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Why Teaching Good Habits Trumps Employee Goal-Setting

Cornerstone Editors

"Reach for the moon," read the placard on the wall of my second grade classroom. "Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

From adolescence to adulthood, humans are encouraged to dream big and set huge, audacious goals meant to push us to grander levels personally and professionally. But here's the truth: Goal-setting actually hurts our professional productivity, and we need to stop doing it.

According to Max Bazerman, Harvard Business School professor and co-author of working paper "Goals Gone Wild," goals can do more harm than good.

"[Goal-setting] is easy to implement. It is easy to measure. It is easy to document successes. And in laboratory experiments, it has been shown to be extremely successful at improving the measured behavior," Bazerman tells Forbes. "[But] When we factor in the consistent findings that both stretch and specific goals narrow focus on a limited set of behaviors while increasing risk-taking and unethical behavior, their simple implementation can become a vice."

Easy Doesn't Translate to Effective

Bazerman's findings aren't necessarily new. The negative effects of goal-setting at work have been well-documented over the years: from GM's goal to dominate 29 percent of the auto market (which resulted in a massive government bailout) to Enron's tactic of monetarily rewarding employees for reaching specific goals (we all know how that played out).

But we continue to set goals, because it's easy (kind of like that annual performance review companies are finally ditching) and familiar.

Author and psychologist Aubrey Daniels argues it's time to kick the ineffective goal-setting trend in his book, "Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time & Money." The book cites a study to make Daniels' point clear: Just 10 percent of employees tend to reach the goals they set, while the other 90 percent who fail suffer from a decline in overall performance—becoming more timid after a string of "failures." Focusing on specific goals also decreases general productivity because employees tend to stop working on other important tasks not oriented with their goals, Inc. reports.

Habits Aren't Just Something to Break

Another reason we continue to turn to goal-setting for development is that we often don't know how else to measure and attain success. One suggestion is to focus on teaching habits instead.

Championing the habits-at-work movement is entrepreneur and author James Clear. Clear says that the problem with goals is that we tend to base our general happiness on whether or not we reach that specific goal.

"The problem with this mindset is that you're teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. 'Once I reach my goal, then I'll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I'll be successful,'" Clear writes on his blog.

Habits, on the other hand, encourage a continuous process that is less emotionally taxing. Clear points to author Charles Duhigg's best-seller "The Power of Habit" as a guide for habit-forming in the professional setting (and in life in general).

"This process — in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine — is known as 'chunking,' and it's at the root of how habits form," Duhigg writes.

Habit-forming is something that can be easily adopted, says Duhigg. And, as it turns out, forming habits (such as checking e-mail every morning or having a 9:00 AM team check-in every day) brings together small actions that can culminate into reaching one of those daunting goals with which we have so much trouble (such as inbox zero or getting to the office on time).

As with most things, professional development is achieved one step at a time. Teaching habits allows employees to establish consistent, ongoing behaviors, instead of struggling to achieve (and most likely, failing to achieve) a one-and-done goal.

Photo: Shutterstock

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