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Effective Goal Setting

How do you set goals effectively and motivate others to set and follow through ? Here's what the research says...

Goal-setting puts purpose in performance.

Organizations rely on goals to grow, thrive, and sustain the same way we rely on our blood to deliver oxygen to our cells. The purpose and inspiring mission that guides leaders and teams manifest in the goals we set—whether they are in personal achievements we pursue or in larger goals that move the entire organization19. Experts have found that effective goal-setting delivers results that keep employees, teams, and organizations moving forward:

1. Goal-Setting directs efforts

Goal-setting moves people's efforts toward desired end states. An effective goal directs people to resolve problems, identify solutions, persevere, and move toward achievement despite challenges. People prioritize and focus on what it will take to accomplish the goals that matter most2,13,17.

2. Goal-Setting creates clarity

Goal-setting gives clarity to teams and team members. Enhanced clarity in work supports efficiency and higher performance. Experts show that when goals are specific, people's attention, focus, and energy lock onto what is needed to accomplish prioritized goals13.

3. Mental Health and Job Satisfaction

Many different psychotherapies employ goal-setting to help improve mental health. Research supports evidence of a positive relationship between mental health and goal-setting. The process of setting goals supports our cognitive functions, relationships, and ability to resolve problems17.

Successful goal-setting training improves self-regulation, focus, and job satisfaction. In addition to directing efforts and accomplishing goals, goal-setting creates self-satisfaction standards for employees despite the goal's outcome. The process of goal-setting supports growth and future successes for teams and individuals13.

4. Keeping Goal-Setting Practices Healthy

Goal-setting can serve as a double edge sword, hence the emphasis on effective goal-setting. While the benefits listed can support any team, it is important to remember that goal-setting practices or training will not provide a "cure-all" effect15. Experts have revealed that goal-setting can be overused and harmful if done improperly. If not balanced and used appropriately, goal-setting can lead to:

  • Increased risk-taking
  • Unethical behavior
  • A lack of focus17

Set work goals that matter.

Effective Goal-Setting can exist within or outside the workplace. However, for leaders to set team goals, or for individuals to set workplace goals, an extra level of effort and focus is needed to balance and guide workplace efforts. Coetic's experts have compiled an organizational perspective to better understand work goals while helping leaders and teams set goals that promote meaning and value. This perspective consists of four lenses for a work goal (see figures below):

Learn (L)
Display of Coetic Learn Lens
Lead (L)
Display of Coetic Lead Lens
Partner (P)
Display of Coetic Partner Lens
Deliver (D)
Display of Coetic Deliver Lens

With this framework (LLPD), leaders and team members can:

  • Assess their goals as they pertain to each category
  • Balance and prioritize their goals
  • Add value to positions, individual careers, and organization

Assessing Goals

With any of the LLPD lenses, ask yourself or your team, "Where are (you/we) on the curve? How can (you/we) grow?" Weighing in on goal-setting can promote team development and performance. The curve on any of the LLPD lenses illustrates a higher level of value that an individual can bring to their career, team, and organization, rather than focusing on career advancement or enhancing performance for their own sake.

Balancing Goals

There is not a lens in the LLPD framework that is more important than the other. Organizations need:

  • Leadership to move teams forward (Lead)
  • Learning to continue growing people (Learn)
  • Partnership to focus on team effort and collaboration (Partner)
  • To Deliver results and high performance to sustain the organization and satisfy its needs (Deliver)

As expected, these lenses shed light on different aspects that need balance. There isn't a formula to evaluate how many goals each lens needs. Instead, have frequent performance chats with team members to assess what types of goals are set, their progress, and future directions in a case-by-case method.

Adding Value

The LLPD perspective can add insights into growing value and meaning to work. While LLPD should share a relationship with career growth or enhancing performance, its purpose is not to boost a bottom line or be a sure way to a promotion. We encourage leaders to consider goal-setting as an exercise to align and engage team members in their organization's inspiring mission and core values.

Build motivation to Cross the Rubicon.

While LLPD helps us understand and gain insights into goal-setting, there is tremendous value in understanding the science behind goal-setting.

If we think of a goal as an engine, then what fuels it? What gets someone from goal-setting to goal completion? There are four main components to understand goal-setting:

  • The phases of a goal
  • Understanding the purpose behind a goal
  • Individual characteristics that affect how people pursue goals
  • ­Strategies to build momentum in goals

The phases of a goal

A goal, defined as a "cognitive representation of a future object that a person commits to approach or avoid," requires a psychological push to cross the threshold from an idea or desire to an intention4.

