Goal setting. Sure it isn't easy, but that's not the point.

There aren't too many people in business these days that wouldn't have at least heard of SMART goals - Specific/Small, Measurable/Maintained, Attainable/Attention, Relevant/Regular and Timebound/Towards.  (Yes, there are different versions of the SMART acronym).  But whilst these criteria are useful in guiding the setting of goals, how effective are the results?

If there is a criticism of this type of goal setting, it is that the focus of attention remains on the goal itself rather than the actions required to get there.  For example, setting a goal of going to Paris on holiday still requires all sorts of actions including buying tickets, organising transportation, finding passports etc.  Simply having a well constructed goal doesn't get it done.

The goal-setting dilemma

If goals are too specific, it can lead to a narrow focus where other things are overlooked.  Too many goals can lead to a concentration on the easy goals at the expense of others.  Too many goals can also create uncertainty and overwhelm.  An inappropriate time horizon may lead to short-term gain but long-term pain. If goals are too challenging, people take risks and might resort to unethical behavior.  Poorly defined goals can inhibit learning and cooperation, creating instead a culture of competition. 

In a world that is constantly shifting, there is a fine line between performance and non-performance.  

Where attention goes, energy flows.  At the expense of what?

Don't you just love the world of academic research?  Every time I find a paper that seems to support a view, I seem to find some other research that supports the opposing view.  

A great example is the power of attention in the context of goal-setting.  Where attention goes, energy flows.  The general consensus seems to logically be that the more attention placed on a goal, the more likely it is to be achieved.  And then I find a paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes titled When thinking about goals undermines goal pursuit.  (Ayelet Fishbach, Jinhee Choi, 2012).

We propose that the focus on the activity’s instrumentality renders the activity more valuable yet its experience less positive. Because experience is mainly salient while pursuing (vs. planning) an activity, attending to the activity’s instrumentality increases the intention to pursue the activity but decreases how persistently individuals pursue it.

Sure this is only one paper, but it does make an interesting point - the intention to pursue a goal may decrease the required persistence.  This could explain why it is easy to set off after something with the best of intentions, but then becomes less exciting and possibly even a little boring over time.

How can I set goals that I am likely to achieve?

There are a number of people who have researched extensively the topic of goal-setting and performance.  For example, Fox and Hoffman have coupled their own theories with those of Kurt Lewin, John William Atkinson and others to equate persistence with conservation of momentum (a physics principle). Atkinson asserts that once a goal is initiated, efforts to complete the goal persist unless "blunted by a strong external stimulus or by the arousal of an alternative, more forceful goal-directed tendency.”

Using these concepts, Fox and Hoffman (2002) propose four mechanisms for goal persistence:

  1. Closing the distance between a goal end state and an individual's current state increases the 'attractive motivational force'.
  2. As the steps to complete a goal become clearer, persistence to accomplish the goal increases.  With clarity, a goal is perceived to be more feasible.
  3. Goals that are perceived to be very valuable to an individual are not easily substituted, which in turn increases persistence.
  4. Personal interest and perceived positive experiences motivate individuals to persist toward goal completion.

It is these last two points that may carry the real secret of successful goal achievement: by consciously making the link between a goal and how achieving it is valuable/interesting to a person, it increases persistence.  For example, if I achieve this goal at work, I get to keep my job, which means I can pay for the family holiday and that is important to me.

In a world of uncertainty, goal-setting isn't easy.  But given that the process itself can provide us with direction, purpose, and something to aim at, easy isn't the point.  The process of setting goals is often more important than the goal itself.  It is more about the discussion that it prompts and the direction that it provides than the specific destination itself. Reiteration is necessary.  I can't remember the last time things went precisely as planned, and competitors certainly aren't going to do what you tell them to do.  

Another consideration is the level at which goals should be set.   Should every employee have quantifiable goals?  I guess this like many questions can be answered with it depends.  (I know not really useful right!).

Implementing goal-setting and goal tracking initiatives can be extremely time consuming and can sometimes direct effort in a way that the outcome somehow becomes the creation of a clear goal, rather than the achievement of it.

The one place I would start is for the Leadership Team to be totally clear and transparent about goals and goal progress.  Most things then start falling into place if this is the case. 

If your Leadership Team doesn't currently have a way to track important goals, we recommend checking out our DIY Workplace Improvement Bundle.


About the author:


Jason Buchanan is the general manager for insights and innovation of Optimum Consulting Group, a trusted and leading HR consultancy firm in Australia. He is the brain behind Optimum Direct, a web portal of the best HR tools and software for small business. He is interested in finding solutions on how companies can continue to grow without destroying the things that are important to them (employees, customers, suppliers, reputation etc).