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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Unlocking the power of goal setting

There is a strong link between how well people set their own performance goals at work and how well the organisation manages goal setting as a process. Organisational research suggests that poor corporate level goal-setting processes can limit an individual’s ability to define his or her performance goals effectively[1].

Research indicates that if the process of setting goals in an organisation is planned and implemented well at a collective level, this will also have a positive impact on the performance of individuals. Importantly, the personal development goals appear to be equally important in achieving positive outcomes for employees, such as engagement and wellbeing, as clear and realistic performance goals. So, organisations and people benefit from paying equal attention to goals which are both performance and development oriented.

This also underlines the need for companies not just to implement good goal setting practices, but also to evaluate how effectively both personal development goals, and performance goals are being set, on a regular basis. This might require regular audits of goals, their precision, balance, quality, and motivational effect on people.

Other research reveals the psychologically empowering role of congruent, credible, and human-centred approaches to corporate goal setting and performance management[2]. High-performance cultures tend to use goal setting in ways that do not feel abstract, or like an annual tick-box exercise, but like something that really matters to individuals. Executive coaches and line leaders should be directed by client organisations to explore their coachees’ or direct reports' personal contexts, helping to motivate themselves to take goal setting seriously. It is, afterall, vital for people to establish meaningful performance goals, as part of developing agile, high-performing organisations[3].

It may also be appropriate for a coach to facilitate a coachee’s ability to conduct goal setting conversations with their line management. In non-organizational coaching settings, or with independent entrepreneurs, there may be analogous issues around defining goals and aspirations that make sense not just to the individual, but also to their key stakeholders, investors for example.

Goal setting as a feature of behaviour change in organisations is likely to benefit from specific tools which can be used within coaching relationships. This is because goal setting, when it is done well, can reinforce a desired collective behavioural change. Coaching that promotes the formation of individual and collective goals, which are aligned and shared across an employee population, contributes to the psychological foundations of effective performance, and change [4] [5]. Citing empirical coaching research, eminent coaching psychologist, Anthony Grant, argues that the goal-setting skills, coaching repertoire, and techniques available to coaches in supporting clients, as part of a goal-focused or solutions-focused approach, are key determinants of successful performance outcomes from coaching[6].

This suggests that coaches need to ensure that they solicit feedback from coachees about how helpful their interventions have been in establishing, then pursuing clear performance goals. This is because there are quite a few challenges that one can encounter when helping people to define and commit to goals.

Gaps in clients’ own level of self-awareness[7] [8], or perhaps the prevalence of perfectionistic habits[9] [10], are challenges to healthy goal setting. Coachees may focus on things outside their control, or revert to a habitual reaction to certain things, or choose goals that maintain a problem. They may be unrealistic or engage in ungrounded aspiration.

External sources of instability and systemic uncertainty (such as economic crisis) can also make goal or future-focused work more challenging. For those with very low self-awareness, the centrality of goal setting to any solution-focused style of coaching may start to feel frustrating - even paradoxical. The view that they might express is that they just do not know what their goal is and struggle to come up with something meaningful or motivating to them. This can result in an impasse.

In all these scenarios, the overriding skill of the coach is the use of probing, open, and still pragmatic questions[11] so that the coachee can start to think about goal setting in a way that works for them. Grant[12] maintains that precise, healthy goals with personal value are a prerequisite for enhanced self-efficacy.

My own experience certainly chimes with this perspective. Taking time to help people develop the ability to set their own goals and align these with the right people is therefore an essential aspect of helping them to improve their performance.

There is also a case to be flexible in our approach to goal setting in coaching practice. Some interesting research on ‘multi-modal’ coaching (which draws on different approaches) has shown that it is possible selectively to use both a person-centred or ‘Rogerian’ coaching style (of which Carl Rogers is the early pioneer), and a solution-focus approach at the same time. This can help to develop clients’ confidence and self-efficacy as they clarify their goals[13].

More skilled practitioners with strong academic and applied foundations in psychology, as well as a strong direct knowledge of the realities of organisational settings, are likely to use a repertoire of coaching practices, or a ‘pluralistic’ approach. This is likely to enable clients with low self-awareness, or low efficacy, to build motivating, achievable work-related goals[14] . It has seemed to me in many interactions with people in the coaching industry, that the field tends to underplay and underestimate the depth of skill, the time and energy sometimes required, and the challenges involved in goal setting.

Done well, with proper depth of understanding a person’s context and situation, goal setting is a process that can improve professional self-efficacy, motivation, and performance.

Done badly, it can do profound harm to someone’s confidence, and possibly to their career.

As we approach the end of another year, and reflect on how things have gone, and as we start to craft our goals for the year ahead, let's remember to handle this process with precision and care.

[1] Ivancevich, J. M., McMahon, J. T., Streidl, J. W., & Szilagyi Jr., A. D. (1978). Goal Setting: The Tenneco Approach to Personnel Development and Management Effectiveness. Organizational Dynamics, 6(3), 58–80. [2] Zhang J., Akhtar M.N., Bal P. M., Zhang Y., Talat U. (2018). How Do High-Performance Work Systems Affect Individual Outcomes: A Multilevel Perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol 9, p. 586. [3] Okoth, V. A., & Florah, O. M. (2019). Motivation and Employee Performance at Avenue Hospital Kisumu County- Kenya. Business Management Dynamics, 9(5), 20. [4] Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215. [5] Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. [6] Grant, A. M. (2012a). An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: An evidence-based framework for teaching and practice. International Coaching Psychology Review, 7(2), 146–165. [7] Luft, J. & Ingham, H. (1955). The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness. Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: UCLA. [8] Fournies, F. F. (2000). Coaching for Improved Work Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill. [9] Ozbilir, T., Day, A., & Catano, V. M. (2015). Perfectionism at Work: An Investigation of Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism in the Workplace among Canadian and Turkish Employees. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 64(1), 252–280. [10] Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (p. 5–31). American Psychological Association, [11] Braunstein, K. & Grant, A. (2016). Approaching solutions or avoiding problems? The differential effects of approach and avoidance goals with solution-focused and problem-focused coaching questions. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 1-17. 10.1080/17521882.2016.1186705. [12] Grant, A. (2013). The Efficacy of Executive Coaching in Times of Organizational Change. Journal of Change Management, 14. 10.1080/14697017.2013.805159. [13] Lemisiou, M. A. (2018). The effectiveness of person-centered coaching intervention in raising emotional and social intelligence competencies in the workplace. International Coaching Psychology Review, 13(2), 6–26. [14] Utry, A.Z., Palmer, S., McLeod, J. & Cooper, M. (2015). A pluralistic approach to coaching. The Coaching Psychologist. 11. 46-52.


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