Is Shifting Goalposts Setting up for Failure? - Ciel HR
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In the dynamic landscapes of business, education, and personal development, goals serve as north stars, guiding individuals and teams towards success. However, a common and often controversial practice that emerges across these fields is the shifting of goalposts. This metaphor, borrowed from sports, describes changing the criteria or objectives during the pursuit of a goal. While some argue that this can keep strategies aligned with evolving circumstances, others see it as a path to confusion, demotivation, and inevitable failure. Let’s explore whether shifting goalposts is truly setting us up for failure.

Understanding the Shift

The concept of moving goalposts isn’t new and has been discussed extensively in various professional contexts. For instance, Carla Rogg in her LinkedIn article “Don’t Move the Goalpost” illustrates how frequent changes in goals in a business environment can lead to confusion and inefficiency. She explains that when managers continually alter targets, it not only frustrates employees but also hampers productivity by creating unclear expectations.

Similarly, Lizbeth Zaguirre in her blog post “How Moving Goalposts Sabotages your Progress” expands this idea into personal and relational domains. She compares the constant changing of goals to running a marathon with an ever-shifting finish line, highlighting the psychological toll it takes, including demotivation and decreased self-confidence.

The Psychological Impact

The psychological ramifications of moving goalposts are profound. Continuously changing objectives can lead to a psychological phenomenon known as “goal fatigue,” where individuals or teams become exhausted by the never-ending pursuit of success criteria that seem to always move out of reach. This can result in burnout, a significant drop in motivation, and a pervasive sense of inadequacy.

From a behavioural standpoint, this practice can be seen as a real-time demonstration of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, where definitions are continuously adjusted to exclude undesirable outcomes or to prevent the achievement of a goal, as noted by Zaguirre. This manipulation of criteria can foster an environment of distrust and scepticism, which are hardly conducive to growth or innovation.

Impact on Trust and Communication

Trust is a cornerstone of effective teamwork and leadership. When leaders frequently move goalposts, it can undermine this trust, making employees feel undervalued and misled. This is particularly detrimental in environments that rely heavily on team collaboration and individual initiative. The lack of stable objectives can make it difficult for teams to synergize their efforts towards a common goal.

Communication suffers too. Goals are often used as benchmarks for communication about performance, expectations, and progress. If these benchmarks are constantly in flux, it becomes challenging to have meaningful discussions about progress and areas of improvement, leading to inefficiencies and misalignments.

Is There Ever a Right Time to Shift Goals?

While the drawbacks are significant, there are circumstances where adjusting goals might be necessary. Markets evolve, new technologies emerge, and unforeseen challenges arise. In such cases, the rigidity of sticking to original goals could be equally detrimental. The key lies in the balance and the approach.

Adjusting goals is not inherently negative if done transparently and with the consensus of all stakeholders involved. It requires clear communication about why changes are necessary and how they will help in achieving the broader objectives. It also involves setting realistic, achievable goals that motivate rather than discourage.

Strategies for Effective Goal Adjustment

Transparent Communication: Always explain why goals need to be adjusted and how the new goals will lead to better outcomes.

Inclusive Decision-Making: Involve team members in the goal-setting process. This inclusion boosts morale and ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Set Interim Milestones: Break goals into smaller, manageable milestones. This approach helps in tracking progress and makes the ultimate goals seem more attainable.

Regular Reviews: Set regular intervals to review goals and progress. This setup helps in making necessary adjustments without causing undue disruption.

Celebrate Achievements: Recognize and celebrate when milestones are reached. This recognition fosters a positive atmosphere and encourages continual effort towards achieving redefined goals.

Shifting goalposts can certainly set individuals and teams up for failure if not managed correctly. It disrupts the foundation of trust and communication necessary for any successful endeavour. However, by applying thoughtful strategies and maintaining open lines of communication, it is possible to adjust goals without demoralizing your team. Balancing flexibility with stability is key to navigating the ever-changing landscapes we operate in.


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