(Part 1 of 4)
I’ve experienced my fair share of terrible goals. I’ve set myself some bad ones and I find goals at work interesting. Several recent books from management, psychology and philosophy have posed some contradictory thoughts on the topic, which got me thinking: I can’t be the only one that finds goals intriguing but frustrating.
This post is to summarise some of the more promising, logical ideas for anyone wanting to set, challenge, or deal with goals at work or in their own life. The ideas draw on different books, covering systems thinking, psychology and even philosophy. I’ve put links to those books in at the end of each section in case you care to read more on the topic.
First of all let’s cover the basics of how goals work. Stay with me, this does improve…
- Think of something you do regularly.
- Take a reliable measurement of it (or imagine you have).
- Set a clear, achievable target for the yourself in the future.
You’ve just made Creative Tension; the gap between your current performance and your target.
Creative tension is based on something called Cognitive Dissonance; the theory that holding two contradictory beliefs causes us discomfort. In this instance the contradictory beliefs are the current state and the target state.
The brain is motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance. With goals there are two ways to do this; improve reality, or lower the target. If we decide to maintain the target, the only option left is to improve the reality.
The Dangers of Creative Tension
Creative tension is the basic framework of how goals work. In this respect goals are very effective. We can simulate motivation. However, this acts as a double edged sword which requires consideration to avoid unintended consequences, such as:
- In work environments goals can cause shortsightedness, having effects downstream that do more harm than good. (e.g. sales vs delivery goals)
- Outside work, personal goals are often too numerous, too varied and without clear pathways to achievement. This can lead to failure and regular goal switching. (e.g. new hobbyists, peaks and troughs of effort)
- For all goals, our happiness is at risk. If we have the wrong mindset, achieving a goal gives only a small feeling of satisfaction, and failure leads to greater unhappiness.
The blog has four sections. In the following sections I’ll cover each of these ideas in more detail and provide practical advice to avoid these pitfalls.
To learn more about Creative Tension try reading The Fifth Discipline.