Find out why goal setting works, and steps to set effective ones with your employees.
The past year has seen abrupt and drastic shifts in where and how work is done. These changes have had measurable effects on employees’ productivity and well-being, as reports of languishing, procrastination, and an inability to focus are on the rise. Consequently, finding ways to keep your workforce committed and motivated has become increasingly necessary.
There are any number of strategies that can be used to increase employee motivation, such as by establishing positive relationships with employees, providing desirable incentives, or modifying employees’ roles to promote autonomy and variety. Yet, one strategy that might be particularly useful in the current age of remote work is goal-setting.
The premise of goal setting is straightforward and backed by decades of academic research: setting challenging and detailed goals can greatly improve employees’ effort, commitment, and performance on virtually any task. Effective goal setting can help counter feelings of stagnation and lack of drive many employees currently face. Here’s how it works.
Setting challenging and detailed goals can greatly improve employees’ effort, commitment, and performance on virtually any task.
The goal-setting process
Whether you’re interested in implementing a goal-setting intervention for yourself or your employees, it’s important to ensure the process you follow is evidence-based. Luckily, researchers studying the effects of goal-setting have developed step-by-step interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping individuals attain their goals and improve their performance. Below are some of the key steps in one such intervention (you can find full information on this particular intervention program here).
Key steps for goal setting
- Reflect broadly on the future. Begin by reflecting broadly about your ideal future self. You might, for instance, consider what areas of your work (or life) you would like to improve, the skills or competencies you would like to learn, or the habits you would like to form (or break). You might also consider what qualities, habits, or competencies you admire in others. The idea here is to begin thinking about your ideal future self.
- Extract specific and achievable goals. This next step requires you to isolate and describe around 7-8 specific goals from the previous step that can contribute to the realization of your ideal self.
- Prioritize. Next, rank and justify each goal in order of importance and develop a time-frame for their completion.
- Consider significance and impact. Research suggests that simply considering the distal consequences of our goals can improve motivation and persistence towards goal attainment. Therefore, another key step in the goal-setting process involves considering how the achievement of each goal would impact yourself and others.
- Define sub-goals. Because the goals defined above can be complex, it’s important to break down each goal into more proximal sub-goals and develop specific strategies for achieving them as well.
- Consider potential obstacles. For this step, try to anticipate any barriers that might arise that could impede your progress of goal attainment and how you might overcome those barriers. The idea here is to prepare yourself for any challenges that may arise as you work towards goal attainment.
- Benchmark success. As you begin working through each sub-goal and primary goal, it’s also important to monitor your success along the way. Research suggests that the self-derived feedback obtained during this process is crucial for maintaining high levels of motivation and allowing for any course-correction if needed.
Adapt the process to fit your employees’ circumstances
It’s important to note that the process as outlined above can be adapted to fit your own (or your employees’) specific circumstance. For example, you might consider focusing purely on work-related goals in Step 1, rather than reflecting broadly on goals across personal and work domains. With that said, research does suggest that making progress on goals in one domain (e.g., personal health) can have cross-over effects on the successful completion of goals in other domains (e.g., work).
Why does goal setting work?
Though it’s important to understand the major steps in the goal-setting process, it can also be useful to know why goal setting works in the first place. While the effects of goal setting on performance is fairly complex and can involve any number of factors, there are two clear reasons why such interventions are effective at improving performance.
One reason why setting clear and challenging goals can be an effective way to improve your employees’ performance is because it improves self-efficacy, or the belief in their own abilities and potential for success.
One reason why setting clear and challenging goals can be an effective way to improve your employees’ performance is because it improves self-efficacy, or the belief in their own abilities and potential for success. When we think too broadly or abstractly about the goals we want to achieve or the tasks we need to do, we can begin to feel a sense of doubt in our ability to be successful. Effective goal setting, however, requires us to begin working towards and accomplishing a more proximal and manageable set of sub-goals along the way. This process not only enables individuals to more readily identify the specific behaviors and strategies needed to be successful, but it provides an opportunity to get some “small wins” early on.
Research suggests that achieving these early milestones can boost employees’ confidence which, in turn, enhances their commitment to the process. What’s more, simply working closely with your employees when developing challenging goals with them signals that you believe they are capable of achieving them, which can further enhance their self-efficacy and performance.
Goal setting not only boosts employees’ sense of self-efficacy, but it can also reduce anxiety and improve general well-being, which is crucial for ensuring employees remain committed to the task. Goals that are too broad or ill-defined can be daunting, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. This can create a negative feedback loop, whereby our anxiety in the face of seemingly insurmountably goals can foster procrastination and lack of commitment, which in turn can increase our anxiety and emotional distress thereby lowering our chance at success.
Effective goal setting, however, can serve as a kind of “plan of action” that provides employees with immediate, step-by-step strategies for accomplishing the task. As research suggests, this process can improve one’s mood and lead to increases in overall well-being, crucial factors for keeping employees commitment and motivated toward their goals.