The Problems with Goal Setting

It’s that time of year: Goal Setting. Every company wants every employee to have goals, and there are definitely good reasons for them. But there are also some bad reasons. Goal setting too often becomes purely a performance metric that is misunderstood and misused.

Let’s take a look at goal setting and what goes wrong.

Your Goals Aren’t Yours

No one does.

The most basic problem that many teams have is that the person pursuing the goal is not the person who created the goal. Now, of course, part of having a job on a software development team is helping the team achieve its goals, and maybe someone else sets those. But as an engineer on a dev team, you should have your own goals, and you should set them. Your manager can suggest goals for you, or work with you to create milestones for things like achieving promotion, but at the end of the day, the goals you set are a yardstick against which you measure yourself. If someone else is setting those goals, or materially impacting them, then they cease to be yours, and you will naturally be less interested in achieving them.

Your Goals are actually just your Plan

You sure do.

Many times we’re pressured to only set goals that we think are a sure thing l (or in corp-speak: “achievable”) because there’s at least the insinuation that your performance against your personal goals are part of your job performance review, and of course, your career. This can lead to goal setting that shoots way below the mark of what makes it a goal in the first place. If you know for a fact that you can achieve it, then it’s not a goal, it’s a plan. If your goal is a sure thing, you aren’t aiming high enough. When you set a goal for yourself, identify what you know you can do, and then crank the complexity up or the time-box down, or find some other way to create a challenge for yourself that involves some risk that you won’t achieve that goal. It’s important to remember that the point of the goal is not just to achieve it and tick a box. The act of setting the goal, and working towards it also have value. Goals should provide direction and challenge, and help you identify and refine where you are now in your career and technical development, as well as where you want to go.

Your Goals Are Your Job

you don’t need a goal for this

Your goals should not describe your job. Executing your day to day responsibilities and delivering your deliverables on time are too-frequent goal “suggestions”. These types of goals, while loved by management, are entirely useless. Of course you’re going to come to work every day and do your job to the best of your ability — that’s what they pay you for. You shouldn’t, and don’t, need a goal to tell you that. If your company has a job-as-your-goal mindset, that’s fine (and not uncommon) but it’s also valuable to recognize that you can effectively ignore that goal, because it’s just a restatement of your core mission. You goals shouldn’t be about your job… in fact, a good manager will help you make your job about your goals.


Setting goals on an annual or quarterly basis in an incredibly useful and valuable thing to do for your personal and career growth. It can help you identify where you are and areas you want to improve, and it can guide the use of your discretionary time so that you get the most out of your experience. Goal setting challenges you to be better, and when it’s done thoughtfully, and with the right motivations, it’s good for you, your team, and your products.



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