WE ALL need goals, right? And, of course, they must be Smart: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

For an alternative view, listen to a man very much in the goals business: Sean Dyche, manager of Premier League over-achievers Burnley FC. Many good judges think his success in keeping Burnley in the Premier League, and in 2017 taking them into Europe, is at least as impressive as the feats of Pep Guardiola, whose champions Manchester City have only the sovereign wealth of the United Arab Emirates to fall back on.

“When I was at Watford, they had a system that was about six-game cycles and there was a benchmark as to where you wanted to be,” he said. “Well, that’s great when you’re winning. But what about the six-game cycle when you get four points behind and the benchmark was 14? All the best with that when the players go, ‘Ooh! We’re miles behind where we wanted to be! Oh no! Oh no!’”

Dyche is not alone in his scepticism about targets. It’s long established that when employees care exclusively about reaching a goal, and fear the consequences of failure, cheating is likely. This is not to argue for a ban on incentives. But goals that focus on narrow performance targets can easily lead to disaster.

Look at the carnage in the Home Office, otherwise known as the Department for Unintended Consequences. No one disputes that the Government’s target of reducing annual immigration to “the tens of thousands” was key to developing the hostile official mindset that led to the Windrush scandal.

In law firms, there is much evidence that narrow performance goals have baleful effects. Aggressive billing targets risk overcharging, employee burnout and clients in revolt. Excessive focus on billable time discourages spending the non-chargeable time essential to developing relationships. Targets imposed to reduce time written off frequently result in fee-earners ‘forgetting’ to record it altogether.

Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School is co-author of the research paper Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goals Setting. In it he makes two notable points. The first is: “If you know the exact behaviours you want, stretch goals may be fine. But, if you want employees to engage in other social behaviours (eg, helping others in the organisation) and/or to act ethically, you need to be a lot more careful than simply providing a stretch goal.”

The second is that “learning or mastery goals” are far more beneficial to performance and motivation than stretch goals in isolation.

Apply this to the issues above and you see its wisdom. Mastery of our specialism, allowing us to do more complex work, or a wider spread of it, or do it more productively, is a far more effective way to grow sustainable revenue than just whacking up the hourly rate, or recording time until 3am.

Developing skills in scoping work, pricing it and drafting effective terms of engagement is the way to minimise time write-offs. Become an accomplished rainmaker and objections to you spending non-chargeable time on building relationships melt away.

The law is a tough, relentless profession, in which sustained excellence is the minimum standard. It makes great mental, physical and emotional demands. If we are not highly motivated, we may enjoy bursts of short-term success, but no more. This is the context in which goals should be set by us and for us. What should they be? I think the following are universal.

Put client satisfaction first, the firm’s interest second and self-interest third. In other words, be known as a giver, not a taker. This way lies competitive advantage, true collegiality and personal advancement, not to mention a more fulfilling life.

Consistently hone our skills, and learn new skills – commercial, managerial and interpersonal as well as legal.

Deliver the whole firm, creating opportunities for colleagues as well as ourselves.

Ensure governance that is demonstrably fair, transparent, and congruent with decent human behaviour.

Mentor and support colleagues to help them make the most of their talents, overcome difficulties and live fulfilling lives.

Invest consistently in the resources needed to stay successful.

Recognise that the firm is part of a wider community, and give back to it.

Consistent with these overarching goals, every person is free to pursue their own personal objectives. Most of us start out motivated to do our best. We need a few carrots and fewer sticks. If leaders walk the walk – never a given – setting goals like this ought to encourage high performance, strong ethics and team spirit, while discouraging the hamster-wheel mentality and cult of the individual that bedevils so many firms.

It’s true that I have barely mentioned money. But I do say with confidence that of the many returns this approach to targets will produce, not the least will be at the bank.

Stephen Gold is a solicitor and law firm consultant.