Goal Setting – Forget the hype, what does the research say?

If you put ‘goal setting’ through a search engine you will find thousands of coaches, bloggers, consultants and writers extolling the benefits of having goals. Some will even claim that you can achieve anything through goals.

There is much evidence to say this is a valid claim. Most people in the public eye, having achieved great wealth, celebrity status or recognition for genuine talents, will speak of the goals that have driven them to their success. Others speak of how goals helped them overcome illness or disability.

Whilst I agree that goal setting is a powerful tool, I am very nervous when people start claiming that anyone can become anything that they wish through goal setting. This simply isn’t true. Amazing things can be achieved by anyone, but only within the limitations of their own abilities. No amount of goal setting will make a world-class singer out of someone who is tone-deaf. No amount of time studying economics will make a billionaire out of someone who doesn’t have intuitive business acumen.

Much can be achieved through goal setting, but let’s not get carried away, lest we create masses of disappointment and disillusionment. You see this every day on reality TV shows with people wanting to be famous with talents they don’t possess.

So, what can we achieve through goal setting and what is the evidence for its power?

Let’s start with a quick review of the key research that evidences goal setting as a useful personal development tool. The grand-daddy of goal setting research has got to be Edwin Locke. He has studied the processes and results of goal setting within organisations for over 40 years. More recent papers have been written by Medin & Green (2009) and Bipp & Kleingeld (2010). Here is a quick summary of the research carried out by Locke et al (1981):

A review of both laboratory and field studies on the effects of setting goals when performing a task found that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilzing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development [i.e. different ways of achieving the goal].

Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging, the subjects have sufficient ability…feedback is provided to show progress in relation to the goal, rewards such as money are given for goal attainment, the experimenter or manager is supportive, and assigned goals are accepted by the individual.

Medlin and Green found that goal setting positively impacts employee engagement, employee engagement positively impacts optimism, and optimism positively impacts individual performance.

Bipp and Kleingeld looked at the impact of two key personality traits. They found that conscientiousness (the capacity for self-control in terms of planning, organization, and task accomplishment) was an important factor in goal attainment. They also found that neuroticism (a trait whereby people have difficulties reacting properly to stressful situations and are fearful, nervous, and unstable) negatively impacted goal commitment.

Moving out of the organisation, where goals are often set by management, how can these findings inform our view of goal setting by individuals for themselves?

Let’s list the key points:

Dealing with the last piece of quoted research first, develop a positive, can-do attitude towards your goals. If you are currently positive and full of confidence then you are good to go. If not, then this positive attitude can sometimes come about simply through a change of attitude; the proverbial ‘I gave myself a good talking too!’.

However, if you consider yourself to have neurotic tendencies, it is well-worth speaking to a professional counselor or psychiatrist about positively modifying this underlying personality trait. Setting stretching goals inevitably involves hard work, often involves stepping outside your comfort zone and almost always involves failure and set backs along the way. If you don’t have the capacity to deal with these set backs, you will struggle to keep going. Failing may also make your neurotic tendencies worse.

So, if in doubt seek professional help or at least speak to a qualified coach before embarking on an ambitious goal setting programme. That said, you are effectively setting a goal to speak to someone about your neuroticism, so success can be yours early in the process!

Next, goals should be specific and challenging. Goals that are detailed in their description and stretch you beyond what you have achieved before, are best.

However, they shouldn’t be too stretching because you must have sufficient ability to achieve the goal. If you don’t have the ability right now then you can set another, sub-goal, to gain this ability. Remember though, you can’t acquire any ability. It has to be within your natural range of acquirable skills (if you are tone-deaf, you are not likely to improve your singing much).

You should gather feedback on your progress on a regular basis. Revisit your goals regularly and check progress. Adjust your plans, or your goal, if you are off-track.

Achievement of the goal may be reward enough but I would suggest you allow yourself mini-rewards along the way. Set milestones and reward yourself when you hit them. Maybe a break from your work for 20 minutes, a glass of wine or a shopping trip. Make sure you celebrate with style when the main goal is achieved.

Find a buddy to work with. This can be through a formal coaching relationship or through working with a friend that you trust. The trust is very important. Your buddy must not judge you, or your goals, in any way. They must encourage and challenge constructively. They should never put doubt in your mind. Share your goals with a few people, but again, only with people you trust to encourage you. Sharing your goals deepens the commitment; you will have others to report to and will have created deadlines and stakeholders.

Make sure you actually want to achieve the goal. This might sound counterintuitive. Why would you set a goal you didn’t want to achieve? Actually, many people do this. I have done it myself. These are the goals that come from others’ expectations of us; what we think we should be doing; how we think we should be behaving in order to gain the approval of others. When I lay out my recommended goal setting process, I will detail how we can check whether the goals we set are aligned to our real needs and wants.

Whilst goal setting naturally increases optimism, it is wise to protect this optimism as much as possible from the inevitable failures along the way. If you don’t fail at some point on your journey then you probably aren’t setting sufficiently stretching goals. Break the goal into manageable chunks. Recognise that failure to achieve one chunk is not necessarily failure to achieve the overall goal. Find another way to achieve the chunk and move on. Critically, learn from your failures. It has been said that the only real failure in life is to keep repeating your failures.

Finally, conscientiously attack your plan. If your are looking for the easy route to success; if you are looking to achieve your goals with little or no effort, then don’t bother setting stretching goals. You will more than likely fail. Make it your aim to take one step, no matter how small, towards your goals every day.

So, we have 12 key points to consider when setting goals. Use these to review any goal setting activities you may already have under way or to critique other advisors’ goal setting processes.

Many of you will no doubt have come across the SMART or SMARTER goal setting or objective setting acronyms. Several versions are in circulation and all are useful but none cover all 11 points outlined above.

In future posts I will be setting out my preferred goal setting process. I may even think about creating a useful acronym of my own! Either way, you can be sure the process I will outline takes account of all these 11 points and is born out of years of practice with my own goal setting successes and failures, and those of others.

Thanks for reading.


Locke, E. A., et al (1981) Goal Setting and Task Performance: 1969 to 1980. Psychological Buletin, Vol. 90, No. 1, pp 125 – 152.

Medlin, B. & Green, K. W. (2009) Enhancing Performance through Goal Setting, Engagement, and Optimism. Industrial Management & Data Systems, Vol. 109, No. 7, pp 943 – 956.

Bipp, T. & Kleingeld, A. (2010) The Effects of Personality and Perceptions of the Goal Setting Process on Job Satisfaction and Goal Attainment. Personnel Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp 306 – 323.

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2 Responses to Goal Setting – Forget the hype, what does the research say?

  1. This is an excellent article that I can use to help my team grow. Thank you very much for this.

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