Business owners and managers know they’re supposed to set challenging goals to motivate themselves and their teams. Most often, business goals prioritize sales targets, profit margins, and productivity. And as a business matures, owners might look to operational or product development goals.
But one area that gets little attention is company culture — how team members relate to each other, to the work, and to themselves at work.
Conversations about culture tend to revolve around vision, values, and mission. The results get added to the company website and hiring process. Reviewing vision, values, and mission might be part of the “warm up” to more concrete planning at the company retreat. But that’s as far as it goes. So it’s no wonder that the values and culture a company claims to have so rarely matches what day-to-day operations are like.
You can tell a lot about a business and its culture by the goals they set, because goals are a medium for culture. Company goals transmit key messages about what’s really important to a business (or individual). Because a goal represents in concrete terms what is most valued by the business, that goal necessarily informs how and why certain work is done, as well as how the person doing that work relates to it.
More isn’t always better
For instance, I wear an Apple Watch and use it to track my activity during the day. I bought my first Watch in late 2016, hoping it would push me to move a little more every day. By default, the Watch notifies the wearer when they’ve been sedentary or when they haven’t exercised enough in a day according to the established baseline. As activity increases over time, the wearer is encouraged to level up their baseline. Well, that worked; today, I’m a long-distance runner.
A few years ago, I trained to run my first marathon. My training program called for increasing weekly mileage over about 16 weeks — 20 miles one week, 25 miles a couple weeks later, 35 miles a few weeks after that, etc. That meant my Watch registered double or even triple the level of activity I averaged previously.
On days that I didn’t have a run planned, my Watch would tap my wrist and tell me, “You’re not moving as much as you normally do. Try to get a workout in.” The algorithm would totally ignore the 5-mile walk or 60-minute yoga practice I did earlier in the day, only taking the simplest metrics into account. My program told me to rest — an important part of any training regime — but my Watch told me to get off my butt and move.
Rationally, I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong by not running. In fact, I knew that I was doing the right thing! But irrationally? I was disappointed that I wasn’t hitting the metrics I was “supposed to” hit. My day started to revolve around those metrics, and in the process, I developed some habits of compulsive exercise. I ended up with an injury in my hamstring tendon that prevented me from running for close to a year.
My original goal had been to run a marathon in under four hours. A good goal! But the specific, challenging, and narrow focus of my Watch told me what was really important: maintaining a maniacal level of daily activity.
A cheekily named 2009 paper for the Harvard Business School, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” notes a similar experience in the workplace. The authors point to the way challenging, specific, and narrow goals — especially those with quantitative metrics — often lead to prioritizing the wrong things.
Take the famous Ford Pinto. “CEO Lee Iacocca announced the specific, challenging goal of producing a new car that would be ‘under 2000 pounds and under $2,000,’” a goal which led to a safety oversight that made the Pinto prone to exploding in an accident.
Similarly, a challenging sales goal can lead to unethical behavior. Or, an initiative to secure 50% more leads in the next quarter might result in prioritizing the number of leads over their quality.
In any case, an ill-conceived goal might be easily accomplished — but it can also cause harmful downstream effects. “The very presence of goals may lead employees to focus myopically on short-term gains and to lose sight of the [potentially] devastating long-term effects on the organization,” the authors of “Goals Gone Wild” explain.
My fitness goals aren’t the only way I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Before I learned to be cautious about the targets I set, I frequently set goals for my business that resulted in inefficient complexity and soured relationships. It seemed like I was doing everything right but getting all the wrong results — even as I accomplished goal after goal. But not only that, I could sense that my business was getting further away from the values I claimed to hold dear. Culturally, the company was becoming weak.
Setting the wrong goals can damage company culture (and individual satisfaction) because goals arise from values and core motives. In my book, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal-Setting, I explore how certain narratives or assumptions shape our values and motives, which then lead to specific goals.
