Can setting goals at work be harmful?

As a workplace coach I often ask my clients about their goals, help them set and review goals, and importantly, coach them to help achieve them.

Improving our performance, enhancing our wellbeing, or being a more effective leader or manager often involves setting and working towards personal or organisational goals. If you are a leader you may regularly set goals for your employees to achieve as part of a development plan or business plan.

Why set goals?

The positive personal benefits of setting goals are:

  • They give people meaning and purpose
  • They help them understand what is important to them
  • They encourage them to evaluate themselves and their abilities.

These benefits and the likelihood of success are increased when they:

  • align their goals with their personal strengths and values
  • choose SMART goals
  • choose goals which they are intrinsically motivated to achieve
  • write down their goals and commit to a plan of action
  • are accountable to someone and report regularly on progress
  • access support from a friend, mentor, or coach.

The dark side of goals

A  number of risks have been associated with goal setting, however. For example:

How do we resolve this problem?

Instead of setting a big outcome goal, try reframing that goal into a number of small regular habits or behaviours which will take you or your employee in the same direction. Imagine that the goal is to be promoted within 18 months. Instead  of setting and forgetting that goal, try identifying regular, repeated habits or behaviours which will make this more likely. For example –

  • Spend 20 minutes a day reading articles, reports or books which are relevant to the higher role.
  • Spend 30 minutes a day practising any new skills required for the role.
  • Before any meetings with senior management, set aside time to prepare one way of creating a positive effect at that meeting. This could be proposing an idea, volunteering for a task or just being engaged in the discussion.
  • Spend one hour a week on better understanding yourself – your strengths, your values, your ideas – and how they relate to the demands of the new role. Try a strengths survey or a values survey, reviewing your CV, or asking a friend or mentor for feedback. This will help you better communicate why you are a good candidate and also identify any knowledge or skills gaps to be addressed.

James Clear calls this developing a system. “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

Keeping notes of these activities and what is learned will help identify the progress  made, which will create a feeling of self-efficacy. This is important for motivation. Even if the ultimate goal is not reached in the timeframe, following the system can enhance performance and make the ultimate goal more attainable.

Christa Ludlow, Director