Effective Goal Setting: What Trips Us Up and How to Fix It

Looking to become more effective when it comes to achieving your goals? Learn about the things that can get in your way and how to overcome them.
Philip Hunter
December 3, 2019

Have you ever reached the end of the year, taken a look at the goals you set, and thought: “What happened?”  You’re not alone! We have great intentions when engaged in goal setting at the beginning of the year, but events usually don’t play out as we intend, as unforeseen shifts and challenges make us wish we had a time machine. Alternatively, we may “accomplish” all of our goals, but don’t feel that deep satisfaction that comes with achieving great results and having a real impact. In this blog post, we take a look at what gets in our way when setting and pursuing goals, and how individuals and leaders can approach things differently to ensure a more effective outcome.

Playing it safe

SMART goals have been around since the 1980s and are a common framework to use when setting goals. However, if we only rely on this framework, we might be missing out on opportunities to be ambitious and have more impact. The trap with “SMART” goals is that we can settle for “safe” goals that don’t take much effort and don’t require much risk – in other words, goals we’re almost guaranteed to achieve. This approach puts artificial constraints on our performance and limits the satisfaction that comes with achieving something truly significant. Research has shown that goal difficulty and performance have a positive relationship – performance continues to improve as goals get more difficult, until the goal becomes simply not possible to achieve.  By sticking with strictly “safe” goals, we limit our ambition, our performance, and the satisfaction that comes with having a real impact.

The fix

For individuals: Instead of setting every goal using the SMART framework, identify one or two ambitious goals that will not be “slam-dunks” and will instead test the limits of your ability. By thinking big, you’ll push yourself further and elevate your performance.

For leaders: With the strong links between goal accomplishment, performance management, and variable pay decisions that many organizations have, consider the behaviours that your variable pay programs may be encouraging. You could be unintentionally encouraging people to set “safe” goals for which they will be rewarded. Does your variable pay program need a re-think?

Keeping goals to ourselves

When we set goals, we typically only share them with our manager. As a result, we only get a single source of feedback; just one perspective on whether the goals are reasonable, and whether they present a true challenge to us. Moreover, this perspective is coming from someone who is very familiar with our work and who may have some of the same biases as we do. While the perspective of our manager is certainly important when setting goals, we can create blind spots if this is the only perspective on which we rely.

The fix

For individuals: In addition to sharing your goals with your manager, consider sharing them with your team and other colleagues. You’ll get the benefit of hearing multiple perspectives that may introduce new ways of thinking about your goals and how to reach them. In today’s highly-integrated workplaces where teams are deeply interdependent, sharing goals has an added benefit of improving communication and helping everyone be more effective. In all likelihood, the goals that you set for yourself will have implications for how a colleague down the hall does her work.

For leaders: Here is a great opportunity for you to break down silos and encourage cross-team and cross-functional interactions. Encourage your people to share their prospective goals with at least one other person outside their direct team, or consider starting a “goal sharing forum” where people from other teams come together to share their goals to identify interdependencies and areas where collaboration may accelerate performance.

Viewing goal-setting and learning as separate

We often consider performance and learning to be separate, assuming that the goals we set must be ones we can achieve with our current skills and knowledge. If we assume that achieving our goals should not involve learning new skills or acquiring new knowledge, then we may, again, be playing it safe. This approach misses a great opportunity for us to use goal setting as a way to identify, and then pursue, new areas of knowledge and skills. We may also change the approach we take to achieve our goals. For example, researchers have argued that when a goal is only about performance, people focus on getting to the desired outcome as efficiently as possible, which stunts innovative thinking.

The fix

For individuals: Consider setting goals that challenge your current abilities and include a learning component as a necessary part of achieving the goal. Although you may not be able to reach the goal right now with your existing skills, you can make a plan for how to strengthen your skills to get to where you need to be to achieve success. This approach not only motivates you to elevate your performance, but also frees you to be more innovative and explore new ideas.

For leaders: Model the integration of performance and learning goals with your own goals, sharing them with your team. In so doing, you’re encouraging them to take some risk, and challenge themselves to establish learning goals as a necessary part of reaching performance goals, rather than separating them.

