Reconceptualizing goal setting's dark side: The ethical consequences of learning versus outcome goals

David Welsh, John Bush, Chase Thiel, Julena Bonner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Goal-setting theory is one of the most researched and practically applied theories in the field of organizational behavior. A core tenet of this theory is that specific and challenging goals increase performance. However, recent behavioral ethics research has left unresolved questions regarding how high performance goals can be used to motivate performance without also encouraging unethical behavior. Drawing on achievement goal theory, we consider the role of goal type in arguing that an over-use of outcome goals as performance drivers and an over-reliance on goal difficulty as a motivating mechanism have both created goal-setting's dark side and obscured potential remedies. Extending previous research, we integrate the goal-setting literature with regulatory focus theory to demonstrate that outcome goals stimulate a prevention focus, which increases unethical behavior as individuals engage in questionable conduct in order to prevent goal failure. This indirect effect is exacerbated as goal difficulty increases. In contrast to outcome goals, learning goals reduce prevention focus and unethical behavior without decreasing performance—even when goals are difficult. Across both field and laboratory studies, we find convergent support for our proposed model. Our findings extend existing theory and also offer practical insight into harnessing the motivating power of goals without simultaneously increasing unethicality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14-27
Number of pages14
JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019


  • Behavioral ethics
  • Goal type
  • Goal-setting
  • Learning goals
  • Regulatory focus
  • Unethical behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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