In last month’s article I explained the importance of self-appraisal, the process by which you form accurate beliefs about your ability to accomplish what you set out to do (self-efficacy). This understanding of your capabilities and skills illuminates what needs to be learned and acquired. As you embark on an ongoing quest for increased competence and mastery, a learning mentality opens you to new experiences and challenges, and makes you resilient against perceived threats to your self-efficacy beliefs. Your development is a matter of identifying your present career situation, considering where you want to be and how you want to see yourself, and devising an action plan and setting goals that will facilitate your development in this direction. The word development can mean to unfold, unfurl, uncover, reveal, bring to light, discover, detect, or find out. With these verbs in mind, to develop means much more than simply showing up to the office.
Development is enhanced when others contribute their wisdom and support, and you open yourself to accepting them. This is being coachable, and it comes into play when you schedule a meeting with your manager to discuss your career goals in relation to your self-appraisal. You’re coachable when you consider goals to be drivers of your development, sources of valuable information, and tools for improved communication with management, instead of loathsome ways that “they” use to control and reprimand you.
A coachable person enters the coaching moment well informed of her current competence, performance, and skill levels. She is convinced that management values her development and considers her worthy of investment. To clear the air of debilitating assumptions, she explicitly talks to her manager about her self-appraisal and self-efficacy beliefs. She demonstrates how she has evaluated herself, shows that she is committed to improved performance and, as part of this, intends to follow a goal-oriented process. She makes it obvious that she has a career in mind, not simply a job. She enters the meeting with goals that are specific, attainable, and time bound. She has learning goals that will improve her competence, rather than limited performance goals that prove or disprove her skill level. She has written her goals and translated the desired outcome (e.g. to close more sales) into tasks to be endeavored in the short term (e.g. schedule and conduct 10 face-to-face meetings per week). She explains to her manager that her written goals will create what St. Meyer and Hubbard calls a “cadence of expectations, accountability, and feedback.” She asks her manager to help her create an action plan that will align her most important goals (or “wildly important goals”) to specific behaviors. She is open to her manager’s input about the goals she has selected as they relate to her current performance. She is prepared to evaluate the veracity of her perspective without being defensive or ego-involved.
The discussion with your manager about your goals indicates that you are devoted to the organization and your role within it. It reveals that you are determined to approach challenges as steps toward higher competence and mastery. Involve your manager in your development by soliciting from him/her the organizational and personal support you will need to achieve your goals. Ask for a consistent and frequent coaching schedule to assess progress relative to your goals and analyze your strategies in terms of component tasks and their results.
The Anxiety of Freedom
At the start of the new year, millions of Americans declare their goal of “getting in shape.” This is a laudable goal, to be sure, but what does it take to get in shape and how does one take control over this desired outcome? A vague goal such as “getting in shape” isn’t really a goal because it lacks specificity and a time orientation. Also lacking is a process that, if followed regularly, will direct your actions, focus your efforts, and inform you about progress and needed revisions. For a goal to be more than a wish, it takes a plan of specific actions under your control that will catalyze goal striving by clarifying what needs to be done in the short term to accomplish your more general and distant goals.
Goal directed physical exercise is a good parallel for career goal setting because it is composed of many and diverse actions in the short term that, by their routine performance, bring about a broad long-term outcome goal. Let’s ponder a personal example. Like many others, I have a goal of getting in shape. To accomplish this, I have a broad goal of exercising regularly. This breaks down to frequency of exercise sessions per week, the intensity, and duration. Showing up at the gym is a broad goal under my control, and what I do when I’m there consists of other, more specific goals that I’ve autonomously set for myself. For example, my favorite exercise is the elliptical machine, a cardiovascular exertion that I find challenging. As I step onto the elliptical machine, I set a specific goal for the number of calories I want to use. I set the time and level of difficulty to a strenuous level, and then I begin the exercise. I measure my progress by watching the machine’s monitor, which displays five metrics that it is tracking: distance, calories, mets, strides per minute, and heart rate. Distance, heart rate, and calories are outcomes, and mets are something I should have learned about in high-school. The most important variable for my goal of burning calories is strides per minute, because I have direct control over how fast I move my legs. This specific activity directly affects my desired caloric output. I now have a goal and a way to monitor my progress.
Eventually, with enough diligence, I can achieve my goals with less effort and, therefore, set newer, more challenging goals. With my improved condition, I can incorporate other difficult exercises. Physical gains will follow, but the psychological benefits are just as significant. Throughout this process of goal setting, striving, and revision, I am gratifying my psychological need for autonomy, control over my health, self-determination, and progress toward aspirational realization.
After the initial zeal of your new year resolution has been frozen by February’s harsh realities, as you languish in winter’s gloom, it is easy to forget why you thought getting in shape was so important. Every day something else contests with exercise for your energy. Undeniably, no matter how busy you are, you are free to exercise daily, even if the duration must be very brief. Exercise doesn’t require a gym or machines; all that’s required is your physical exertion. Before February is over, you realize that pursuing your fitness goals forces you into situations in which you must decide to go to the gym despite being tired or head home instead for the couch’s warm embrace. This is the anxiety of freedom: knowing that your goals are attainable only if you freely choose to put in the effort.
