Executive Insider

What if goals are irrelevant?

business partners

Goal setting has become a bit like alphabet soup. We have SMART goals and HARD goals or CLEAR goals and BHAGS (big hairy audacious goals). The number of goal setting acronyms is a bit astounding, but are any of these truly helping us achieve what we ultimately desire?

We live in a culture that demands goal setting in our lives, whether it’s family milestones, climbing the career ladder or checking off our bucket lists, we’re expected to live our lives chasing goal after goal. We have goals for everything from our weight to our salary expectations and not meeting those goals can leave us feeling inadequate and unsuccessful.

In the workplace, strict goal setting can limit our ability to observe and seize opportunities that fall outside our prescribed plans and too often, leaders and organizations fail to consider consequences as they attempt to maintain rigid objectives amongst their teams.

Goal setting comes with risks that are often disregarded. It can limit focus, increase unethical behavior as people seek to meet targets and change intrinsic motivation having the opposite effect of what it is intended to accomplish.

However, we know that goal setting leads to motivation and growth. Leaders utilize goal setting to boost productivity and ultimately, result in stronger business performance outcomes by meeting a series of milestones for success.

To maximize successful goal setting, leaders can support their team in many ways. Following these steps, and avoiding the risks associated with “goals gone wrong” will support your ability to not only engage your team in meeting their goals, but also achieve desired results from the process.

  1. Know the role of emotions in goal achievement.
    Goal setting and progress is full of emotions. It involves internal and external conflict, risk taking, prioritization and inspiration. Performance to goals is contingent on tapping into motivation and that requires aligning goals with emotions. Leaders need to ensure they are collaborating with their teams to establish outcomes that are meaningful and important to both the individual and the organization.

    Offering effective feedback and tapping into positive emotions lends itself to more energy and attention on goal attainment. Listen to what excites your employees and what motivates them in their work and give them the resources and feedback they need to reach their individual goals and the collective organization’s goals.

  2. Connect the dots.
    People need to believe their specific effort will result in goal achievement. It is critical that leaders connect the dots and show a picture of how routine efforts, daily tasks and behaviors align to achieve a larger goal. If employees are left feeling like nothing they do matters, then teams risk disengaging from the end goal.

    In addition, employees need to trust they have or can build the right skills and abilities to meet the organizations desired goals. Leaders can start by clarifying roles and responsibilities so individual team members know exactly what is required of them in support of the goal.

  3. Foster a learning goal orientation.
    Studies on the emotional reaction to goal achievement confirms that individuals who see feedback and setbacks as learning opportunities are more likely to use these experiences as tools for development and successful goal achievement than those who see them as judgements against their competency and self-worth.

    Often, this type of orientation is established in the corporate culture of the organization. Companies focused on internal competition and drive often inadvertently place too much emphasis on competencies and proving one’s worth. When we use competition, rewards and punishments inappropriately, it can lead to unhealthy secondary consequences.

    When leaders allow the process to create learning opportunities, not just a hard push toward the end goal, they foster an environment that supports deeper and stronger outcomes.

  4. Create goals that are motivational, attainable and permeable.
    Motivational: We have to want it and feel compelled at some motivational level to strive for it.  Often, the more intrinsic the motivation, the more likely we are to feel pulled towards the goal. The goal needs to hold a level of importance that matches the effort required to achieve it. Establishing a personal connection to the goal can be helpful as well.

    Attainable: We must have a belief that our efforts will allow us to achieve our goals. This means we need clarity on the goal and have the skills/resources to achieve it. There must be some sense of control over our ability to be successful. While goals need to be attainable, we also need goals that pull us out of our comfort zone to foster growth.

    Permeable: Goals that are too rigid are often abandoned. This explains why New Year’s Resolutions are often unsuccessful. At this point, we want to balance clarity with fluidity. Goals should be adjustable if circumstances change or better opportunities arise.

So, are goals irrelevant? No. Are they often used inappropriately and result in negative consequences or failure to meet objectives? All the time. Understanding the elements of successful goal setting can help both individuals and organizations meet their end goals and feel supported throughout the journey.

Written by Dr. Laurie Cure.

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Dr. Laurie Cure
Dr. Laurie Cure is CEO of Innovative Connections, a management consulting firm. Dr. Cure is a consultant offering strategic planning, organizational development, talent management and HR support for organizational effectiveness. She is author of the book “Leading Without Fear.”


Dr. Laurie Cure is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.