Is Your Goal Setting Hurting You Or Helping You?

Goals, goals, goals. We all have them, and yet not all of us achieve them. In this post, I wanted to unpack the good, the bad and the ugly of goal setting to help you use them more effectively in your work life. Whether you’re in charge of hundreds of people or just in charge of yourself, you’ll discover how setting goals can take you forward or set you back.

Here's a story to help illustrate this crucial, yet often misunderstood business skill...

Harper was fuming. Even though she’d just finished in the top 20% of her age group in the Sydney triathlon, she was feeling like a loser. She’d done lots of training, had a running coach, swimming coach, cycling coach. She'd put in the hours (there was no doubt about that), and yet she felt not only disappointed with her performance, she also felt empty.

As Harper was heading to the recovery station she heard her name being yelled out.

“Hey, Harper, you legend! Well done!”

Harper knew that voice from somewhere. She looked around and couldn’t believe her eyes. Her fifty-something year old boss had just crossed the finishing line.

“Oh, my goodness, Matina! You must have been just a minute behind me. I didn’t even know you were into triathlons!” said Harper incredulously.

“I know, it’s a new sport for me, a new challenge to help me stop thinking about the business,” remarked Matina.

“But how did you become so fast so quickly? I’ve been training and competing for years and yet you were just behind me?” asked Harper.

“Hah, this old girl’s got a few tricks up her sleeve. But why are you looking so glum, you were pretty quick yourself?”

“Oh, I always get this way. I seem to set a big goal of finishing in the top 20 and then don’t, and I feel like the whole thing has been a waste of time,” replied Harper.

“Sounds like a big outcome goal, but what was your process or performance goal?” asked Matina.

“Huh? I don’t know what that means.”

“Hmmm… what’s it worth to you if I share you some of secrets around this with you, Harper? Will I get you to work next weekend on the Hastings project?”

“Awww, come on! That’s not fair. You know I work hard!”

“Only joking! Tell you what, you buy me lunch at work on Monday and l’ll share some stuff I learnt with you. Deal?”

“You’re on!” said Harper, as she gave Matina a sweaty high-five.

As Harper headed off to collect her bike and all her other gear, she wondered how her boss had competed so well. Then again, as she thought about how successful her company was and the types of contacts Matina had, she wouldn’t be surprised if she had some friend who was a performance guru in her corner. Unlike most weekends, she couldn’t wait for Monday to come so she could learn all about it.

Monday’s lunch couldn’t come fast enough for Harper, and despite throwing herself at her activities, she was still thinking about how quick her boss was in that triathlon.

Two tuna soba noodle salads arrived at the table.

“Okay, so what’s your secret, Matina?”

”You’re always eager to get to the point aren’t you, Harper. Well, you might not know this, but many years ago, when I went out on my own to set up this company, I helped a psychologist who was trying to drum up more business, and in turn, he helped me. A long story made short, I was getting frustrated with the rate of growth of my business and I was thinking of packing it up and going back to work for my old employer.  Luckily, a friend of mine knew of a young performance psychologist called Jack Kalowski, who was just starting out, and put us in touch with each other. Quite quickly, we realised we would be charging each other the same amount of money, so we agreed to do some contra business so that we both could spend our money on our rent and other essential business stuff.”

“I created a brand and marketing strategy and set up some advertising for Jack, while he helped me get clear about setting goals and having the right performance mindset. Jack already had a couple of elite Olympic athletes as his clients, but he needed more to make his business sustainable.”

“So, was he a sport psychologist or a performance psychologist, Matina?” asked Harper.

“What I discovered is that they’re the same thing, really. The only difference is in the competition environment. For me, my environment was the market place, yet for the athletes, it might have been the swimming pool. One of the biggest things I learnt was in goal setting. Nearly everyone has what is called an ‘outcome goal’. Say, for example, ‘to win the Sydney triathlon’ or ‘to hit a specific sales target for the quarter’. While having an ‘outcome goal’ is important, most of the time, it’s something that is beyond the control of the person. In the bike leg of a triathlon, for example, you might get a flat tire or have a crash. In sales, you might find that the market has just been inundated with a new competing product or an increase of the international value of the currency might make export sales drop significantly.”

“What about if the goal isn’t realistic to start with?” asked Harper.

“That’s another part to it, too. At that time, I had an ‘outcome goal’ with a ridiculous sales figure. So, at the end of each week, each month and each quarter I was getting more depressed about the lack of results I was getting and becoming more desperate to try to make the sales work. The first thing that Jack got me to do was ask me about my process goals.”

“Process goals are the steps you need to take to achieve the goal. Jack told me that I had been operating as an ego-orientated entrepreneur versus a task-orientated entrepreneur. He likened it to the ego-orientated athlete who’s only extrinsically motivated. That is, ‘I will feel good or be happy when I win the race’ versus the task-orientated athlete who is intrinsically motivated by doing an activity or task to the best of their ability.” 

“Sounds like I’m an ego-orientated athlete,” said Harper despairingly.

“It’s not hard to change. All you need is to get clear of your process goals. Way back, Jack helped me get clear about what processes I needed to nail daily, weekly and monthly. One of the critical process goals I had was around creating publicity pieces each week. It was very specific and easy to measure. I still remember it now - ‘to write 200 words each Monday on a current hot business topic and tie it back to a marketing principle’. One of my process goals for the triathlon’s bike leg was to find a big fast man and then to draft behind him for as long as possible so he would give me a good wind block."

“Gosh, I never thought of doing something like that,” said Harper.

“The other type of goal that Jack got me setting was performance goals. This is how you want to feel while doing your process goals. For me, at the time, at work, I was feeling stressed out and desperate and I wasn’t having any fun. I wanted to make work feel fun, exciting and as if I was born to do it. So, I created a work performance goal of working with a fun, kooky mindset and doing things intuitively”, finished Matina.

“Did it work?” asked Harper.

“Really? You work for arguably the best boutique marketing ideas agency in the country and you’re asking if it worked?”

“Erghh, I guess what I mean is how long did it take until you started to see your outcome results change?”

“Things started to shift pretty quickly, yet it was probably around 12 weeks later that I finally hit my outcome goal. The thing is though, I really didn’t care about the outcome goal, because I knew deep down that if I was hitting my process goals and performance goals not only was I enjoying myself, but I also knew I would be getting the results”

“I’ve got to head back to the office for a client meeting soon, but I just want to make sure you're clear about what you should be doing with your goal setting, Harper,” asked Matina.

Harper thought for a brief moment and started to recall what she had learnt.

“Okay, first off, an outcome goal is a results-based goal that is outside of my control, but should be achievable. Second, a process goal is based around the steps I will take to achieve my outcome goal and third, a performance goal is how I want to feel as I go about executing the process steps.”

“You’ve nailed it, Harper. Now that you’re clear about that, later this week, I want you to run a session with the whole team to create a new outcome, process and performance goal for the quarter, and don’t forget to pay for the salads,” said Matina cheekily as she headed for the door.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our performance psychology story. In our workshops, programs and mentoring, we know the power of effective goal setting processes and the problems that can happen if you’re not using the right one. If you’re interested in a workshop program or mentoring session, contact us.



nils vesk