Trillium The Botanist — Goals & Objectives — A Story of Disaster

Trillium’s a botanist. He adores botany — it makes him happy and he feels fulfilled studying plants.

Trillium’s Department Head, Baneberry, has failed to showcase growth within his department and as asked Trillium and other botanists to set goals and objectives, regarding their field.

This demand catches Trillium at a bad time. His studies on angiosperms are at a critical point. Nevertheless, he’s got to comply as the brief outlines consequences in failure to comply. Trillium’s got goals and objectives in a personal capacity, but he can’t state that his reason for entering botany is due to a fascination with the origin of babies. Therefore, he specifically narrowed his field of study to flowering plants.

His Department Head’s request is both threatening and disturbing.

All Trillium knows is that he loves botany and is no happier when he’s elucidating the life cycle of an angiosperm.

What is expected is a formal and organised outline of his goals and objectives which should fill three typewritten sheets, single-spaced, and list objectives in ordered comparison to subjectives, all justified in relation to the Overall Goal with a time-frame for completion and a criteria for measurement.

Trillium goes into a depression just thinking about it.

Trillium must avoid, at all costs, to be seen as ineffective or fuzzy-headed. His goals must be well-defined, crisply stated and must appear to lead somewhere important. He puts off the task for as long as possible and yet, it still interferes with his study on angiosperms. Finally, he abandons his research, stays home for three days and writes the damn thing.

By committing to a program, in writing, he can now objectively be assessed by his Chief.

Trillium has committed to a rigorous programme of researching, writing and submitting three essays on a subject in botany every quarter. However, during this time, his focus has spontaneously shifted and, instead, he’s opted for writing a book encompassing all three essay subjects.

Subsequently, his goals and objectives are marked with 0% completion due to the fact that he hadn’t written three essays.

Trillium has been led, step by step, down the primrose path of logic to disaster.

In management literature, it’s clear: setting challenging goals boosts performance.

However, the Harvard Business School identifies specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behaviour, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organisational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.

Managers and scholars need to, instead, “conceptualise goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision”.

Advocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and challenging. According to these advocates, these goals provide an objective way for assessing progress and without specific goals, ambitions may be too dispersed across various fields, encouraging a lack of focus. Stretch goals go the extra mile as they motivate greater effort and persistence.

When Goals are Too Specific

As research shows, goals help narrowing focus, however, it may narrow focus to such an extent that important supplementing tasks are overlooked, forgotten or put on the back-burner. This inadvertent occurrence can be equated to inattentional blindness and as such, this intense focus can blind people to important tasks that appear unrelated to the goal at hand.

For example, in Trillium’s case, setting a goal of publishing a number of essays per quarter may result in those essays being published but research impact and teaching may suffer as a result.

Too Many Goals

Along with too specific goals is the matter of employees taking on too many goals at once. Research suggests that when faced with multiple goals, employees tend to focus on one goal only or ignore other goals in favour of another. Furthermore, when faced with qualitative vs. quantitative goals, employees tend to forsake quality as quantity, in their minds, may be measured more objectively as quality is subjective, after all.

Inappropriate Timelines

Even if goals are set correctly, the expectancy to see prompt and immediate action and results may work against achieving long-term goals. The reason for this is that employees often perceive these short-term goals as ceilings rather than platforms for growth and once a goal’s been ticked off, natural instinct is to relax, rest and pause, causing a dip in overall productivity.

When Goals are Too Challenging

Proponents of goal setting claim that a positive linear relationship exists between the difficulty of a goal and employee performance. Goals are supposed to be challenging enough to inspire but not too difficult that employees see no point in trying. However, goals and, more specifically stretch goals, shift risk attitudes, promoting unethical behavior and triggers the psychological costs of goal failure.

Psychological Effects of Failing Goals

Of course, with any goal or objective, there’s the possibility of failure. Failure in reaching goals has a long-lasting effect on how employees view themselves and, subsequently, work produced in future. As such, these goal-induced reductions in self-efficacy can be highly detrimental, because perceptions of self-efficacy are a key predictor of task engagement, commitment, and effort.

Setting the Right Goals

As goal setting increases extrinsic motivation, it can harm intrinsic motivation — engaging in a task for its own sake. When managers set goals and objectives, they run the risk of placing employees on a proverbial treadmill, where employees are motivated by external means and not by the intrinsic value of the job itself, thus resulting in employees running on the spot.

So how do you set the right goals? How do you satisfy someone like Trillium who does a great job, simply for the sake of it?

Goal-setting is difficult on multiple levels, the most glaring being umbrella goals which apply to a variety of people, thus automatically shifting goal posts as some goals will be easier to achieve for some than others. Then, setting goals on a tailored, individual level runs the risk of being perceived as favouritism or unfair.

One way to set goals that enhances employees’ output without them feeling stressed, confused or threatened is to set learning goals instead of performance goals. This way, each employee is tasked with learning by doing, and, as a result delivers work of a higher quality, each time, as they’re continuously increasing their skills purely for the love of whatever they might be undertaking.

In conclusion, to quote The Harvard Business School: “For decades, scholars have prescribed goal setting as an all-purpose remedy for employee motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for students of management, experts need to conceptualise goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

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