The Dark Side of Goal Setting: Ethical Pitfalls for the Unwary
In the last two weeks we applauded the practice of goal setting – whether helping law students create a plan of action for doing their best work or leading colleagues through a formal strategy to imagine the next 12 months or 10 years. Setting goals is important for a variety of reasons. Creating goals furthers one’s professional development and career advancement. Procedures for establishing and assessing goals are necessary for an organization’s efficient operation. Aligning goals with one’s values and passions promotes wellness and can lead to living one’s best life.
Goal setting also can lead to actions that are dishonorable, unproductive, or harmful. There is a dark side to human behavior when goals are unattainable or performance falls just short of what appears to be a reasonable goal. Goal setting that is too aggressive can lead to unethical behavior, including a lack of independent judgement expected of lawyers.
When faced with the possibility of failure, some may cut corners to meet a goal. Meeting an expectation may be more important to a prideful or insecure person than staying true to their underlying principles and values or even the overall or long-term goal. Unaddressed habits of shortcuts will have consequences, sooner or later. An organization with a culture that tolerates a lack of accountability – or worse encourages dishonesty – cannot have a happy ending. The fall of Enron Corporation is a prime example. In Chapter 9: Setting Goals of Fundamentals of Lawyer Leadership, we discuss Enron:
Leading up to [Enron’s] filing for bankruptcy, $320 million in bonus payments and other special cash distributions were paid to Enron executives in accordance with performance-based programs. Prosecutors argued that the executives’ unethical decisions and behavior (setting up shell entities to hide financial losses, etc.) could be traced to large bonuses paid based on the financial performance of the organization. The corruption that ruined lives and toppled a global powerhouse organization ensued from incentivized, performance-based goal setting in an environment devoid of ethical leadership at the top.”
In Chapter 12: Integrity and Character, we return to a discussion of lawyers associated with Enron who failed to ask hard questions or take initiative to investigate when something should have been questioned. Mechanical or rigid goals can dehumanize an organization’s operation and treat employees as if they are merely a cog in the wheel with no allowance for independent judgement or individual action. When lawyers work to simply follow orders or approach their duties with an attitude of meeting minimum expectations, our profession is failing to meet our duty in ABA Model Rule 5.4, Professional Independence of a Lawyer. Lawyers have a higher obligation to society to maintain direction and control of our professional judgment, regardless of the goals set before us. Lessons from Enron must not be forgotten.
Missing the mark, falling short of a goal, has other consequences for those who fail to manage failure in a healthy manner. Without this ability to fail gracefully, some internalize failure, even minor shortcomings, as a condemnation of their entire self-worth. These tendencies are exacerbated when cognitive abilities are taxed, as they often are during law school and beyond. Exhaustion and stress can distract us as we struggle to survive, preventing us from checking behavior against values and professional duties. Failure can also be a challenge for individuals who are used to success, as is often the case with law students. Throughout our course we look for opportunities to normalize failure so that students accept failure as necessary to growth. We teach our students to view failure with a growth mindset.
With the right approach, setting goals and measuring performance accordingly allows organizations to improve operations and meet desired objectives. Personal and professional goals establish a roadmap for creating a more intentional, purpose-driven life. But with any plan, roadblocks, detours, or changes in destinations should be expected and accommodated without compromising principles and purpose, regardless of the pressures and influences along the way.
Ethical obligations should be part of any analysis to weigh the costs and benefits of actions. We know our students will face difficult decisions as they enter a stressful, bottom-line-oriented profession. We also know work-life balance is a strong personal motivation. By emphasizing ethics and values, we will better equip our students and young lawyers to make the right, or better, choices. If we teach students to prioritize them, hopefully they will continue to do so when the stakes are high, such as when a lucrative fee, sizeable bonus, or their future is on the line.