Your Goals Are Holding You Back

“Enter your concrete goals for the next six months.” This software is supposed to help your career. Seriously?

If the best I can do is something I could name six months ago, I am not learning anything. If I hit some metric, what did I ignore or sacrifice to get there?

Knowledge work is about learning. Maybe I set a concrete goal for today “Complete these three tasks” — chances are good I’ll learn about a fourth one that is more valuable than any of those. If I’m good at my job, I’ll do that, and let some of the three languish. Is that gonna get me a mediocre review at the end of the period? If I’m really good at my job, I will ignore that.

I do need direction, a quest. But concretely, I want to look only at the next step in that direction. Once that is complete, it’s time to look up and say, “Did this help? What looks like it would help next?”

I do need indicators of whether I’m accomplishing my mission. Metrics are useful as clues, but not as absolute measures. If I maximized this metric, what did I damage in the process? I want to detect progress, not pretend that I can measure it precisely.

What is my quest for the next six months? Now that’s a useful question. Start with the company’s mission, and ask, what is my contribution? Maybe your company does heat treatment (running metal parts through furnaces to harden them), and your mission is to

become one of the leading companies in the heat treating industry by fulfilling a simple, fundamental promise:

We’re here to help you succeed and to help you reveal the true strength in your most important parts and components.

Maybe you’re a metallurgist there, and your part is “to help customers succeed by participating in process design and material selection.” We can help prioritization with some emphasis: “… especially customers who do a lot of business with us. Especially business-crucial parts. Especially automotive parts; pass aerospace to Lindsey. Especially hardening; consult on Mark for coating. Especially aluminum, as we want more business in that.” (I’m making this up.) This is the part you want to update every six months. Then every few weeks, review open tasks for priority. Every day, answer phone calls and serve the customer needs of the moment.

Every moment, learn. Learn about customer needs, learn about furnaces and metal and what the company can do. Respond to that. Measure outcomes (customer satisfaction, revenue per customer), but evaluate decisions based on information you had at the time.

There is no good way to use concrete-goal-setting software. The best you can do is subvert it, ignore it, or compare goals to actual work and say “wow, we sure learned stuff in the last six months.” There’s a reason the best task-trackers are post-its: because they fall down. Set direction every six months, not concrete goals.

Deference or Collaboration: pick one.

There’s this church near my house, with a statue of Mary Magdalene. She’s the picture of deference.


As a child and as a Christian, I was raised to see deference as a virtue, to find this statue beautiful. As an adult and as a systems thinker, I learned that deference is dangerous.

Nora Bateson pointed it out: “How can there be real communication when there is deference to a leader? This imbalance creates a hold-back of contribution and interaction.”

An attitude of deference — of respectfully, quietly acquiescing to a person in authority — harms both parties. The deferent ones go unheard, their ideas and needs unvoiced, as they work as an extension of the one in authority. That person goes uninformed, ignorant of a reality clear to lower layers of the hierarchy.

Please distinguish this attitude of deference from conscious deferral to authority. Authority is essential for working in large groups. When I tell my manager or CEO that I disagree, and here is why, and here are my ideas for what to do instead, they can make a decision with full information. And I defer to their authority, with full dignity and enthusiasm. It’s their job to have more information than I do. It’s my job to share the relevant information I do have. This is collaboration.

Deference is not essential to authority; deferral will do. Deference deprives leaders of information. They don’t hear alternatives, they don’t hear dangers. At an extreme, demands for deference leave leaders ignorant of how the real world works. Their decisions will suffer.

I don’t want to be deferent to my manager; I want to be honest, and defer when needed. I don’t want my children to be deferent to me; I want them to share their needs, negotiate, and learn. There are exceptions: “get out of the street! 1–2–3–”, and they do before the count reaches five. When we can’t reach agreement: “You don’t have to want to go, but you do have to go” to your sister’s concert. Other times they find solutions that hadn’t occurred to me.

In a culture that lauds deference, a person has two choices: act as an extension of an authority figure, or become an authority figure and demand deference from others. Both are inferior to collaboration. Both are ingressive, neither congressive. As a value, deference is toxic.

The alternative to deference is not defiance. It is mutual respect and learning. It is collaboration.