Science-Backed Goal Setting Techniques You Need to Know (and 4 to Avoid Like the Plague)

Helping your team define and reach their goals is a key part of every manager’s job. And the best managers don’t simply respond to incoming requests from executives and stakeholders, or wait for their bosses to dictate goals for them. They’re proactive, searching for ways to contribute and what they can accomplish. They continually ask themselves questions like:

  • What are the goals of my organization?
  • What role can my team play in furthering those goals? 
  • What are the overall goals for my team, and for each individual member? 

Setting the right objectives motivates your team to perform their best, and allows them to see how their daily work contributes to the organization’s success. Knowing the most effective way to set goals is essential to getting your team’s best efforts and results.

Goal setting theory, pioneered by psychologist Edwin Locke at the University of Maryland, is widely regarded as a leading management theory and has fine-tuned the science of effective goal setting.

The Golden Rules of Setting Effective Goals

According to a famous 35-year-long study on goal setting  conducted by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, there are 7 key traits of an effective goal.

1. Be Very Specific

Give someone a task and ask them to simply do their best and that’s exactly what they won’t do. Whatever the outcome, it's an invitation for them to shrug their shoulders and say, "Welp, I tried my best." You need specific standards to hold people accountable and give them a way to measure their progress and effectiveness. 

2. Challenge Yourself

Another common misconception is that goals that are too difficult or too easy fail to motivate people, but Locke & Latham found a positive linear relationship between goal difficulty, effort, and performance.

Performance leveled off or decreased only when the individual reached the limits of their ability, which is also when their commitment lapsed. In other words, people actually tried their very best, and only stopped doing so when they stopped seeing results.

3. Set Short-Term Deadlines

Short deadlines are effective motivators, and Locke and Latham found that people are better able to work faster and more intensely for a short period of time.

4. Make Them Public

Make goals accountable by creating a public commitment, and by making your shared vision or goal highly visible.

5. Incorporate Feedback

People tend to ignore feedback that doesn’t specifically relate to their stated goals. In a separate study conducted by Locke and James Bryan, people were given feedback about multiple aspects of their performance on a driving task. But their performance only improved on the areas for which they had set goals—all other feedback failed to make a difference. 

So set a limited number of goals for your team, and make sure they're tied to important business initiatives. Then, during one-on-ones with your team members, focus on providing feedback that's relevant to the goals you've set. Giving broad feedback on general performance is a waste of time

6. Apply Strategic Collaboration

Locke and Latham's study uncovered an interesting finding: setting goals as a team didn't affect performance, but letting people collaborate on the best way to achieve that goal improved performance significantly.

Why? This type of collaboration encourages people to exchange information, share effective processes, and spark new ideas, all of which make the individuals on your team more effective. So before work begins, encourage your team to work together and strategize about the best way to achieve each goal you've set. 

7. Track Progress

Highlight the progress people are making towards those goals. If they don’t know how they’re doing, how can they be expected to make course corrections, or adjust their strategies to meet the goal?

Image: Entrepreneur.com

 

4 Goal Setting Techniques to Avoid

So which approaches to goal setting don't meet Latham and Locke's scientifically-backed standards? Here are four popular techniques that could be holding your team back. 

1. SMART Goals - Question the A and R

Chances are you're familiar with this wildly popular goal setting technique. But according to Locke and Latham's scientific study, you shouldn't be following this strategy to a T.

The A and the R in the SMART acronym stand for Attainable and Realistic, which contradict golden rule #2 — that goals should be ambitious in order to inspire peak performance. If you don't set the bar high enough and settle for targets that you consider attainable, you won't challenge yourself to excel.

2. Cascading Goals- Not Everything Should Roll Up

This top-down approach to goal setting means business objectives are set first, and all other goals must support those objectives. You've probably heard the phrase, "Get everyone rowing in the same direction" associated with this approach. And while there's nothing wrong with this strategy on paper, in reality, it's simply too limiting.

Not to mention, it often delays everyone else's goal-setting because they're waiting for higher ups to set their targets before they can create theirs. 

Some people should set goals based on their position's unique priorities/strengths. Company/exec goals should inform everyone else's goals and relate to them, but not all MUST tie in.

3. Collaborative Goals - Collaborate on How 

Good managers make a concerted effort to build a culture of collaboration on their teams. And while it's important to talk to your team and include them in the goal setting process, ultimately you need to be the one formalizing and communicating goals and deadlines. Latham and Locke's study proves that setting goals as a team does nothing to improve dedication or performance.

Instead, set goals and then sit down with your team to collaborate on how you will achieve them. Each person on your team has insights into the best tools, processes, and resources available to get the work done, and this type of collaborative strategizing actually does improve performance and results.

4. Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals - Break Them Down for the Short Term

  • Land a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely. 
  • A computer on every desk and in every home
  • Become the pulse of the internet.

These are examples of the BHAGs set by the likes of JFK, Microsoft, and Twitter. And while they’re certainly aspirational, they don’t meet the criteria Locke and Latham defined. They’re simply too long-term.

These are goals that stretch years or even decades. In order to be truly effective, the marathon BHAG needs to be broken down into a series of shorter sprints, with deadlines that will motivate your team to focus and give it their all. Without the pressure of the clock ticking, people quickly lose interest and their effort and performance falls.

So treat these goals more like mission statements, giving your team a vision to work towards while you set more specific targets as benchmarks. Then plan assignments like a relay race, setting tight deadlines and balancing the workload amongst your team to take advantage of those bursts of focus and motivation, without risking burnout.

Help Your Employees Succeed by Setting Effective Goals

The type and quality of the goals you set for your team directly affects how well they work. In order to be effective, goals need:

  • Clarity
  • Difficulty
  • Accountability
  • Specific feedback
  • A collaborative strategy
  • Measurable progress

Looking for a tried-and-true goal setting technique that's supported by Latham and Locke's research? Learn more about Google's favorite approach, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to see if it's right for your team. 

Sources: HBR.orgMindTools.comSpring.org.ukUToronto.ca

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