Back when I was setting all the wrong goals, I would have told you my business stood for personal independence and individual agency. But I was caught up in assumptions about how to market our programs online. Those assumptions led me to set goals requiring marketing tactics that increased the dependency of our clients on me and decreased their sense of agency in their own businesses. Our client culture started to fall apart, and I found myself emotionally exhausted.
Goals easily become games
Philosopher C. Thi Nguyen studies a similar phenomenon in games and gamification. Nguyen defines a game as an artificial, temporary environment in which the end result and the method for achieving that result are clearly defined.
Take basketball: The game consists of four 12-minute quarters on a lacquered wood court. Two teams compete to score points by throwing a ball through a hoop. Each team can earn two points for a typical field goal, three points for longer shots, and one point for foul shots. Whichever team has more points at the end of the game wins. Obviously, there’s quite a bit more to it than that. But that description lays out the most basic characteristics of the game.
In a basketball game, the priority is scoring points — since the objective is to win the game. Players will adjust their behavior game by game to maximize their potential to score. They might become more aggressive on defense, more willing to take shots, or even more likely to pass the ball to the same player who can’t seem to miss a shot. This all makes for an entertaining game to watch or play. Games are an incredible environment for experimenting with different types of value and agency, Nguyen argues.
However, because the structure of games is so compelling, we’ve learned to gamify other areas of life. What makes a game work—the fact that its environment is artificial and temporary—is not true of the “real world.”
Nguyen cites Twitter as an example of the harm gamified environments can do. Ostensibly, the goal of Twitter is to communicate with others. “Communication” is a complex objective; it can be defined in many ways and take many forms. But in the Twitter environment, “communication” looks like replies, retweets, and favorites because those are the most prominent ways to measure communication on the site.
If Twitter was a game on your phone, you’d be happy to tweet whatever earned you the most replies, retweets, and favorites so that you could rack up points. But Twitter isn’t actually a game — it’s a platform that hosts journalists, politicians, business leaders, and culture-makers. What those people communicate has the potential to move markets or start wars. Yet, those same Twitter users are just as prone to measure their effectiveness by their replies, retweets, and favorites. And I think we can all agree that hasn’t been a net positive for the quality of our public discourse.
Nguyen calls this pattern “value capture.” Value capture occurs when a nuanced and complex goal (e.g., public communication) is reduced to a set of quantitative metrics (e.g., retweets). People caught up in value capture end up prioritizing those metrics over the original goal. What’s valued becomes the metric rather than the stated objective.
When I pay more attention to my Watch’s metrics — calories burned or steps taken — I’m less likely to pay attention to my long-term health or stick to my training program. When I pay more attention to a sales target, I’m less likely to notice if my sales technique becomes pushy or manipulative. When a company puts more emphasis on the number of women or BIPOC they can recruit, they’re less likely to consider how to make those people feel safe and included.
Business values are nuanced, complex objectives
Values are not easily reduced to measurements of any kind. Yet, they’re the foundation of what it’s like to work at or do business with a company. Or they’re supposed to be.
When a leader sets a clear goal to motivate themselves or their team members, they’re stating what’s truly important to them. If that goal encourages the team to prioritize the business’s values, then it has the potential to make company culture richer and make everyone involved feel satisfied. But if the goal encourages the team to narrow their focus in a way that draws attention away from the business’s values, company culture and even brand reputation will suffer — even if the goal is met.
We know specific, challenging, and narrowly focused goals are best for motivating a team and inspiring growth. But growth and motivation on the wrong things can tear a business apart. I’ve found for myself that allowing my goals to be less SMART (in the traditional sense) and more nuanced and complex has created a more fulfilling work environment for myself and others around me.
For more from Tara, check out Episode 248 of the Productive Flourishing podcast: “Unpacking the Code of What Works” where she explained, among other things, how we can break down resistances to asking for help, or move from “supporting actor” to “lead actor” in our own lives.