goals gone wild: the paradox of stretch goals

Any good consultant or best-selling management guru knows that organizational performance and success simply [wink] requires the articulation of a visionary go-to-the-moon-type mission statement or better yet, a “big, hairy, audacious goal” (you know, a BHAG, pronounced BEE-hag, I’m not kidding).

Goals matter.  The bigger, the hairier, the better.  You want people to have to stretch.   There’s certainly a solid and long (Latham, Locke etc) tradition of research on goal-setting that offers some support for this argument.  And, at a more macro level, organizational goals and aspirations are also central to the behavioral theory of the firm.

But both the goal-setting and aspirations literature have recently been challenged/revisited.  In short, the argument is that stretch goals and aspirations may not be the panacea that they have been made out to be —- aggressive stretch goals may lead to unethical behavior, they may demotivate, they may lead to excessive risk-taking, etc.

Goals of course are not bad in and of themselves, I likes me a goal just like anyone else.  But, the consultant folklore of aggressive stretch goals, exciting as it is, needs to be ratcheted down a notch or two to account for important theoretical contingencies (which, to be fair, much of the original goal-setting literature also addressed).

Here are two recent papers that discuss some of the above issues:

Sitkin, See, Miller, Lawless & Carton. 2011 (forthcoming).  The paradox of stretch goals: Organizations in pursuit of the seemingly impossible.  Academy of Management Review.

Ordonez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. 2009. Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of over prescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23: 6–16.


Written by teppo

January 1, 2011 at 8:27 am

5 Responses

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  1. Well said! I’m glad to hear someone else say this out loud. I’ve been in quite a few situations where I hear about “stretch goals” and have challenged the notion, and needless to say have been read the riot act. It can be especially challenging when dealing with operational members who are expected to perform, and/or create performance, that they are looking for something to help accomplish work to that end. In my opinion, the organization as a whole needs to look at the expectations and practices that are fueling the culture, and make adjustments to help allow leadership to be open to new possibilities and challenge current methods.


    Christopher M. Janney

    January 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  2. […] goals gone wild: the paradox of stretch goals ( […]


  3. Yes, I recall (but can’t cite offhand!) research suggesting that goals which employees believed to be impossible could actually decrease performance. And I have seen cases where that is true. (One of the benefits of benchmarking is that it not only instructs people in how others are doing something, it demonstrates cases in which dramatic improvement over status quo is possible; “appreciative inquiry” methodology has similar benefits.) HOWEVER, there are times when a BHAG is rather unavoidable. How many deaths are ok in your mining operations? How many suicides are ok at your university? How many motorcycle deaths are ok in your branch of the armed services? The answer is a big, hairy zero, and one must measure oneself and be measured based on progress toward the ideal. I’ve worked in a lot of environments and I haven’t seen any other way, for a certain class of performance.


    Bill Casey

    May 1, 2011 at 7:49 pm

  4. Short term, modest, reachable goals with a long-term view are usually the best approach.



    May 2, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  5. […] goals gone wild: the paradox of stretch goals ( […]


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