Things are somewhat different at work, as far as choice and physical presence are concerned. The daily process at work involves less freedom and a certain amount of inevitability. Similar to exercise, however, work requires goal setting, effort, persistence, self-discipline, and accountability. Both exercise and work involve a process of stimulus and response. At the gym the exercise and its intensity are the stimulus, and your body responds by altering itself to match the demands. At work the stimuli come from customers, prospects, coworkers, the work environment, and how you interpret your experiences. Your mind adapts to these stimuli and forms expectations, perceptions, and attitudes.
In any endeavor we should focus on what we can control. The most important thing we control in life is the chatter between our ears. Our thinking and self-narration are paramount because a successful and fulfilling career isn’t a product of impersonal economic forces or the innate skills you possess. Career development starts with having a learning mentality that finds opportunity for improvement and growth even in failures and errors.
Once you’ve adopted a learning mentality, and are completely confident that your organization values your development, you can begin to envision a possible self who is more competent, less stressed, and frequently invigorated by the rhythms and processes of work. You are free to strive for this imagined better self, setting difficult and specific goals, and committing to your development in the near and distant future. This freedom can produce anxiety as you realize that the source of causality and control is within you. In other words, you control the distance between your possible better self and your actual self, and only you can motivate yourself to shorten the gap.
Excuse making, ego-defensive interpretations of events, and relinquishing perceived control over your life are all methods for suppressing the anxiety that comes from realizing that you choose to avoid or approach challenges, to view your career either as a limited endeavor controlled by other people (your boss, customers, co-workers) or impersonal forces (the economy, society), or as a learning process of mastery and promotion. A developmental mindset considers challenges and expectations to be nurturing, and therefore views setbacks as learning opportunities rather than failures. It is not a matter of proving that you possess certain skills and preventing the exposure of deficiencies.
During the goal setting process, use your internal standards as measures of your commitment and effort. Set subgoals to be accomplished in the short term, which will help by providing performance markers that direct your striving, focus your attention, and establish the parameters of revision and self-control. Proximal and subgoals allow you to monitor your behavior on a daily basis, thereby allowing you to adjust your tactics for better performance or to reinforce your self-efficacy and autonomy.
As in physical exercise, a career goal isn’t something that, once reached, can be cast aside triumphantly with the exclamation: “I did it! I’m done!” Career and exercise goal striving are processes in which the gains of the past are still essential to those of the future. Once you’ve reached your goal, the goal setting and striving process isn’t over. The point at which you have reached your goal becomes the starting point for a new action plan.
At this point, you may not be convinced that goal setting is important. You can take my word for it, or you can consider recent research done by St. Meyer and Hubbard. We surveyed bankers to see the relation between goal setting and goal achievement. Of the top 20% of performers surveyed, 100% reported having written goals, 95.2% focus on less than three “wildly important goals,” 86.2% have an individual action plan that aligns their wildly important goals to a few important sales behaviors, and 71.1% use the action plan as part of a cadence of expectations, accountability, and feedback. Of the bottom 20% of performers surveyed, 16.2% responded that they have written goals, 2.5% focus on less than three wildly important goals, and 0% reported having an action plan. [Source: St. Meyer and Hubbard, “Sales Benchmark 2015”]
Based on their responses, the bottom 20% aren’t coachable because they lack the individual focus and discipline that goal setting provides. They haven’t taken control of their career; apparently they find just showing up to be sufficient for achievement and distinguishing themselves at the office. Perhaps they have been assigned quotas that they consider goals. Their relation to management is ambiguous and tenuous because they cannot display that they autonomously seek to improve their performance by learning new skills and sharpening those they already have. They don’t practice the disciplines of execution (focus, alignment, measurement, accountability), which necessitates that the manager monitor their work with the potential for dysfunctional heavy-handedness and miscommunication. Their conversations with coaches or managers are unstructured because they have no action plan. This complicates and hinders their relation to management because feedback could be considered arbitrary chiding. They have failed to identify the metrics that matter and the key performance indicators, thereby signaling to management that the ship has no navigator and no map. They have invited others to take control of their career, and seem not to consider acquiring skills to be part of the job description.
Next month’s article will continue our exploration of goals. I will discuss how goal setting is related to motivation, and how motivation is related to performance.
Dr. Joseph St. Meyer has earned bachelor's degrees in psychology from the University of Iowa and in history from Northern Illinois University. In 2013, Dr. St. Meyer was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. His intellectual training focuses on the origins and developments of modern psychology, philosophy, and politics. He has taught at Stanford University and delivered research papers at universities nationally and internationally. Dr. St. Meyer is a senior consultant at St. Meyer & Hubbard. He writes about coaching and coachability, especially the relationship between thought processing and performance.