The Psychology of Goal Setting & Why You Can't Skip Planning

By Jessica Wishart

goal setting

Many companies are tempted to power through the end of the year and see what happens. That aanual planningapproach could prove catastrophic for your business. Your people need to set goals for themselves; you can’t skip the planning process and hope to end 2020 successfully. As we head into 2020, be sure to slow down and engage in a team planning process to set goals together or you risk squandering focus and engagement in addition to missing the opportunity to end a difficult year on top.

Why is it so critical to slow down and set goals at the start of each quarter? Many of our newer clients who weren’t already in the rhythm of planning quarterly don’t immediately understand the need to take two days a quarter to plan as an executive team and then spend even more time cascading those plans to departments and individuals. However, they soon learn that the process of goal-setting is powerful. As Geoffrey James outlines in an article, "Goal-setting literally alters the structure of your brain so that you perceive and behave in ways that will cause you to achieve those goals.” Setting and monitoring progress towards goals can significantly impact individual performance; even the act of writing down the goal can significantly improve the chances of achieving it.

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Why would you want to waste an opportunity to harness your team’s potential, channel their energy and drive focus on individual goals that align with your goals for your company? You only have four planning sessions per year to motivate your team with clear, challenging, meaningful goals—and you’ll be paying their salaries the same whether they are working hard on the right things or not.

Not all goals are created equal. For goal-setting to be most effective, a body of research (synthesized in this Positive Psychology article) clearly points to some key factors:

  1. Ownership. The process of planning together is important. When possible, avoid setting goals for your team; to be most effective, each individual needs to set his own goals and assume full accountability for performance.
  2. Motivation or commitment. According to the research cited in the article, "The setting of goals has been shown to increase employee motivation and organizational commitment (Latham, 2004)."
  3. Clarity. Not surprisingly, clearly defining the goal results in better performance. Defining the goal in measurable, explicit terms is key. An effective goal has an explicit outcome and a defined process for achieving success.
  4. Difficulty. The most captivating goals are challenging but not unattainable. You may need to develop new skills or acquire resources to be successful, but the timeframe has to be realistic, and the goal has to stretch you.
  5. Feedback. Regularly reviewing progress on goals is key to success as well. Receiving feedback in real-time helps make adjustments and keep on track.

For virtual teams, it’s even more essential to take time for planning shared goals, clarifying expectations around who is doing what and what success looks like, and staying aligned around how you are going to achieve the team’s goals. Set your teams up for success by taking the time to work through a planning process that shares the top priorities at the executive team level, helps team members think through their individual goals, and clarifies how those will help move the company and team forward. Don’t be satisfied with “more of the same” or assume “everyone knows what we need to do.”

If you need help with effective goal setting for your teams, let our facilitators guide you through our proven planning process. Our facilitators can help you focus on 3-5 key priorities at the company level that are well defined, follow the physiological principles of effective goal setting, and cascade those through your company. Our Rhythm software platform makes setting S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-specific) easy by walking the team through the right prompts to create effective goals with one owner, a clear start and end date, specific Red-Yellow-Green success criteria, and linked supporting goals to outline how to get them done. Then, keep the goals on track by updating progress each week and making adjustments together as a team. Get the best results you can this quarter to finish the year strong!

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Here are more resources on goal setting:

Super SMART Goals

Goal Setting Tips

OKR vs KPI vs MBO and What the Best Goals Have in Common

SMART Goal Setting Theory: To Create SMART Goals, Start With “Why”

Using Red-Yellow-Green Success Criteria Examples That Are SMART

Role Clarity: Setting Clear Expectations with Goals

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images