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Don't Forget the Person: Goal Setting in a Metric-Obsessed World

​“Gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll,” the announcer says, with the country’s fans celebrating and cheering wildly in the background as their team secures a spot in the next round of the World Cup.

“Gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll(s),” you say, as you talk with your team about how you're going to establish a new direction at work.

Goals are on the mind of some of us right now in more ways than one, and although some of us would rather spend our time dreaming about our days as a soccer star, the latter type of goal is more likely applicable to the majority, if not all, of us (unless Messi, are you reading this?). While writing an article on the first type of goal would certainly be interesting, lets focus on the kind that drives our daily lives. Whether setting goals for ourselves, teammates, employees, or students, we tend to feel the pressure to keep them SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. While by no means canon, many of us have observed or experienced an increase in pressure placed upon one of the five SMART components: Measurable, which key quantifiable piece of the puzzle. We’re told that this numerical component, this metric, is not only essential to our success, but that it is success.

The modern workplace has become a metricocracy, where metrics reign king. Your performance? Based upon metrics. Your efficiency? Metrics. Your productivity levels? Metrics. Everything must become quantifiable, or else, you're told, it just isn’t good data. To be clear, the presenting problem with metrics is not metrics itself. Metrics are an inherently good tool to use to watch the needle move, to watch forward progress be made. However, metrics have become more than just a driver for business outcomes—they have become the outcomes themselves.

An economic principle known as Goodhart’s law states: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This translates over any environment (such as work, school, or home) where an improvement goal has been made. If a goal is meant to improve a person, it should be focused on the person. As soon as the goal becomes a number, the number is valued more than the person. If a measure becomes the goal, the improvement of the quality of the work or person becomes meaningless when compared to the emphasis placed upon meeting a quota, making scores on a survey tick up one point, or any other metric you may think of. While some of us may love to see the numbers, we cannot allow the numbers to control our lives.

  • In a doctor’s office, is a doctor’s goal to actually keep our temperature around 98.6 degrees Farenheit? Or is it to keep us alive and well?

  • In sales, is the goal to make 50 calls per week? Or should it be to improve our pitch so that 50 of these calls become meaningful?

  • In human resources, is the goal to move engagement scores up one point for our employees? Or is it to improve the engagement of the employees?

When metrics reign king, the person is placed second. While they can be an amazing measure of our goals and outcomes, they are by no means the end-all-be-all of goal setting. Focus on the outcomes, and meeting your applicable metrics (they still need to be good metrics) will simply fall into place.

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