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The Dark Side of Goal Pursuit: How Focus Distorts Judgement

Being goal-driven has inspired many amazing feats of humanity and technology. For the first time, SpaceX sent the first all-civilian crew to space. And Eli Kipchoge broke the two-hour marathon record.

But obsessive focus on an outcome can hide a dark side. There’s always a price to pay — and often, it’s you who pays it.

The Dark Side Of Goal Focus

Sometimes innocent people are wrongly incarcerated. False testimony, extorted confessions and planted evidence suggest that under certain circumstances, individuals act in ways that prioritize their goals over the truth. Many people think they’d never abuse power or bend the rules to achieve their goals.

But tunnel vision in the workplace contributes to unethical behavior all the time. When leaders demand more products sold or more pitches won, employees can become laser-focused on delivering the required outcome. After all, their next perk or promotion may depend on it. Research points to four distorting side effects of goal-setting on judgment and decision-making: impaired perspective, risk, choice and morality.

Four Types Of Distortion

1. Distorted perspective: It’s normal to assume your effort and sacrifice will pay off, whether it’s to save lives or save costs. This intense focus can overwhelm and blind you, blurring other relevant considerations. In negotiations, you may become so focused on defeating the enemy or securing price advantage, you crater the relationship. You pay a higher price than the one you expect. 2. Distorted risk: When you focus too narrowly, the ability to objectively calculate risk reduces. For example, stock traders are subject to forensically-precise performance goals. Yet history shows how rogue trading can occur within competitive organization cultures, combined with a winner-takes-all mentality and individual compulsion to deliver.

3. Distorted optionality: With a narrow focus, consideration of superior options can also reduce. An ambitious employee might aim to get promoted within 12 months, but a quicker and better long-term route may be to find another job, side-hustle or switch careers. Experts can struggle to think beyond familiar causes and top-of-mind solutions, focused on their field of expertise. In healthcare, this can lead to misdiagnosis, which remains a leading cause of preventable death.

4. Distorted ethics: Temptation can be hard to resist when attractive rewards loom. For example, Wells Fargo pushed sales teams to encourage each customer to have eight products with the bank. This resulted in employees opening over 2 million unauthorized accounts. Purdue Pharma minimizedthe addiction of pain-relieving OxyContin, contributing to the opioid crisis. Wrongdoing can be rationalized to achieve higher-order goals like profit, performance or purpose. When you fixate on an end-state, it can be difficult to decelerate or course correct.

Like an athlete hurtling toward the finish line, an addiction to the dopamine rush can progressively develop after each milestone is achieved. This narrow focus tends to combine with confirmation bias, moral justifications and stereotyping to amplify the dark side. This risk must be monitored and managed.

7 Behavioral Solutions For Goal Balance

It’s that time of year when organizations engage in annual planning wizardry and new resolutions are made. Behavioral science suggests seven methods to reduce this predictable source of derailment and avoid what might be termed "focus pocus."

1. Be selective. Humans have finite resources yet often take on too many goals. Having the top 20 strategic priorities or the to-do list that never gets done isn't always SMART. Less is more, so choose what matters. Sometimes, subtraction can beat addition.

2. Highlight the potential effects. Failure to reach goals can stifle the most ardent motivations and trigger anxiety. Objectives may be unexpectedly speared and sabotaged. Encourage a personal best, like we do in sports.

3. Flex time frames. Balance time horizons, and incorporate new information as situations change to prevent goal rigidity. For example, during the pandemic, politicians blended short-term health considerations with long-term economic ones. What feels urgent now typically dissipates with time.

4. Build curiosity. Conduct a post-mortem to investigate why certain goals aren’t working. Ask clarifying Socratic questions to activate a new train of thought. When you spot problems, allocate enough attention to solving them.

5. Broaden goal scope. Set a salient, superordinate goal like social justice, equality or life/work balance. With this in mind, it can be easier to tolerate hiccups and regulate hair-trigger responses.

6. Build perspective. Approach challenges in moderation. Take the outside view. Immerse yourself in other worlds. Like Warren Buffet, read voraciously, which can help to refine rather than reinforce your existing view.

7. Seek and take advice. Sharing objectives in teams can reduce stress, build perspective and stem judgment derailers. It’s often how soldiers, firefighters and rescuers win wars and save lives.

Every goal carries a price. As a leader, it’s important to identify the price you pay for your success — and the price others inadvertently pay.

Focus on the bright side of goal pursuit — the light at the end of the tunnel. Maintaining a broad, balanced and non-binary perspective can help you achieve greater personal and professional rewards through better decision-making.

That’s a goal worth focusing on.


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