As an added bonus, overall team performance can improve when leaders implement learning goals. Research has shown that teams whose leaders emphasize learning goals perform better than those where leaders emphasize strictly performance or “do your best” goals.

Not identifying the first steps

We set ambitious goals and feel great about them! Then a few, months pass, and…nothing happens. Now we’re feeling behind, become anxious, and….procrastinate further. Perhaps our goal is long-term, so there’s a belief that we’ll get to it eventually. Or, perhaps the high importance of the goal makes it seem daunting, so we avoid getting started for as long as possible. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same: we’ve made no progress.

The fix

For individuals: Set some immediate, short-term goals that take you through the first steps of achieving your big goal. Even if these are small, “low-hanging fruit” items, you will still feel the accomplishment that comes with making progress, and you will create momentum to keep going. Taking these first steps also gives you the chance to see some early outcomes, which will allow you to reflect on your strategy, get feedback, and course-correct if necessary.

For leaders: This is a great opportunity to not only prioritize the taking of “first steps”, it’s also another reason to have frequent check-ins with your team members to discuss their progress, identify any areas of inactivity, and move past roadblocks.

Forgetting the “why”

While setting effective goals can enhance a team’s performance, researchers have shown that the mere act of setting goals is not enough to generate commitment. We need to understand the bigger picture and the “why” behind a team’s objectives for true commitment, rather than just compliance, to emerge.  A deep level of commitment is what we all need when “going the extra mile” is necessary.

The fix

For individuals: Make sure you understand the mission and purpose behind your organization’s work and your role in that work. Talk to your manager, other leaders, and your peers to identify the “why” behind what your company does and how you contribute to it. Thinking about what energizes you in your work can help motivate you to create goals to which you are committed.

For leaders: As a leader, one of your key accountabilities is providing your team members with the “big picture” of where the organization is going, the “why” behind its direction, and how the team, and each member on it, contribute to overall success. Be careful not to assume that everyone already knows this or has the perspective on it that you have!

Treating goals as an end rather than a means

We can be prone to approaching goal setting as a “check-the-box” activity. Once we set our goals and share them with our manager, we think we’re “done”, and we can move on with “business as usual”. Goal setting then becomes an annual ritual, which is only tangentially connected to our daily work. Needless to say, this approach is counterproductive, particularly in today’s agile work environment. Our external and internal environments are constantly evolving, and if we treat goals as a static, “once-a-year” activity, their relevance can fade quickly.

The fix

For individuals: It’s important to remember that the purpose of goals is to help us align on what is most important to achieve the organization’s strategic objectives. As the environment around us changes, or those strategic objectives change, we need to be flexible enough to adjust goals accordingly. Instead of defining goal accomplishment strictly by “yes, it’s accomplished vs. no, it’s not”, consider the extent to which accomplishing that goal contributed to those higher-level objectives.

To that end, be sure to revisit your goals regularly. Reflect not only on your performance and whether you’ve made progress, but also take a critical look at whether or not your goals still make sense. Things may have changed in your organization and the original goal that you set may no longer provide value in the new context. Reviewing your goals regularly will help you remain nimble and make the adjustments you need to make.

For leaders: Place goal setting within the larger context of helping employees maximize their performance and overall impact by showing flexibility when goals need to be adjusted. Furthermore, by focusing not just on goals, but also the extent to which pursuing these goals represent the best way to accomplish the organization’s objectives, you will help the organization learn that adjusting goals is a nimble and agile response, as opposed to the prevailing belief that initial goal design should be “perfect” and any imperfection is a result of “not thinking things through”.

The next time you find yourself setting goals for yourself, your team, or your organization, take a step back to determine the extent to which you may have fallen into any of the traps outlined above. Building good goal setting habits takes time, and it all starts with being mindful about the practices that you are using.

Philip Hunter is an organizational effectiveness expert with more than 15 years of experience working closely with leaders and teams to create the conditions for optimal organizational performance. As a Principal within Verity’s Talent Management Practice and a facilitator for theLEADhub‘s leadership development programs, Philip brings a passion for empowering leaders to elevate their impact.

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