Goal setting is an effective and valuable way of steering and improving performance and affects behaviour or achievement in areas other than the workplace too. Several studies have shown that goal-setting can increase:

  • Learning
  • Job search success
  • Training transfer
  • Wellbeing
  • Physical activity
  • Fitness related outcomes

In fact, in a systematic review of 61 controlled studies, covering over 10,000 subjects, Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran (2007) found there was a significant correlation between goals and learning outcomes.

However, goal setting shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach – evidence suggests that the overuse of high goals can diminish an employee’s ability to control their feelings, thoughts and actions and unethical behaviour. This was especially likely when people fell just short of reaching their goals. Rather managers should use goal setting like a prescription requiring careful dosage and consideration to any harmful side effects.

Setting generic performance goals where everyone is assigned the same target proved to be less effective than individualised ability-based goals in a study by Jeffrey et al (2012).

Goals should be clear and specific – studies have shown this makes much more impact on performance than non-specific goals like “do your best”. Goals need to be difficult but realistic – in a randomised study by Corgnet et al (2015), it was found that workers who found their goals challenging increased performance by 40%, but there was no marked difference in performance for those who were set easy to achieve goals.

Where specific and challenging goals work less well is in complex tasks, where they can have a negative effect. In roles where people need to regularly do things that are novel or unique or process unfamiliar information, vague, general “do your best” type goals are more effective, as are behaviour and learning based goals.

The common train of thought suggests that self-set goals are more effective at driving performance, but this is not necessarily the case. The power of assigned goals can be far stronger – they’re tied to some form of external expectation, control of evaluation and can actually be more motivating in terms of performance, although self-set goals are more beneficial to wellbeing, autonomy and satisfaction. We’d suggest using a combination of the two.

Our personality also makes a big difference when considering goal setting. Those who are more inclined towards learning respond better to goals than those who prefer outcomes. Higher goals tend to be set by those who are confident they can succeed, have high self-efficacy, high cognitive ability, and also by those who are more conscientious in how they go about their work. Those with neurotic personalities tend to set lower goals for themselves.

In addition, those who consider themselves to be unique and different from others and view themselves in terms of their personal ability, preference or values gravitate towards individual goal setting, whereas those who are more depending on their relationship with others will prefer group goals.

One final point, in a study by Harkin et al (2016) there was very strong evidence that regular monitoring of progress has an important influence on achieving goals, so couple those goals with regular reviews.

Do you have questions about goal setting?

Give us a call at CUBE HR on 01282 678321, we’ll be happy to advise you and we have policies and templates available to meet every HR need.

Why not check out our blog on a similar topic Key Performance Indicators.

We also have a YouTube channel with loads of handy videos