Goal displacement becomes a problem when the means to an organization's goal take on a life of their own.
Goal displacement becomes a problem when the means to an organization's goal take on a life of their own.

Goal displacement refers to the tendency of organizations to substitute alternate goals for the goals the organization was established to serve. The new goals often serve the interest of the organization’s employees or leaders. Sociologist Robert Michels coined the term in a study of the German Social Democratic Party.

Robert Michels and the Concept of Oligarchy

In his study of political parties, Michels posits that “oligarchic tendencies” inevitably arise in organizations committed to democratic values -- that is, the power of the many becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, who change the organization in such a way as to hold on to power. Michels viewed goal displacement as one of these “oligarchic tendencies.” Once in power, leaders of an organization are motivated to do things to stay in power. Whatever their original goals, a primary goal is now to retain their position in the organization.

From Ends to Means

According to Michels, goal displacement frequently involves a shift from ends, or ultimate goals, to means, or instrumental goals. For example, in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, Michels notes a shift from the ultimate goal of a socialist society, to the continuation and success of the organization becoming a goal itself. In the organization’s attempts to further itself, it may also ascribe increased importance to actions or goals meant to satisfy the immediate needs of its members.

Outside of the Political World

Though Michels coined the term to describe the changing goals of political parties, goal displacement occurs in other organizations as well. Present-day organizational theorists are particularly interested in the effects of goal displacement in business or nonprofit organizations. Goal displacement is a particular concern in human service organizations, where the processes and rules put in place by the organization may conflict with the actual work of providing services to clients. Negative goal displacement tends to occur whenever an organization comes to value process over product.

Goal Displacement as Positive Change

Goal displacement is not always negative. In cases where an organization’s original goal has been accomplished or is no longer necessary, it can make sense to direct an organization’s energy elsewhere. Author Karen K. Kirst-Ashman gives the example of the March of Dimes, which began as an organization to fight polio; with the introduction of the polio vaccine, the March of Dimes changed its goal to raising money to fight birth defects. The new goal, unlike the original, is broad enough that it's unlikely that the March of Dimes will ever again be forced to shift its goals.