In 49 B.C.E. Julius Caeser committed to crossing the Rubicon river, an act that he knew equated to perishing or conquering. The story often serves as a metaphor for "the point of no return" and the "Rubicon Model11." The Rubicon Model outlines four phases of goal-setting:

  1. Pre-decision, determining risks associated with a goal and choosing the goal to pursue
  2. Post-decision, planning how to implement the goal
  3. Action, executing the goal (the psychological push to cross the threshold from an idea or desire to an intention)
  4. Post-action, reflecting on the goal and assessing the results11

Experts in neuroscience show us that the key to moving a goal forward in the action phase is motivation, the reason behind a person's willingness to pursue a goal. In the Caeser metaphor, his motivation led him to cross the river. Motivation translates into action when piloted by executive function1.

Executive function refers to the brain's effortful and conscious operations towards novel goals. This process is how people allocate cognitive resources, such as attention, memory, and inhibitory control to their prioritized goals. As any physiological resource, executive function is limited (although through training, executive function can be expanded).

Motivation plays a key role in crossing the rubicon by directing and prioritizing executive function resources to the goal and increasing persistence shifting a goal from being a want or wish to an intention. In the brain, motivation refers to the strength of the desire to accomplish a goal. Motivation can increase by:

  • amplifying the value of the new goal-related behavior
  • reducing the value of old (goal-counter or goal-unrelated) behaviors
  • or some combination of the two1.

People who can self-motivate, along with people who receive support for their motivation from leaders likely will Cross the Rubicon, achieve their goals, and present a more impactful performance.

Understanding the purpose behind a goal.

The key is understanding the importance of why, rather than how. Many goals fail or never come to fruition due to too much emphasis on how. Here's a great, quick story:

Two brothers recognized a broad set of problems in restaurants. Food came out to customers slow (sometimes cold), restaurant atmospheres were not family-friendly, and the quality was not consistent. They pursued to set out and shape new standards, establish their new concept, and deliver higher quality to families. They did this; they created a streamlined idea of fast food production, which had lower prices and consistent quality. The result was named the "Speedee System," an assembly line process for food production and service, and in 1948, it revolutionized the restaurant industry. The organization's name is McDonald's, and since then, it has sold over 300 billion burgers12.

More important than any goal itself is the reason, the purpose, or the why behind it. Many other things can occupy a person's interests, resources, and effort, so what makes that one goal they have so important? Conveying this by bringing the organization's purpose and inspiring mission into the forefront can fuel and motivate team members toward goals.

In the story, nobody set out to make a cheaper hamburger, they set out to serve families with a higher standard of quality. The brothers saw the importance of their vision and saw that it was worth investing a substantial amount of time, money, and risk. The why behind what they were doing motivated them to inevitably change an industry.

The same can apply to any goal. Connect first with the why (the mission), then the how (the plan), and then finally what (the results)20.

Listen to Simon Sinek's TEDx Talk on the "Importance of Why."

Hear even more from John Doerr on "Why the secret to success is setting the right goals."

Individual characteristics affect how people pursue goals.

Goal Orientations

Two Goal Orientation definitions revolve around competence (the relevant standard used to evaluate performance):

  • Approach motivation (pursuing or obtaining something)
  • Avoidance motivation (whether we want to obtain or reject something)

Both of these can be associated with a positive or negative valence5.

Display of 2 by 2 framework from Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 × 2 achievement goal framework.

To further understand Goal Orientation in the 2x2 framework, watch this short lesson outlining this model and providing implications in a teaching context.

Each of these four orientations have strengths and weaknesses, (i.e. as the video states, Mastery-Approach is very conducive to teaching and learning). No goal orientation is necessarily better or worse than another, and there is value in diversity among goal orientations.

Understanding and utilizing goal orientations can help motivate employees to accomplish organizational goals and set their own. Experts note that incentives and pay alone are not enough to motivate or align employee behavior around goals9. Some other strategies:

  • Train teams to use reflection as a strategy to understand their goal orientations and evaluate goal progress/completion
  • Build diverse teams with different goal orientations
  • Emphasize "common" state goal orientations (learning and development, performance and competition) to stabilize goals and align teams
  • Ensure that suitable compensation and feedback systems are in place9

Regulatory Focus

Alongside anyone's goal orientation is their regulatory focus, defined as:

  • the way someone approaches pleasure but avoids pain while pursuing a desired end-state3,10 and the process people use to align themselves with organizational standards and goals9

Effective goals align with an individual's regulatory focus, either promotional or preventative19.

