As the new year approaches, many employees are preparing for the both the holidays and 2018. This is an infamously popular time to self-reflect and devise development goals for the upcoming year. We all know that setting strong goals can reap positive benefits for both an employee and an organization, including increased worker motivation and performance. However, when applied inappropriately, performance goals can backfire, resulting in decreased quality of output, increased risk taking, and reduced cooperation.  As such, when thinking about your own growth as a leader, it is important to keep in mind that not all goals are created equal.

This begs the question: what can you do to ensure your goals for 2018 are robust and impactful? This is something we think about not only internally here at Vantage; it’s a central component of our work with clients.  Perhaps the most influential approach comes from goal-setting theory – one of the most heavily researched and utilized theories of work motivation in the field of I/O Psychology. To begin: what does a good goal even look like?

While this will vary greatly depending on the role and organization you are a part of, here are some examples to provide context:

  • If an assembly line worker is interested in increasing productivity, a good goal might be “To increase the number of units produced per hour by 5 percent between each semi-annual performance review”. You’ll notice this is specific and challenging.
  • A personal development goal for someone struggling with conflict might be “to decrease the number of negative confrontations at work between each performance review until no confrontations arise”; or, if they are working on public speaking, a goal might be “to speak up and contribute in all team meetings during a specific project.”

There are four main conditions at the heart of goal-setting theory to keep in mind when working on development goals:

Make Them Motivating

According to one study, a whopping 92% of people don’t achieve the goals they set for themselves – so how to overcome the odds? It’s not surprising that people perform better when they are committed to achieving their goals; that is, when they create sufficient motivation for themselves. This is why it is better to allow people to set their own goals, rather than establishing goals for them. Consider if your significant other set a target for you to lose 10 pounds. You might buy in and start that diet, but you might also drag your feet, feel put-upon, and even actively ignore the goal. In this regard, the goal must be yours. Others can tell you that your objective should be X, and there might be unanimous agreement around that need. But if you do not see the behavior change as necessary, you won’t feel motivated to do anything differently. This also goes for goals you undertake half-heartedly or out of obligation (i.e., “I really should lose those extra 10 pounds this year”). Goals without drive are simply wishes; you’re not actually making progress towards the desired end state, you’re just hoping to end up there. As a leader, it’s key to keep this in mind when designing objectives with your colleagues and direct reports. Goals tend to have the highest levels of commitment when:

  • They are linked to important outcomes. For managers, you might set a goal of improving your coaching skills and link it to the important outcome of your team’s engagement scores in next year’s survey. For executives, you might set a goal to spend more time strategizing and link that goal to the important outcome of your department’s revenue.
  • The individual setting the goal has the confidence they can attain the goal (even if it is challenging).
  • The goal is committed to publicly. Public commitment without action can lead to social disapproval, and as social beings this tends to motivate us to act if for no other reason than to save face. Announcing your goals publicly (i.e., to your team, select peers, your boss) helps hold you accountable, and also offers an opportunity to solicit feedback from others.

The Development Is In the Details

A goal must be specific and measurable. It should answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the expectations of the goal. Setting parameters provides an external frame of reference (such as time, space, increment, etc.) to gauge progress, whereas vague “do better” goals are ambiguous and often have little effect on motivation. Removing ambiguity allows one to focus on precise actions and behaviors related to goal achievement. Research shows that the more specific the goal, the more explicitly performance will be affected.  This inherently makes sense because if you don’t have a specific goal in mind, how will you know when you’ve reached it? This is where it pays to create SMART goals, and leverage available tools to help you narrow your focus (such as Live Wire’s list of best goal setting apps).  

Stretch Yourself – But Not Too Far

Difficulty is a key component of motivation. Goals should be set high enough to encourage top performance, but low enough to be attainable. This balance is crucial for effective goals. Aiming too high – to the point of unrealistic – conversely causes performance to suffer. The greatest motivation and performance is achieved with moderately difficult goals (somewhere between too easy and too difficult).  Think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears—it’s important to find that sweet spot that is “just right.”

Ask Others: “How Am I Doing?”

Without proper feedback channels, it is impossible to adapt or adjust behavior. Obtaining feedback on short-term objectives helps to sustain motivation and commitment to the goal – and without it, goal-setting is unlikely to be successful. Feedback is most impactful when it is provided on the strategies being used to pursue the goal (in addition to the final outcomes achieved), but this is not always how people think to provide input. Consider the last time you earnestly asked a colleague how your presentation went and what they thought you could improve, but were met with a generic, “It was great.” You might need to provide some guidance to others when seeking feedback on your progress; don’t be afraid to ask for specifics on how your approach is working. Here are some additional tips for mastering the art of asking for feedback.

Although the four conditions presented above are not all-encompassing, they should provide a strong foundation as you begin planning for the new year.  A well-honed development plan can start you off on the right foot and provide tangible benefits throughout the year. What are some goals you have been considering for 2018? How can these tips help you take them to the next level?


This post was co-authored by Eileen Linnabery.