In countless studies, when people are asked to ‘do their best’ they never do as well as people who set goals. But have you stopped to wonder why they are important? Because they give us a target? Because they motivate us? Now think about your own goals, or your team goals if you’re a leader. Do those goals really do what they are supposed to?
The Two Important Jobs of Goals
Goals aren’t worth setting if they don’t require special effort. I mean, I don’t set a goal every morning to eat breakfast – because that isn’t something that requires any effort (for me, anyway). Or the effort might be simply in the consistency. The action itself might be easy (eating a healthy breakfast) but the consistency might be the thing that is hard. The goal itself should be a consistent nudge that compels us to put in that effort, and to do that, they have to have two very important aspects.
Firstly, they have to guide our behaviours: they have to inform the decisions I make about which behaviours I choose. But this is pretty much built into the goal itself. If my goal is to write a book, it guides me to write, as opposed to binge watch Netflix.
The second aspect is more important. Goals should inspire us to put in the effort. They should inspire us to do that hard thing that will help us move closer to our goal.
The problem is that most goals fail miserably at completing this job.
Borrowed Goals: The Number One Hurdle
My experience is that most people don’t set goals that really inspire them. In the workplace this aspect becomes doubly important (because we need to motivate a whole group of people) but unfortunately is doubly un-inspiring. This happens because most people and teams operate on Borrowed Goals instead of Energized Goals.
Borrowed Goals are goals that we say we want to achieve merely because they seem like the right thing to say. Or alternatively – and this happens mostly in work teams – they are goals that people tell us we are supposed to achieve. Pressured by our peers, bosses or preconceptions, we feel we
“should’ think these achievements are important but, if we’re honest, they aren’t terribly energizing.
Review Your Goals. Now.
It’s human nature to set goals and then feel bad when they’re (we’re) off track. When you look at your goals, do you really feel that rush of dopamine that you should? If you do, then great – maybe you need to re-structure how your goals are set up (see our goal-planning template here). If they don’t inspire you, then maybe you need to revisit why you set them in the first place. Did you
feel they were the ‘right ones’ or maybe you haven’t connected the goal to the true reason why it is actually important to you.
If you’re a leader, then take a look at your team’s goals - and remember, what inspires you may not really inspire the people who work for you. If you have KPI’s and corporate goals, then chances are you need to do some work on connecting your people to these in a way that matters to them. Or maybe you should toss them out and decide a new goal that people actually do care about (the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive – achieving the one they care about will likely lead to nailing the corporate goal as well). Or even worse, if you rolled out the same goals as last year (with an extra few percent on top), then apologise to your team right now and do something about it.
It’s still pretty much the start of the year (this is being written in February). If you’re new year goals are already off track, chances are they are Borrowed Goals. To make it worse, you probably feel bad that you aren’t achieving them. Take a look now and work out if they are truly worth feeling bad about, and if not, maybe you need to be honest about what the goals actually should be.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.