Feel happy/cheerful when a goal is achievedFeel relaxed when failure is avoided in a goal
Feel unhappy or disappointed when a goal is not achievedFeel anxiety or fear when unsuccessful in achieving a goal
Increased tolerance for risk-taking, adapting to challenges, creativity, and innovation, and higher intrinsic motivationIncreased tolerance for repetition, error avoidance, stability, retaining, and recalling information related to avoiding failure, adopting behaviors related to maintaining and prevention.

People who pursue a goal that fits their regulatory focus are more likely to pursue their goals more eagerly and aggressively10. Understanding team member's regulatory focus can help in choosing an approach or avoid strategy for the goal they are setting. Strategically focusing on the compatibility of a goal with regulatory focus boosts performance and task motivation.

While any goal orientation can yield higher performance if tapped into, experts note that pairing compatible regulatory focus with incentive, performance, and task motivation increase the chances for successful goal acheivement3. Regulatory focus influences the impact of motivational variables (incentives, means)10.

Watch this video from Punam Anand Keller to understand regulatory focus as she explains how doctors can give patients medical goals that align with their regulatory focus.

Goals need momentum to cross the finish line.

When a leader can understand their team members' goal orientations and regulatory foci, the next challenge is execution—getting the goal to Cross the Rubicon. When a goal has motivation connected to its why and aligns with goal orientation and regulatory focus, leaders can channel that motivation into strategic first moves that build momentum.

To build momentum, consider these two strategies to move a goal forward across the Rubicon:

Adaptive Moves

Edgar Schein's simple yet innovative concept of adaptive moves18 helps leaders start somewhere to build momentum in their goals. The term "Adaptive" refers to the understanding that there are multiple problems to account for, and "Moves" reminds us that there is no master solution. By using Adaptive Moves as a strategy and choosing one point to focus efforts on, problem-solving becomes an opportunity to refocus and take different perspectives. Adaptive Moves also allow leaders and teams to re-focus on desired results rather than specific anxieties.

Tiny Habits

Behavioral Psychologist BJ Fogg has inspired many with his book and lessons about "Tiny Habits"8. By focusing on making small, meaningful moves (aka Tiny Habits) within an organization or a team, momentum for larger changes starts. Approaching challenges with this mentality will get the ball rolling on much bigger goals.

You don't need to be a social scientist to set effective goals.

So, now that you are digesting all of this social-cognitive theory in its relevance to goal-setting, here are your takeaways:

  1. Identify the goal, understand why the goal is important and how it will be accomplished
  2. Understand your (or team members') Goal Orientation and Regulatory Focus
  3. Tailor goals to be compatible with Goal Orientation and Regulatory Focus
  4. Channel team members' motivation into a first move
  5. Cross the Rubicon with strategies like Adaptive Moves and Tiny Habits
  6. Maintain momentum until the goal is accomplished16


  1. Berkman, E. T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70(1), 28–44.
  2. Boss, J. (2017). 5 reasons why goal setting will improve your focus. Forbes.
  3. Brockner, J., & Higgins, E. T. (2001). Regulatory focus theory: Implications for the study of emotions at work. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86(1), 35–66.
  4. Elliot, A. J., & Fryer, J. W. (2008). The goal construct in psychology. In Handbook of motivation science (pp. 235–250). The Guilford Press.
  5. Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 × 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(3), 501–519.
  6. Farrell, M. (2017). Time management. Journal of Library Administration, 57(2), 215–222.
  7. Fitsimmons, G. (2008). Time management part I: Goal setting as a planning tool. The Bottom
  8. Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything (Illustrated Edition). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  9. Guidice, R. M., Mero, N. P., Matthews, L. M., & Greene, J. V. (2016). The influence of individual regulatory focus and accountability form in a high performance work system. Journal of Business Research, 69(9), 3332–3340.
  10. Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 1–46). Elsevier.
  11. iResearchNet. (2016, January 7). Rubicon Model. Psychology.
  12. Klein, C. (2020). How McDonald’s beat its early competition and became an icon of fast food. HISTORY.
  13. Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5(2), 117–124.
  14. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717.
  15. Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of over-prescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(1), 28.
  16. Pieterse, A. N. (2009). Goal orientation in teams: The role of diversity [Dissertation].
  17. Riopel, L. (2019, June 14). The importance, benefits, and value of goal setting. PositivePsychology.Com.
  18. Schein, E. H. (2016). Humble Consulting: How to Provide Real Help Faster (1 edition). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  19. Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th Edition). Jossey-Bass.,%203rd%20Edition.pdf
  20. Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio.
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