Why setting goals is not as effective as we think it should be

If you don’t have a goal you have nothing to work to.


It’s self evident. Yes! No!


First, let’s ask ourselves why we are setting goals.


Is it because;

  1. This is something we really want to achieve and see goal setting as an effective motivator?
  2. It is something we think we should achieve because others have said so and we need a marker to show them, and for them to measure us against?
  3. It is something we know we will never achieve (and probably wouldn’t even want to if we could) but it gives us something to tell others we have set (and so makes us look like we have direction in our life)?


If it’s because of the first option we are bound to achieve our goals, right! Not as far as the research shows.


If it’s the second, well, we’ll probably achieve it, because otherwise we will be seen as having failed (and possibly loose our job etc), so yes we’ll have to achieve it. But we will probably set it so low there will be little chance of not. Also, as its really a goal of others where is our passion? You have to ask if its worth it in the long term.


If it’s the third option we will off course never achieve it. But it can offer us a great sense of well being in knowing others think we have a direction in our life. But then – is there a time scale? Have we broken the goal down into mini-goals? How do we move towards these if there is no real motivation in the first place?


And then the stress sets in. There is too much pressure. The last thing we want is open failure. Where did the magic in our lives go?


First, what is required is clarity

on why we are setting the goal; our purpose.


Ray Williams, in his 2014 article Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work, in Psychology Today, notes that focussing on small wins in combination with process improvement will drive your organization forward without the negative consequences of stretch goals. However, this approach requires a willingness to abandon the ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach to problem solving.”


What does Williams really mean by this ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach?


Let’s take a stroll through DISC personality profiling which offers some real insight here. DISC is a behavioural model of personality profiling or psychometric assessment, developed through the work on Dr. William Marston. Marston showed that there are four main personality traits: Dominant, Influencer, Steadiness, Conscientious (although we are all a blend of each).


  • D (Dominant) – Those who have high intensity dominant traits are motivated by control and challenge so they can have success and power. These are the real ‘ready, fire, aim’ people who are task orientated and likely to be highly focussed on their goal (often to the exclusion of everything else). This can often lead to highly ambitious goals but with a narrow focus that can lead to stress and tension for everyone else involved.


This is a very traditional leadership approach, often referred to as command and control. Williams therefore is giving his backing to the notion that we need to shift from a command and control stance to one that is more attuned to focussing on small wins in combination with process improvement (that) will drive your organization forward without the negative consequences of stretch goals.” But which personality is more aligned to a leadership approach that is best suited for the job?


  • I (Influencer) – Those who have high intensity influencer traits are motivated by having recognition and fun through interactions with other people. These are the ‘fire, fire, fire’ people who are so keen and interested they can end up having lots and lots of goals. This can often lead to a loss of focus overall that can result in distractions and stress for others.


People with this key trait can like small wins, but are not very systems orientated.


  • S (Steadiness) – Those who have high intensity steady traits are motivated by appreciation and acceptance so they can have peace and harmony with others. These are the ‘ready, ready, ready’ people who want a consistent, steady and reflective environment where people cooperate. This can often lead to a slowness to engage which can result in frustration and stress for others.


People with this key trait are fine with small wins so long as the wins are evenly spread throughout the team. A fine balance to achieve.


  • C (Conscientious) – Those who have high intensity conscientious traits are motivated by excellence where things are done the proper and right way. These are the ‘ready, aim, aim’ people, the great planners who want a logical, systems driven approach that clearly leads to quality and accuracy. This can often lead to paralysis by analysis and an aversion to risk that can result in procrastination and stress for others.


People with this key trait are your true systems people, but don’t have much consideration at times for others, and with a need for perfection can be frustrated by small wins.


It would seem then that no one personality trait offers the answer needed.


Second, what is required is a level of self-awareness

that will enable us to raise or lower our default

personality traits as appropriate.


With this in mind I would suggest the To-GROW model offers a good vehicle for clarifying and setting your small wins, but also for addressing any glaring obstacles or tweaks required due to your individual personality traits or blends.


The To-GROW model works through a broad topic, to goal setting, reality, options and way forward. For the pragmatic this process offers a stepping stone that allows us to take responsibility, but from a more creative position that will enable us to take the leap required for change and improvement to occur.


Third, what is required is to find a mechanism

that support awareness raising

as much as target setting.

Bringing it all together

There is a recognition that target setting might not be all it is held up to be, but that there is a need to have a sense of purpose and direction to one’s life that enable wins to take place. This is helped enormously the more we raise our levels of self awareness that enable us to truly take responsibility for our life. The trick is to find a mechanism that supports us to do this is a way that suits our individual needs while also challenging us to see the impact we are having on others as we progress through our life journey.



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They say that the only true and able helper is one that has suffered themselves. Someone who has found their own way out of the ‘hole’ –  discovering and using tools that work – who is then in a position to pass-it-on. Only when you have it can you start giving it away to others. This is precisely what Robert is doing. Take notice and believe, its powerful stuff!” Peter Mitchell, Yorkshire Coast Enterprise


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