The Slightly SMART And Not So Dumb Guide To Goal Setting – Part 1

A guide for leaders – Part 1

Simply put, a goal is the desired state we want to move towards. Essentially coaching is a goal-directed process. 

Creating goals that ensure achievement means coaches need to have an in-depth knowledge of coaching psychology research, motivational theory, and goal theory. This understanding allows coaches to help clients create goals that set them up for success. 

What I want to achieve in this short article is to share three critical pieces of information. These three concepts will help you be more effective in using goals to increase your leadership performance and motivate your people. 

After reading this two-part short article, you will understand: – 

  • Basic psychological concepts that enable successful goal setting. This will help you to create more effective goals with your team. Part 1. 
  • The key different types of goals and how you can use them to complement each other to achieve better outcomes and engage your teams – Part 2. 
  • How to construct goals that have higher likelihood of success and how to avoid some of the limitations and downsides of goal setting – Part 2. 


Part 1. Psychological concepts that underpin successful goal attainment 

Get a job, move to Brisbane by July, make a cup of tea, finish my degree, write poetry, fall in love, don’t eat chocolate, write a symphony, discover my purpose, leave work by 5pm, improve my team engagement, travel to the Galapagos Islands, become a great leader.

 You cannot be alive without being engaged with goals, in effect are lives are a collection of intertwined goals. 

These are all different types of goals, and later, you will learn how to classify and construct more effective goal plans. 

As humans, we automatically want to move towards things we desire and away from things that we associate with fear and danger. Simply put, we operate in two directions towards and away. 

We create idealised versions of ourselves, and the gaols we select for ourselves are often a reflection of this future idealised self. 

We always need to move towards not away – Approach goals. 

If I said to you, I have five thousand dollars in my briefcase that I am about to give you what does your mind do. It begins to plan forwards various scenarios of what you might do with the money. Fix the car, go on a holiday or pay for that leadership course you want to take, buy a surfboard, give the money to a worthwhile charity.

Overall, we do not project backwards in time to what we might have used the money for. We automatically plan forwards.

Moving away from – Avoidance goals 

The opposite of approach goals is avoidance goals. I will say one word, and you will understand immediately. Diet! Yes, do not eat chocolate, cake, bread and ice-cream, there, now you want some.

We know from the coaching psychology research that coaching plans that consist of avoiding things are linked to poor goal attainment and are correlated with depression.

Our minds are not designed to move away from a stimulus continually. As soon as I say no cake, you want some, your mind will then torture you with pictures of cakes until finally bite into one. 

What happens then is the critical voice that lives inside us all says, there! I told you would fail! And there we have it, the self-fulfilling prophecy. Two tubs of cookies and cream later you are off the diet. 

Creating more effective goals 

Goal plans that consist of mainly avoidance goals tend to fail. If possible, it is best to create goals to move towards. For example, instead of saying I am not going to eat chocolate, your goal becomes. I am going to cook three healthy meals of vegetable and lean meat three times this week. 

Using towards as a direction for new behaviours is always preferable and has more likelihood of success.

What does the research say?

One of the uniting principles from different schools of psychology, whether humanistic, behavioural, developmental, is our innate drive to become more than we currently are. 

You are engaged in this behaviour at this very moment, reading articles and posts on LinkedIn. Why? To gather knowledge and become more than you were yesterday? To connect with others, to gain insights and become more masterful in your chosen field that you decided was important to you? 

A key theory in coaching and goal setting that we can use as a lens to understand this internal drive to grow is Self Determination Theory (SDT). 

The theory states that people are actively directed towards growth. Mastering challenges and looking for new experiences are essential parts of developing a cohesive sense of who we are. 

SDT is an intrinsic motivational theory as it is concerned with the innate internal drives that compel us to succeed. It is not reliant on external factors such as money and other material rewards. 

We are driven by this internal need for growth. The key to enabling this drive is our need to be autonomous, that is our need to have control and agency over our lives and the choices we make. Simply put to be in the driving seat of your own life. 

We do not like being told to do things; we respond much more positively when we are asked. If the choice is taken away from us, feelings towards a goal can diminish.

Think about the current lockdown situation, how many of your choices have been taken away, what feelings does this evoke?

Self Determination is the powerhouse of creativity.

