How Goal Obsession Can Hurt Your Company

Take for instance a real estate agent working for a large real estate business. He’s ambitious and sets his weekly targets highly. He’s meeting them and surpassing them consistently. Beating his colleagues persistently week after week. The boss loves him, the bonus confirms it.

But then there’s a flip side. His clients turn out to be one-timers. They don’t return. They don’t even return to the same company. Nobody knows why until the company reputation suffers—they supposedly treat their customers like numbers. The most successful agent—only on the paper and only to come of the criteria—had no relation with the customer. “Well, I’ve got people waiting in line for this, so if you don’t sign the contract…” They might sign, but they just do it one time. Clients are not returning. They were not customers to him, they were tools he used to get to his targets—the targets set by his boss.

(Related reading: Success Has a Problem with Definition)

The error

What went wrong? You could say it’s goal obsession; setting targets and focusing on numbers. But that’s just one side of the coin. The other being the fact that the goals are not set the right way. The number is the goal—the relationship is nowhere in the picture. That’s what caused the crash.

The guy himself is not really to blame—too much, at least. His ambitious personality, individualism and disregard for anything else but his own interest, played a big part, sure. But the leadership also failed here. The boss set him goals in the form of isolated numbers and never showed what the vision of the company is about; what it takes to get to that vision and what what the role of team is in that. He didn’t even say it, let alone lead by example.

Intuitively, you may be thinking that a boss needs to consider what it takes for an employee to work for the benefit of the company not his own interest. But that’s not really the solution—because it’s not possible. A person will always work in their own best interest—no matter how altruistic they might seem. The important thing is not to deny this but to work with it. To ask ourselves how to align the employees’ interest with the interests of the company.

And there are at least two people that play a part here. One is the leader and what role leadership plays in it all. And the other one is the employee.

(Related reading: The Hidden Reasons Why Coaching Fails)

The leader

Leaders themselves are often in the same mental target-oriented and individualistic space. Until this is solved, there’s no space for improvement. The role of the leader is to be aware of the fact that personal ambitions of an employee need to be aligned with the company. They need to see the wood for the trees and take a look at the big picture—the numbers won’t be there in the long run if quality relationships are disregarded.

The leader needs to not only cognitively learn and adopt such thinking and pass it on to employees. They also need to integrate it themselves, live it, be an example that leads.

The team

A team is made out of individuals. You lead the team by leading individuals and not the other way around. The thing is there’s no such thing as collective motivation or collective ambition. There are only individual goals, motivation, ambition—combining them together and, more importantly, aligning them results in collective performance.

The systems thinking glitch

There’s a fancy word of anything I guess and there’s one for seeing the big picture too—it’s systems thinking. Some see the solution to negative effects of goal obsession in systems thinking. In essence, systems thinking proposes that one should be seeing the effect they are having on the system—that they should align their goals according to the benefits of the system rather than them as an individual. But this only looks good on paper.

While systems thinking may be a solution in individual’s decision-making, a person will still be making decisions in their own benefit, first and foremost, and not the benefit of the system. They will only use the knowledge about the system for their benefit and not the other way around.

The words and actions

What often times is the problem when trying to align company and individual goals and, as such, combating goal obsession in practice is that while the boss is telling to the team they need to cooperate, they are also the ones setting goals that deny this. On top of that, if the leader ends up competing to his or her peers in the way that they are asking their team not to, things just won’t turn.