Spring is in the air, and to many people, that means it’s time to pursue a national pastime. No, not baseball: evaluating last year’s employee performance goals and setting new ones.

I don’t know what the process looks like in your company, but at mine, it often involves going back to last year’s performance reviews and changing goals that were obsolete two weeks after they were written. Managers then write in another set of goals that pretty much reflect what their employees actually accomplished last year.

I used to stress out over whether changing goals after the fact this way defeated the purpose of the whole exercise. But that was before I became aware of an increasing body of research showing that pursuing business goals too relentlessly can be counterproductive. Among those who have come to this conclusion is Chris Kayes, a George Washington University professor of management science. Specifically, Kayes noticed problems cropping up when organizations set big, audacious goals for themselves, a tactic frequently advocated by management consultants. Evidence often emerged that the goal was either wildly out of reach or just unwise. But instead of abandoning the whole idea, some organizations would pour even more effort into it. This redoubling of exertion oftentimes resulted in plans going farther off track.

Interestingly, Kayes thinks a lot of these ill-advised escapades happen because the people involved find it easier to continue investing in a strategy that isn’t working than to change course. The goal, he explains, can become part of their identity. Uncertainty about the goal then no longer merely threatens their plans, it threatens them as individuals. Sticking to the plan makes them feel better by giving them a sense of certainty about the future, even as evidence mounts that they’ve got the wrong plan.

Another management consultant who finds fault with conventional ideas about goal setting is Stephen Shapiro, author of books such as, Goal-free Living, and a speaker at TEDx conferences. Shapiro once commissioned a survey that found 41% of the respondents weren’t any happier after achieving goals they’d set for themselves. It also revealed 18% claimed goals had destroyed a friendship, a marriage, or another significant relationship. Another 36% claimed adding goals on their todo list made them worry more, though over half of them had a goal of reducing the amount of stress in their lives.

Shapiro now tells companies that they can get more out of their employees by getting rid of goals. Instead, he says, it’s better to have a broad sense of direction but without a precise vision for the future.

Similar themes emerge from the work of University of Virginia business research professor Saras D. Sarasvathy. She questioned successful entrepreneurs about the best way of bringing a new product to market. They largely pooh-poohed the idea of devising a business plan with a lot of specific goals. Better to just go out and try things, they said. You’ll find you what your immediate goals should be as you go along.

Which pretty much explains why we generally figure out annual employee goals only in hindsight.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2013 Penton Media, Inc.