To this point, we’ve discussed how self-appraisal can motivate you to improve your performance by revealing your self-efficacy, strengths, and weaknesses. We’ve also explored the three psychological needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) that we all have, and how a career can satisfy them. These concepts have provided ways to be more coachable by using self-derived feedback—such as your assessment of yourself and self-monitoring of performance—and having a learning mentality.
Equipped with your self-appraisal and an understanding of your needs, it is time to consult your manager about setting goals. When you enlist her support (establishing relatedness), she will use her acumen to work with you to develop and strengthen your autonomy and competence. Cooperating with your manager to orient where you are now and to plot a path to take control of your performance will negate any need for management to hound you, and more significantly, it will give you less reason to feel hounded. You will both do less mind-reading, make fewer presumptions, and communicate openly and clearly about how best you can serve the organization while it serves you. Your goals will provide data and self-reflections for coaching sessions, thereby preparing you for expected feedback. It will also prepare you for possible questions or comments that your manager may proffer. Thinking about learning and approaching mastery will instill a positive mentality as you enter the coaching conversation. In addition to reducing anxiety, open communication will help you make sense of your role in the big picture, allowing you to embrace as your own the organization’s values, interests, and strategies.
People can be very conflicted when it comes to goal setting because it requires them to think about and live in uncertainty. A fear of failure, of setting a goal and not meeting it, is a persistent and pervasive bugaboo. To protect our vulnerable psyche, we let our routines and habits train us, telling us how to respond in specific situations, how to interpret our interactions with others, and what to do at work. We encounter a familiar stimulus, and like Pavlov’s dogs, we salivate unknowingly. Change, as a disrupter of the status quo, can unnerve us, forcing us to reevaluate our approach to life, our attitudes, and for what we should take responsibility. Mark Twain famously said, “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper!” Perhaps, but as adults striving for career advancement and greater meaning in our lives, we are too often comfortable in career inertia, effectively wearing a wet diaper and—as I’ve seen my nephew do—running from those who want to help us despite ourselves.
Goal setting books and public speakers have done their best to flood us with the notion that we must have goals to succeed. The question is always why. Writers like alliteration; it makes them feel clever. So I propose that we think of goal setting in terms of purpose, process, and product. The purpose of a goal, according to psychologists, is to generate focus and sustain effort. The process is choosing challenging and specific goals (with your manager is best) and following a detailed plan to achieve them. The product is a better you, including a mindset that sees challenge as opportunity for growth and novelty as a stimulation for competence and autonomy.
Goals have positive effects on our well-being—lowering stress and tension, directing our mental energy toward positive ends, and developing our sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Psychologist Kennon M. Sheldon proposes that the “basic question becomes, can the individual correctly perceive his or her own needs and developmental trends, thereby generating self-concordant goals that will remain salient over time and, if attained will satisfy the person’s needs?” Goals are not external demands such as quotas. They are not constraints on your behavior—they exist to develop you, not envelop you. Goals help to establish autonomy, which in turn establishes more goals. It is an ongoing dynamic process of understanding who you are and imagining who you desire to become. Goals should be both proximal (near) and distal (far), meaning that you should plan and strategize for the short term (e.g. making ten prospect calls by the end of the day) and long term (e.g. getting a loan approved within a specified date). The proximal goal gives you instant feedback about your current performance, what you’ve done today compared to yesterday. These short term goals enable you to strategize because they show errors or gains caused by your current actions and approach. Distal goals give meaning and purpose to your career. They are answers to why questions. They consist of the accomplished distal goals, reformulated plans, and improved techniques. Goals are therefore standards for judging competence and achievement.
Having a goal is a product of doing a specific behavior to further another behavior in a time period. The general formula is: From x to y by when. Consider as an analogy how the GPS system on your phone helps you drive from Chicago to San Francisco in five days. First, it tells you specifically where you are, which gives you orientation and context. Second, when you program your destination, the GPS will show you a line from the starting point to the destination. It will tell you how long the route will take if you drive the speed limit. The route is often a long and serpentine path through uncertainty, following suggested turns and road changes, and taking you through various cities and terrain. If the GPS were to fail—gasp—you would be lost, especially if, like me, you don’t carry paper maps because they never fold properly. Third, when you see the line indicating in general terms where you will be going, the system offers to give you a detailed, step-by-step path to your destination. When you push start, the kindly woman with the schoolmarm voice guides you through unknown territory. Why do you trust in her wisdom? She’s got an authoritative voice and you can see how the micromanagement of the route makes sense according to the larger picture.
A goal is a form of self-regulation, providing the criteria by which you assess your current state in relation to other performance feedback, such as peer performance, management’s directives, or your production in the past. Psychologists David V. Day and Kerrie L. Unsworth explain the importance of self-regulation, which involves four key processes: (a) Goal establishment—adopting, adapting, or rejecting a goal; (b) Planning—processes involved in preparing to pursue a goal; (c) Striving—moving toward or maintaining a goal; and (d) Revision—processes involved in changes or disengagement from a goal.” Even if you don’t formally set goals, you unconsciously have them. The problem is, your goals will focus your attention toward negative achievements, such as doing enough to get by, meeting quota without aspirations to achieve more, not appearing incompetent, or hiding from the scrutiny of an observant manager.
We always have a purpose to our behavior, however dysfunctional and self-defeating it may be. We plan and self-monitor, even if we aren’t doing so for our professional development. Each of us, if his feet were put to the fire, could describe thoroughly all the ignored prospecting opportunities caused by a Cubs game, or the rushed and half-hearted fulfillment of our duties before Happy Hour. Planning your career development—which in turn plans for improved well-being—requires urgency. If you’re like me, you’ve got in your head a raucous crowd of potential projects and things you need to do. Too often I find myself making tomorrow the most productive day. In the seeming infinity of tomorrows, nothing ever needs to be done, because there’s always tomorrow.
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.
1. Kennon M. Sheldon, “The Self-Concordance Model of Healthy Goal Striving: When Personal Goals Correctly Represent the Person,” in Handbook of Self-Determination Research, ed. Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002), 68.
2. David V. Day & Kerrie L. Unsworth, “Goals and Self-Regulation,” in New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance, ed. Edwin A. Locke & Gary P. Latham (New York: Routledge), 159.