Marie Curie did not discover Radioactivity because some company offered her money. The Wright Brothers did not fly because they were promised company cars. 

These individuals were internally driven to succeed by something more significant, their need to grow as humans.

If you want to see SDT in action, think of people who build houses with next to no money in wild inhospitable places. Or Start-up businesses that begin in a garden shed or a garage. This is the power of this internal drive and this is the force we want to engage and harness when we create goals.

Why, because like any of these people doing these heroic things, this drive is determined and unstoppable. When we harness our own need for self-determination, we achieve great things. 

How do you create the conditions to develop self-determination in goal setting?

Three key conditions need to be met in order to create a sense of Self Determination. When these three factors occur, intrinsic motivation to achieve is generated. 

Autonomy – We need to choose to be involved in the creation of the goal. If I tell you to make 50 widgets by 5 pm it is highly unlikely you will. Perhaps you might make 25 poorly constructed widgets. You were not given any choice in whether you wanted to undertake the task and no choice in how many widgets you wanted to make.

These targets were decided for you. Many operational excellence and visual management systems in organisations work this way. It is the key reason people play the system to comply to meet their targets.

Notice I said target and not goals. Targets are perfectly designed to fail from an SDT perspective. Goals are something the individual wants to achieve. If it is not their goal, it is probably your target.

If I asked whether you loved making widgets and you answered yes, and then I asked how many high-quality widgets you thought you could make in a day, you might tell me 40 widgets.

If I called in on you at 5 pm you might have made 45 widgets or more. Because you decided on the number, you were automatically motivated to achieve and exceed the bar you set for yourself. 

Competence – If you love making widgets it’s likely you will have books on widgets, read podcasts about widgets and have a widget collection at home and may even attend widget conferences where other master widget makers exchange widget knowledge. 

For you, making widgets gives you purpose. Your aim in life may be to be a master widget maker.

SDT states that we love working on things that we want to gain mastery of, working in an area where we are skilled makes us feel good. If are expertise is recognised in this area a snowball effect of engagement is generated

If you do not love widget making its unlikely, you will achieve the goal 

of making 50 widgets by 5 pm. You should not be a widget maker; it would be better for you to find someone in your team that does and utilises their talent. 

Relatedness – As human beings, we have an innate drive to create and be drawn to positive relationships with others. We seek out life situations where we can connect with other positive people. The loneliness created by the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for positive human relationships with each other. We are people who need people, Barbara Streisand told us this in 1964! 

If part of making widgets involves positive interactions with other people again, it is more likely that goals will be achieved. For leaders, one of the ways of creating relatedness is to provide positive feedback and encouragement in the pursuit of the goal. 

A caution here, the feedback needs to be about the effort expended to achieve the goal, as this is the behaviour you want to encourage. Praising the person’s innate ability or talent is likely to lead to decreased motivation towards goal attainment. 

Rewarding goal Directed behaviour and effort.

One of the key elements that are supported by goal theory research is the need for feedback loops. Feedback provides direction and encouragement to stay engaged in an activity to support the goal. If you are a leader who leads by exception, meaning you only provide feedback when someone makes an error, it is time to learn a new way. 

Ever wonder why people cringe when the word feedback is mentioned, this style of leadership has fuelled this negative image if the F word. 

What can leaders do? 

Always try to reward the effort towards completing the goal and not the talents used to achieve this. We know from Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset that praising the effort put into achieving rather than a person’s skill or intellect sustains goal-directed effort. Giving praise for being smart does nothing to engage a person in the goal, the positive feedback needs to relate directly to the effort expended even when it results in failure. 

Praising someone publicly for completing work may motivate one person to work harder and embarrass another. Leaders need to find out what motivates their people. For some, it might be an email expressing thanks, for another public acknowledgement in a team meeting in front of peers. 

Finding out how someone likes to be recognised is usually aligned to their values and what is seen as important to them. For some, this may be material recognition for others; it might have a more motivational impact to recognise their unique thinking or creativity. 

How leaders give feedback can be much more powerful than how often they do it. 


Read part two of the slightly SMART and not so dumb guide to Goal setting – A guide for leaders to find out: 

  • The different types of goals. How you can use goals to complement each other to achieve better outcomes and engage your teams. 
  • How to construct goals that have higher likelihood of success and how to avoid some of the limitations and downsides of goal setting.

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