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A guide to employee goal-setting


The key to productive CPD is goal-setting. Author Robert Kelsey elaborates.

Why do so many employees start out so well – highly focused on their ambitions within the company – and then, after a year or so, become just one-more drone in the workplace? Listless, time-serving, unambitious and uninterested. Other than the attrition of time and familiarity, what is it the sucks the enthusiasm and appetite out of such a high percentage of the workforce? 

No aspirations?

Could it be they lack goals – by which I mean long-term, career- and life-developing goals rather than targets or appraisals? And not just goals within the company, but personal, long-term, life-affirming goals that motivate them to not only undertake work projects to the best of their ability but to also see their work in the wider context of their entire lives.

Setting goals allows employees to view their role – any role – as part of a journey towards somewhere they want to go. Certainly, if we divide any workplace into those with goals and those without – almost certainly the best workers will be on the “goal-setters” side, even if they’re also the ones HR departments fret are most likely to leave (an event far less likely if they can see where their current role is heading).

So it really does beg the question: why do so few employees have goals and why do so few employers encourage goal setting? One reason is fear. The employer may fear losing an ambitious person – not realising they’re likely to lose them anyway, even if simply because they shrink as a person for every year they’re chained to a desk without goals.

Yet the key fear belongs to employees. Chances are many employees fail to develop long-term goals because they fear the consequences of failure. Indeed, fear of failure is a common affliction, although one often masked by other traits such as pretending not to care or acting the fool or stating “they’re happier among the troops than the officers."

This can even become more serious – with employees developing destructive behaviours in order to hide their fears. These can range from the highly common defensiveness – often expressed in a gatekeeping or “jobsworth” attitude to their role – to far more troubling concerns such as anger, depression, workplace incivility and additions. Of course, while HR departments can ignore defensiveness there will come a time when they cannot ignore those more destructive masking behaviours – suggesting that personal goals for all employees are very much worth pursuing.

"Chances are many employees fail to develop long-term goals because they fear the consequences of failure."

Of course, the most common avoidance-tactic for those fearing goals in the workplace will be their simple declaration that, for them, “work’s work” – and that their life begins at 5pm. Yet does it? Again, do a workplace survey of goal-setting and the chances are those with goals are also the most active users of their free time. Meanwhile, those saying they “live for the weekend” live for – at best – shallow hedonism.

Given this, long-term goals can turn around perhaps the most moribund worker – helping them focus on what they want to achieve with their entire lives, not just the 40-odd hours a week they’re employed. And in helping them plan to achieve it.

How to set goals

So how do we set long-term goals – perhaps with decade-long objectives that motivate people for years not weeks? And more importantly, how do we achieve them? There are myriad ways – as any perusal of the self-help shelves will attest. A common fad for goal-setting is through visualisation. Yet a work-force reluctant to consider setting goals may have issues sitting in near-meditation in a dark room and projecting themselves forward 10 years or so.  

A more practical route to both goal-setting and goal achievement comes from a man called Napoleon Hill. In 1937 Hill wrote Think and Grow Rich. This weighty tome was, in fact, an early self-help book: written in an age before such books fell hostage to smiling Californians. And, despite the title, Hill’s book is less a prescription and more a description of the thought-processes of the 500 or so self-made Americans he’d interviewed (Carnegie, Ford, Woolworth, Gillette etc).

Hill was interested in what motivated highly-effective people (he was as impressed by Ghandi as the millionaires), as well as how they achieved great things. He concluded there was a formula for both setting and achieving your goals consisting of four vital elements. These are: desire, faith, plans and persistence. Importantly, he made it clear that these four elements had to be tackled in the right order. Persistence prior to plans would result in wasted endeavour, he said, while plans were pointless without the faith they can be executed.

Here’s a simple formula that we can keep in mind when encouraging employees to set long-term goals. First, they have to calculate what they truly want (over a 10-year horizon), and then they have to develop the faith to get there. Of course, faith can be the worrying bit. The very people many think need the motivation of goals are likely to be those that lack faith in their own abilities to achieve things. Certainly, at my ineffective worst (documented in my book, Getting things done) faith was so often the rock upon which my own dreams foundered. 

Yet Hill’s faith is not total faith – perhaps of a religious nature. This is about achieving things: so all that’s required is the faith to get going and to keep going through the inevitable setbacks. We can also deconstruct a project into smaller tasks and develop faith in each element as it arises – meaning we only need faith we can achieve the next, small, step (perhaps by giving that element our total focus). And we can also realise that we already possess faith in certain things – such as our ability to do our current role. So if we start with that small slither of faith we can slowly broaden our faith – overtime making it wide enough to encompass our goals.

As for plans and persistence: well, plans are too often too vague to be of much use. And, again too often, people jump in and start executing before having a strong handle on where they want to head and what they want, ultimately, to achieve. So goal-setters should “begin with the end in mind” – a call from Stephen Covey (author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Covey was a modern self-help writer, although one of the few – thankfully – focused on helping people develop strong habits (through strong goal-setting and process) rather than promising miracles via coal-walks and self-hypnotism.

And strong plans give goal-setters persistence, Hill’s last need. If something goes wrong – as it will – the plans tell them this is no more than a temporary roadblock, perhaps requiring a new approach or some imaginative solution. Certainly, it’s not the moment they should surrender, which was how I used to deal with every setback. No wonder I was so poor at goal-setting.

Robert Kelsey is the author of Get Things Done

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