Setting goals is important. Understanding how to set goals may be more so. Numerous studies, including several cited in this lengthy article co-authored by a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, demonstrate that not all goals are set equally. Not all frameworks for setting goals lead to great results. Having read many arguments for and against some of the most common goal-setting models, I have decided to avoid recommending any one system. Instead, here is a list I’ve compiled of important considerations present across different models. Whether you’re a fan of SMART goals or FAST goals or any other kind, consider these major factors before you finalize your workplace goals.
Perhaps the most important element in setting a goal in the workplace requires consideration of its relevance to the bigger picture. In this Forbes article that walks you through the process of setting a successful goal, the author suggests you start by identifying several themes in your work. In other words, think of general accomplishments like increasing brand visibility, not specific tasks like making a social media post. These general themes should map onto the value you uniquely can provide to your company. Consider how your role fits into the goals of your team and company as a whole.
If you find yourself needing some clarity in understanding your role in this context, reach out to a leader who can help. This HBR article for leaders recommends that leaders ensure their employees understand the value of their goals in the bigger picture. That article from MIT argues that this understanding correlates directly to employee engagement. Employees who understand the value of their work to the greater whole engage more meaningfully with their goals.
There’s also another kind of relevance to consider. How relevant are your goals to you? This article written for leaders encourages them to ask employees about their own personal goals and incorporate that information into their professional goals. Likewise, this article about common goal-setting pitfalls cautions leaders from assigning goals to employees without considering them as people. Ensure that your personal skills, training, and ambitions are reflected in the goals you set in the workplace. Map goals onto your own potential.
Besides being relevant to you and your workplace, goals should set specific targets. This article suggests outlining the specific steps you’ll need to achieve broader goals, including considering collaborations. Will you be relying on another team or department to achieve your goals? Will they be relying on you? As this article emphasizes, organizational psychology has found that specific goals lead to far greater effort and performance in the workplace than do general aims of improvement. It also facilitates communication between teams and employees. When you specify your goals, you set yourself and your coworkers up for success.
If you’re having trouble distilling general aims into specific goals, consult this resource produced by the University of California. This guide lists strong verbs, like “coordinate,” “update,” or “produce,” which can anchor a specific goal. It also lists some verbs to avoid, like “increase,” which will keep goals too general. That same guide also has a series of examples of specific goals for you to reference if you’re looking for a good model.
Sometimes, employees set relevant and specific goals, but they still fall short of success. Why? This strongly-worded article argues that the problem is with the way goals are set. This author actually argues that most goals set in the workplace are too achievable. In other words, they fail to challenge employees in any way, leading to disinterest and a lack of motivation. However, this article directed towards leaders warns that overly challenging goals can decrease morale and lead to a drop in productivity. So what’s the middle ground?
This article from MIT proposes a significant change to the way most workplaces perceive goal-setting. Set ambitious goals… and don’t expect to meet all of them. That may sound crazy, but there are some real benefits. On the one hand, this mindset allows employees to set professional goals that challenge themselves and include personal development. As that first article suggests, you’ll work harder towards your goals when you know there is opportunity for growth and learning. On the other hand, you won’t feel discouraged by failure to meet overly ambitious goals; you knew from the start that you wouldn’t meet all of them. Instead of feeling badly about falling short of high aims, you can adopt a growth mindset, as I explained in my previous blog post. So setting ambitious goals without pressure to achieve all of them is a win-win strategy for achievability!
Timing and Measurability
While these factors are sometimes considered separately, I think the wisdom on both can be combined. Essentially, whatever the framework, experts advise you to set goals with timelines and measurable outcomes to increase success. As this article suggests, your timeline and metrics should be designed to serve your goal, not vice versa. In other words, don’t set a goal in response to a looming, arbitrary deadline. Instead, set a priority for your work results, and then structure a timeline with deadlines to support achieving that goal.
Likewise, plan to measure your outcomes in a way that makes sense for your goal. As this article from MIT affirms, outcomes can be measured with quantitative or qualitative data. Both are valid. If you’re not finding the right kind of metrics to fit your goals, check this guide for several suggestions of data types and corresponding data collection methods. There’s no singular right timeline or measurement for achieving a goal. Set these expectations to serve your priorities.
Finally, having set relevant, specific, and appropriately achievable goals with corresponding timelines and metrics, publicize them. As this article argues succinctly, public commitment to goals increases personal commitment. Moreover, as this article from MIT describes, transparency around goals allows for more coordinated work between employees. If your goals are widely known, your supervisor and coworkers can offer feedback as you progress towards them. Instead of discovering a year after setting your goal that you’ve gone about it all wrong, you can correct your course along the way. Additionally, if other employees in your team or company have shared goals similar to your own, you can use them as a resource. Workers with similar goals can save time by collaborating and consulting together in pursuit of their goals.
I hope this post helps you evaluate the strength of your goals. Have you learned anything new? Planning to make any changes? Ready? Set goals!