Goal setting is perceived as a necessary step for coaching. However, goal setting could lead to downsides in learning.

The Downside of Goal Setting: What You Need to Know

April 12, 2023

Posted by Alexandra Lamb

What is goal setting? Goal setting is perceived as a necessary step for coaching. It’s a time-tested place where coaching begins, building on the concept that ‘what gets measured gets done’ - as we want to ensure coaching is outcome-focused and continues to get funded by businesses, we need to continue to use goal setting as a best practice in coaching. However, we need to sufficiently review cases where goal setting leads to downsides in learning. While the intention is to support motivation and performance, goal setting can sometimes be alienating and, in fact, cause a reverse in performance.

To start with, it makes sense to set goals when a coachee has control over their work, and feels like they have efficacy in impacting outcomes. When a performance goal involves a stretch and the challenge is exciting but reasonably within reach, then goals should have their positive intended outcome. But most of us in the corporate world know this isn’t the majority of our work experience. More often than not, we don’t have a complete sense of control, and in fact, sometimes, our work outcomes can seem like they’re up to fate. In situations of chaos, goal setting can have a backfiring effect.

Considerations for Goal Setting

Poorly thought-through goals can actually backfire when it comes to development and performance. It’s so important to be considerate up front as to the type of goal, the anatomy of the goal, and how it is adapted to the career stage and personality of the individual. Some considerations include:

Is this an APPROACH goal or an AVOIDANCE goal?

Is the coachee trying to move towards something (a behaviour or relationship or responsibility for example) or are they trying to circumvent something? For the purpose of coaching, and approach goal is more beneficial. 

Is this an extrinsically motivated goal, or intrinsically?

In reality, there’s a lot of research demonstrating that all goals are extrinsically motivated at their essence, but there are certainly intrinsic motivations that are more powerful for grounding the goal setting process. For example, a development goal based on the values alignment of the coachee is more powerful than one anchored in getting rewards for performance.

Potential Downsides When Setting Goals

  1. Unrealistic Expectations: Setting unrealistic or overly ambitious goals can lead to frustration, disappointment, and, ultimately, giving up on the goal entirely.
  2. Lack of Flexibility: Goals can sometimes become rigid, causing individuals to stick to a plan even if circumstances change, which can be detrimental to progress.
  3. Tunnel Vision: When individuals become too focused on achieving a specific goal, they may overlook other important aspects of their life or work, causing burnout and reduced overall satisfaction.
  4. Pressure and Stress: Pursuing ambitious goals can create high levels of pressure and stress, which may lead to negative health outcomes and reduced overall well-being.
  5. Competition and Comparison: When goals are shared among a group or team, individuals may feel pressure to compete and compare themselves to others, which can lead to negative self-perception and resentment towards others.

So, in the face of chaos, what kind of goals are actually beneficial for coaching?

Woman smiling while writing down her personal and professional goals

Choosing Learning Goals Over Outcome Goals

Generally speaking, when there’s a lack of control in the workplace, and some of these challenges are apparent for a coachee, learning goals should be used as opposed to outcomes or performance goals (aka OKRs and KPIs). A learning goal is a specific objective or target that a coachee aims to achieve through development experience to improve their skills, knowledge, and performance in a particular area.

Learning goals can be short-term or long-term, and they can be focused on specific skills, knowledge, behaviours, or attitudes. For example, a leader may set a learning goal to improve their writing skills or to learn a new language, while a new manager may set a learning goal to improve their delegation skills or to gain expertise in a particular area of their field.

Setting clear learning goals can help individuals stay motivated, focused, and accountable for their own learning and development. It also allows them to measure their progress and celebrate their achievements along the way. Focusing on learning goals is about ‘inputs’ and development effort as opposed to outcomes, and these learning processes should be well within a coachee's grasp. Focusing on learning gives the coachee a chance to regain their self-efficacy, and build back towards taking on other goals.

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Beyond SMART Goals: Intentions Rather Than Goals

In coaching, we see that some personality types are more abstract, and prefer not to be pinned down to something as tidy and structured as SMART goals. For certain coachees, we find a lot of pushback in the goal-setting process. At this point, the coach can attempt to ‘force’ the coachee into goal setting, and may indeed see their avoidance as a defence mechanism, or the coach may reflect that individual preferences are actually important, and seek to find other ways to work with the coachee which are measurable and development focused, but without restricting the coachee to a goal. 

Instead of forcing smart goal setting and stoking resistance in a coachee, coaches might shift to focus on intentions. This may seem like goals as another name, but the elegance of an intention may give some personality types the opportunity to explore learning outcomes and define their objectives without restricting themselves to a goal model. This opens a legitimate conversation with a coachee, which can also stoke motivation and determination to perform. Rather than focusing on performance outcomes, we focus on the motivations of the coachee, and this is a means of engaging them to achieve. 

There are multiple ways to explore goals - how they’re set, what type of goals a coachee has, how much stretch they involve and etc. - but it’s worth considering how and when a coach might ‘take their foot off the gas’ with a goal in order to work with a coachees style and maintain focus on achieving performance. Personal goal setting isn’t for everyone, and a good coach knows how to moderate this process.

Utilise Goal-Setting the Right Way!

If you're facing challenges with goal setting or coaching, don't hesitate to reach out to the experts at BOLDLY! Remember to carefully evaluate the situation and potential downsides before setting goals, focusing on learning objectives as an alternative in situations of chaos or lack of control. Consider shifting your focus to intentions rather than concrete goals. And if you want to learn more about improving your coaching techniques, please contact us at connect@boldly.app. Our team of experts is always ready to help.

About the Author:

Alexandra Lamb is an accomplished organisational development practitioner, with experience across APAC, North America, and MENA. With 20+ years in professional practice, conglomerates, and startups, she has collaborated with rapid-growth companies and industry innovators to develop leaders and high-performance teams. She is particularly experienced in talent strategy as a driver for business growth. Drawing from her experience in the fields of talent management, psychology, coaching, product development, and human-centred design, Alex prides herself on using commercial acumen to design talent solutions with true impact.

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