or cleaning for themselves, we might monitor social distractions, etc. In other words we try to recreate laboratory conditions to some extent.

So where does this leave goal-setting? Well I think we need to get realistic about what goals can and cannot do.   There is little doubt that in the short-term, with relatively unchanging circumstances and with relatively straightforward problems goals can under some circumstances be useful – the evidence points to this.  However as figure 1 shows, as problems get more complex and situations become more changeable, goal-setting as a strategy becomes much more questionable.

Figure 1 – Goal setting strategy for short-term situations

Now consider the use of goals in the medium to longer term (i.e. any time horizon beyond a few months or more).  The situation here is quite different.  Even in relatively unchanging environments, the amount of time involved inevitably introduces some change making goals less effective, and sometimes it can also make the problem more complex.  Here we need what I call “Fuzzy Goals” – goals that are more Situational, Multifaceted, Adaptable, Risk-Taking and Transformational – David Winter’s alternative to the restrictive traditional SMART goal (see his article on this here).

As things get more complex and changeable, goal-setting as a strategy becomes even more questionable and we may be better off thinking in broader, more creative and flexible terms that permit more openness, and more of a wait, see, learn, adapt, respond, try kind of methodology, something akin to my Beyond Personal Mastery® model of creativity (see here for more details)

Figure 2.  Goal Setting strategy for medium and long term situations


What I think is instructive looking at Figures 1 and 2, is how traditional SMART goals may only be really effective in one of the situations out of the 8 presented.  This may provide a clue to the problems of goal-setting – most problems are more complex, most situations are more changeable, and most people want to employ goal setting over too longer a time frame.  This is why in the Chaos Theory of Careers, Goal setting is seen as a form of simplifying complexity and often oversimplifying complexity.  See here for an extended treatment of this point

It is time we recognised the valuable contribution that goal setting can make, but at the same time appreciate that they may work best in a very limited and prescribed context and as Lisa Ordonez, Maurice Schweitzer and colleagues point out, they be accompanied by a lot of unanticipated and undesirable consequences.

I’ve been reading Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting by Lisa D. Ordonez,  Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman .


Lisa Ordonez, Maurice Schweitzer, Adam Galinsky, Max Bazerman, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal-SettingAcademy of Management Perspectives Februry 2009 (PDF here).