Eroding Goals

Eroding Goals is an archetype where historical instances of poor performance affect perceptions of how things should be, leading to a “drift to low performance” over time.

Ideally, when people evaluate the discrepancy between their goals and their reality, they then take corrective action to move closer to the goal (a balancing loop that keeps performance in check near the desired level).

But in this archetype, there is a difference between the actual (how things really are), and the perceived (how people think things are). People tend to remember bad news more often than good news, leading them to think that things are worse than they really are. This eroding perception of how things are can then influence the goal (how things should be), setting lower standards over time.

Whereas large shocks to performance are obvious and galvanize immediate corrective action (a balancing loop), Eroding Goals is a gradual process. As long as the decreased performance happens incrementally, standards will erode and actors will not take corrective action. This reinforcing loop of performance falling over time is more powerful than the balancing loop that keeps performance in check.

This archetype occurs commonly in bureaucratic organizations where initially idealistic employees realize the slow pace of change and adapt to ever-lower expectations. Rather than set ever-higher visions, the organization as a whole drifts to low performance and employees don’t take vision statements seriously due to the disparity between persuasive speeches and the reality of the work environment.

The boiled frog allegory illustrates this archetype: A frog that is put into a pot of boiled water will immediately jump out. But a frog placed into a pot of cold water that is heated up slowly will stay in with little discomfort until the water boils. The frog may feel the water getting slightly warmer, but will not take any corrective action because the frog’s discomfort level hasn’t substantially changed from a moment ago.

New Years Resolutions

You might have encountered the Eroding Goals archetype in your exercise routine. You set a New Year’s resolution to hit the gym five times a week.

routine

The first two weeks of January go great. Then your goals begin to drift – four times a week sounds good enough. Then, three times a week, and eventually, the goal to exercise disappears. Here, the gradual discrepancy between your standards (going to the gym five times a week) and how you perceive things to be (not bad) leads to the gradual erosion of your standards, and therefore, your gym commitment.

How to Fight It

Keep your standards absolute. Be cognizant of your original goals and especially look for excuse-making behavior. Be mindful of negative narratives such as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t do it” that often are a precursor to the decision to give up on goals. Allow yourself to be encouraged by good performances rather than lulled into complacency by bad ones.

Read essays with the Eroding Goals archetype


Index of Archetypes:

  1. Addiction
  2. Eroding Goals
  3. Escalation
  4. Limits to Growth
  5. Policy Resistance
  6. Seeking the Wrong Goal
  7. Exponential Success
  8. Tragedy of the Commons
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