Jude Tavanyar explains how to make goal-setting a successful process.


Fans of Helen Fielding’s lovable if misguided Bridget Jones character will remember the scene in The Edge of Reason when she throws all her self-help books away, realising that the assistance they promised in helping her lose weight and become a better person is entirely illusory. By the end of the film, Jones’ goal of marrying her Darcy is memorably achieved, not because she has successfully followed any kind of sensible process to woo him, but probably because she hasn’t. He loves her just as she is, and (since this is a comedy), inevitably takes the whole film to say so.

Why is goal-setting such a popular activity, and yet so often apparently pointless, if we compare outcomes with objectives? An easy answer is that for many of us it is exhilarating to contemplate change. The possibility of improving our lives, for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, is a key and compelling human motivator. It carries with it the promise of challenge; achieving something new; an exploration into the unknown; self-betterment; reward — all powerful, influential elements in propelling people towards setting new goals.

Why does goal-setting fail?

So why do we often fail ourselves? At its heart, effective goal-setting is about changing habits. Ray Williams writes in Psychology Today that: “Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted.”

Goal definition itself may also be a stumbling block. When people are asked to define the idea of “goals”, they are likely to come up with some astonishingly diverse responses. While “SMARTER” goal theory is well-known in corporate settings — that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely, possible to evaluate and (re-) evaluate — it seems that some of us are motivated and inspired by “bigger picture” long-term goals, while others prefer to think of goals as “objectives”, small steps which are tangible, practical and easy to get going. Goal-setting approaches that do not take into account this diversity of perspective are likely to come unstuck.

Organisational goal-setting

At the same time, managers and HR professionals are aware of the high importance of supporting goals and understanding the principles and feelings behind them. Even the most unlikely-sounding goal may be achievable if the person behind it knows exactly why they are doing it and what difference it will make, and is thus able to approach the goal with logic and with passion, a deeply-felt sense of the value it will bring. There is significant evidence that people are far more driven to achieve goals when they do so on behalf of their team rather than as an individual acting in isolation.

Knowing this may all seem unnecessary if your goal is simply negotiating a different brand of coffee for corporate board meetings; less so if that is the first practical step in a long-term strategy to influence high-level executives in your organisation more effectively. And that is another point in goal-setting theory: we need to have in mind not only the big vision, the “long-term goal”, but also the short-term, practical, tangible steps to get there — the professional “roadmap”, as it were.

Organisational goal-setting processes need to incorporate these distinctions, so that performance development tools enable exploration of “bigger picture”, abstract goals as well as shorter-term objectives. Managers and HR professionals need to explore the support structure around any individual’s performance goals, and the obstacles that will arise. They also need to understand the motivational drive behind any individual goal: what values does it connect with, and what meaning does it have for the person concerned? Above all, there is the key question — was the goal really generated by the individual or is it simply being imposed from above? Performance development goal-setting that ignores such questions is likely to evoke limited commitment in the medium to longer term at least.

Elliot Berkman’s goal-setting model

Elliot Berkman is a neuroscientist who argues that goal-setting should be approached as a three-step process. His model — AIM — links “antecedents” to goal-setting, integration and maintenance of goals in professional life.

Berkman argues that exploring “antecedents” to goal-setting includes creating “sticky” — memorable, striking — goals and linking these with a motivational behavioural trigger. Research studies have shown that when people can connect a physical gesture or phrase with a specific goal, developing a habit of repeating that action when necessary can keep them on track towards the goal. Neuro-linguistic programming techniques similarly highlight the value of a small physical gesture or word which helps to trigger commitment when the going gets tough.

How goals are conceptualised is of equal importance. Berkman highlights research that human motivation towards goal achievement may be based on “avoidance” or “approach” terminology — ensuring negative outcomes do not occur, or conversely ensuring positive goals are realised. This may sound like a subtle distinction, but neuroscience suggests that the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain is more active when thinking about approach goals, and the right more active when engaging in avoidance goals.

Thus, individuals who habitually use the left-brain hemisphere to influence decision-making are likely to be more aligned to a positive “approach”-based goal-setting terminology, while those who habitually use the right brain hemisphere with its intuitive and associative capabilities may be more aligned to “avoidance” goal-setting messages. It also suggests that while professional goals are often worded in “avoidance” terms — “I will ensure my team do not fail” — “approach” goals such as “I will support my team’s high performance” actually do appear to create greater engagement and show greater levels of success in the longer term.

Language, it appears, really does matter. Goal-setting messages that match individual differences in ways of analysing issues are essential and Berkman concludes that organisations need varying communications approaches to goal-setting, just as marketing experts would never rely on the same words to get their point across.

The long-term vision

Maintaining goals may be about sheer resilience, however measured. However, people who can retain the long-term vision or “why” behind their goal and the practicalities of “how” to maintain it are likely to be far more successful in doing so than people who habitually think only of the vision or the nuts-and-bolts of implementation.

Finally, “mindfulness” — the awareness of the embedded assumptions we habitually bring to goal-setting, both as motivational tactics and negative “spoilers” — is a critical element. “If I fail again, there’s no point in trying” is one such negative example. Being aware of these “mental blockers” is the first step towards finding ways to overcome their disabling message.


People who have been in extreme situations where unprecedented courage was called for will recognise something else: there are times when logic and planning has no place, where instant, adrenalin-charged intuition and self-belief is all we need to get us out of a fix. Those times don’t crop up frequently in corporate life, unless you’re planning to murder your boss or run off with the contents of the stationery cupboard. In which case, goal revision may be urgently in order.

Last reviewed 20 January 2014