Your goals: for performance or learning? Concrete, or more abstract?

May 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Do you prefer your goals to be about learning or about performance? And phrased in concrete terms, or more abstract?

Setting goals is inherent in our culture and in our practice – whether  they’re an organisation’s mission aims and objectives, or how we manage ourselves through the to-do list each day.

From my own experience, I know that both short- and long-term goals can inspire me into effective action; but they don’t always work.

So I enjoyed very much a recent lecture for the Quakers and Business network, David Megginson, Emeritus Professor of Human Resource Development, Sheffield Hallam University. He shared some interesting emerging evidence, that goals in themselves may be unhelpful in certain situations; and that different kinds of goals may suit different temperaments [1].

For example, goals may be unnecessarily limiting if they are too specific, carry too heavy a penalty for failure (in organisational terms, or for my own self-esteem), or if I don’t have a say in defining them, such as a goal given to me by my manager, or if it is an organisation-wide goal inappropriately translated for my own work priorities) [2]. I meet goals like this sometimes in my coaching practice, if someone has been ‘told’ to come to coaching to remedy apparent defects in performance.

So to the questions in the title of this piece. If you think about a goal or a hope you set yourself recently, how does it fit these categories:

  • Was it a goal which could be reached in time or achievement (proximal) or further ahead in the future (distant)?
  • Was it a concrete, specific goal; or was it phrased in more abstract terms?
  • Do you see yourself as approaching your goal (“The ideal livelihood I want is…”); or is the goal phrased as avoidance (“I want to overcome feeling underconfident when I’m meeting the Board”)
  • Are your goals about performance (How do I…); or are they about learning[3]

You may find that goals of a specific type work for you more times than not – for example, goals that are distant, concrete, which approach an desired outcome and which are about performance.

Or you may find that different types work for you in different situations – between personal or professional goals; or goals for daily achievements alongside a longer-term hoped-for change.

One other factor also to take a moment to think about.

If you have consciously used goals in the past, what has been your experience? Did they work; or not? (remember that goals that work may lead to effective action and valued outcomes, even if they were not the intended outcomes).

And in addition to whether goals have worked for you in the past, Professor Megginson has identified some other factors which influence our progress towards our own goals:

  • How strong is my motivation – how important to me is achieving this goal?
  • How good is my contextual awareness: how accurate is my picture of external factors that may help or hinder achievement?
  • Is this goal mine? Who shares it with me or has a stake in its outcome?
  • Do I believe that I can see, feel or touch the outcome?
  • Will I be able to measure or assess the outcome?
  • Is the goal aligned with my personal values: does it have inner “sense of rightness”?

I am finding it helpful to critique my own goals in the light of my own learning about what kinds of goals work best for me; and finding – as I believe it does for my coaching clients – greater commitment to the right kind of goals in both professional and personal contexts.


[1] See Susan David, David Clutterbuck & David Megginson, Beyond goals, 2013, Aldershot, Gower (forthcoming).

[2] Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.E., Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systemic side- effects of overprescribing goal setting, Academy of Management Perspectives, February,6-16

[3] Grant, A.M. (2007). When own goals are a winner. Coaching at Work, 2(2), 32-35.

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§ 2 Responses to Your goals: for performance or learning? Concrete, or more abstract?

  • Faye Bussin says:

    I believe the type of goals set depend on the situation, the person and their beliefs. Having said that, their beliefs need to be examined as to whose beliefs they truly are. So many people are not aware of from where their beliefs have come – parental, educational etc. They need to ask themselves; is this my belief or that of someone else? I find myself often asking this question and looking into its origin. The answer will help me see whether a goal is achievable and whether it is actually my own goal.

    • John Gray says:

      Yes, that’s an interesting point, Faye. If my belief is “I can’t…” or “I’m not good enough…” or “I’m not the person who…. (though really I’d quite like to be!)”, who’s voice is talking?; naming its author, and learning to contradict or neutralise the voice, can help to move the self into more autonomy.

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