Back to Blog

How (and Why) Conflicting Goals Is a Good Thing

Posted February 10, 2021 • Change,Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence,Leadership,Mindfulness • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.


In recent years, best-selling books like Essentialism and The One Thing have suggested focusing on one goal at a time to powerfully achieve your goals—one by one.

Their ethos has been life-changing for many people, including me. For example, I relied on this way of working to write and launch my book, Optimal Outcomes. From experience, I knew if I attempted to work on too many projects at once, the book would either never get finished or, if it did, I wouldn’t be as proud of the finished product as I could be, knowing that I could have given it my all if only I’d made the time. To prevent that from happening, I cleared my calendar as much as possible for many months to give the book as much of my attention as I knew was necessary to write thoughtfully.

Many leaders I know have used intense focus to achieve their own goals.

However, while focusing on one goal at a time can be a helpful way to achieve stretch goals, relentless pursuit of one goal to the exclusion of others can actually cause us to act against our own best interests.

For example, a CEO’s goal to maximize profit or shareholder value can cause her to unintentionally lose sight of her commitment to improve society, even when that commitment to society had originally fueled her desire to start the company in the first place.

Even worse, relentless pursuit of a goal can cause leaders to act unethically—intentionally or not—in order to meet the goal.

For instance, this happened when teachers, whose performance was measured based on their students’ standardized test scores, cheated by reporting false student grades. It happened when parents paid people thousands of dollars to take tests for their children and bribed sports coaches to try to secure their children entrance to elite universities. The history of business abounds with stories of people engaging in unethical behavior to achieve financial outcomes (for example, think Enron and Bernie Madoff).

It turns out that a singular focus on a goal can make it too easy to lose track of other goals that are also important to us.

Given the detrimental effects that this type of goal focus can sometimes have, what can we do to prevent it?

One way to prevent this single-mindedness is: each time we set a goal we simultaneously set a second goal to offset the first goal.

For example, if you’ve been working too hard to the detriment of your personal life, try one or more of the following sets of goals:

If I set a goal to work for a certain number of hours, I also set a goal to rest for a certain number of hours.

If I set a goal to increase the quality of our products at work, I also set a goal to increase the quality of my sleep at night.

If I set a goal to capture a percentage of market share, I also set a goal to give back a percentage of my time to the community.

If I set a goal to meet a sales quota, I also set a goal to meet a “family quota” representing a certain amount of time spent with loved ones.

This could help with goals focused solely on work too:

If we set a goal to change the organizational structure of the business, we also set a goal to take care of the people who run the business.

If we set a goal to redefine the company strategy, we also set a goal to support the leaders who will implement the strategy.

If we set a goal to roll out a new team reporting system, we also set a goal to improve the culture on the team (which will make people’s compliance with the new system more likely).

And it can work with goals focused solely on personal pursuits as well:

If I set a goal to spend quality time with my children, I also set a goal to spend quality time with my life partner.

If I set a goal to exercise three days per week, I also set a goal to catch up with at least two friends per week.

If I set a goal to clean the kitchen, I also set a goal to host a dance party (even if it’s on zoom during pandemic times).

Have you ever engaged in goal setting in this way? If so, I’d love to hear your stories—of success, failure, or anything in between. Please let me know about your goal setting experiments in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *