Should we have goals?  And if so, what sorts?

The answers, I believe, are clear and unambiguous.  Everyone who wants to achieve should have goals.  There are rules for creating goals, and those rules matter.  If you follow those rules, you will achieve more. By fostering goal-setting behavior among individuals in your organization, you build resiliency, risk management, and process improvement into your culture.

Questions about goals are directly pertinent to risk management and process improvement. If we don’t know what we want to achieve, we don’t know whether a looming possibility is a threat or opportunity, and we have no way to gauge its potential impact. In the same way, if we don’t know what we want to achieve, we don’t know whether a change is an improvement or not.

Goals can be organizational or individual. Both are important. Teams and businesses need goals. So do their members. Consistent with our current theme of focusing on individual development as an element of organizational development and improvement, however, this post focuses on individual goal-making.


The Range—and Importance—of Goals

We want many things out of life.  We want love.  We want friendships and relationships.  We want spiritual growth.  We want financial security.  We want fun and adventure.  We want a career that both challenges us and rewards us.  We want personal growth.  We want to exercise creativity.

There are also things we don’t want.  We don’t want boredom, fear, frustration, or anxiety.  We don’t want embarrassment.  We don’t want humiliation.  We don’t want despair.

We can list our desires and our distastes.  But as long as those wants and don’t-wants to remain broad and ambiguous, it is difficult to make progress toward or away from any of them.  How do you know whether you’ve achieved friendships, spiritual growth, personal growth, or creativity?  What is the measure of your frustration, anxiety, boredom, or fear?

This post begins to address those questions.  I believe strongly in the following: by specifying what we want and what we do not want, we lay the groundwork for achievement.  By writing down our goals, by being specific, and by holding ourselves to those goals through review and reflection, we provide targets, benchmarks, and measuring sticks.

This is not surprising news.  At some level, we all know that we are supposed to set goals.  We hear about goals in school, at work, even in sports and leisure activities.  Yet very few people take the time to learn what experts say about the process of making goals.


There Are Goal Experts

Most people probably don’t even know that there are experts in making goals.  There are.  Researchers and industrial psychologists have been working for decades to determine whether goals do in fact enhance achievement, and if so, what goals work best.

The generally acknowledged leaders of this effort are two psychologists, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham.  Locke and Latham have been studying goals for about four decades.  They’ve published countless articles describing the research, as well as two seminal books.  Their analysis is not a product of quiet contemplation in a library, but instead based upon thousands of research subjects in scores of rigorous studies.  I will draw upon their findings and on other sources, because I want you to understand that this is not mere rumination or guesswork, but instead a rigorous evaluation of a process that works.


What Is A Goal?

At its most basic, Locke and Latham define a goal as “the object or aim of an action.” (Locke & Latham, 1984). Writing about goals in the workplace, they continue, “there are many familiar concepts that are similar in meaning to that of goal:  e.g., task: a piece of work to be accomplished; performance standard: a measuring rod for evaluating performance . . . ; quota: an assigned amount of work or production; . . . objective: the ultimate aim of an action; deadline:  a time limit for accomplishing some task; and budget:  a spending limit for an individual, project, department, or organization.”

In other words, a goal may be considered a way of measuring when an action has been accomplished.


Why Have Goals?

Nearly 2,500  years ago, Aristotle wrote, “Man is a goal-seeking animal.  His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.” Why should Aristotle have such confidence?  Why are goals so valuable, so central to the human condition?

At bottom, goals lead to achievement.  The link is incredibly strong, for this is one of the most researched facts about goals over the past 40 years.  As Locke and Latham wrote three decades ago, “there have been more than 110 goal setting experiments conducted in laboratory and organizational settings in just the past twelve years.  Ninety percent of these studies obtained positive results for goal setting,” making “goal setting one of the most dependable and robust techniques in all the motivational literature.”  (Locke & Latham, 1984).

How does goal-setting achieve such robust results?  Through numerous reinforcing patterns.

First, goals provide motivation.  They provide targets, allowing someone to know what is expected. If a person does not know what she is working toward, she will not know whether given effort in a given direction is likely to be helpful or harmful. A person with no goals is without direction. Since motivation is premised upon having a motive—that is, an intention or objective—it is impossible to be motivated without one or more goals.  By establishing destinations, goals lead to action.

Second, goals provide a sense of accomplishment.  When someone achieves a goal, she tends to feel good about it.  There is value in being able to see that one has reached a milestone. Even if that goal was only one step on an arduous path, it had sufficient significance that someone forecast it as an indicator of achievement. This sense of accomplishment is important for another reason. Feeling good makes a person more likely to replicate a behavior, creating a virtuous cycle.  In other words, setting and achieving goals leads to setting and achieving more goals.

Third, goals provide clarity. Formulated properly (as we will discuss in another post), goals provide clear targets.  They give someone something clear to aim for, a direction in which to travel. This point is related to the sense of motivation, above. Goals motivate largely to the extent they provide clarity and direction.

Fourth, goals promote control. By providing direction, goals permit someone to feel under greater control of his or her life and future. Someone who has goals may well recognize that others necessarily influence his life. But even so, the person with goals has a sense that he is also shaping his destiny.

Fifth, goals promote accountability.  Goals provide a ready means of measuring progress.  Either a person meets a goal, or not.

Sixth, goals relieve boredom, especially with monotonous work.

Seventh, goals provide a coherent sense of self.  If a person wanders aimlessly through life, he will find it hard to describe, either to himself or to others, what he is doing of where he is going.  As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explained in his seminal work, Finding Flow, “[i]t is through the patterned investment of psychic energy provided by goals that one creates order in experience.  This order, which manifests itself in predictable actions, emotions, and choices, in time becomes recognizable as a more or less unique ‘self.’” (Csikszentmihalyi, (1997)).

In short, for all these reasons, goals enhance human performance.


Goals – We Gotta Have’em?

Indeed, the drive for goals may be innate. Aristotle may have been more literally correct than he thought.  Substantial research into evolutionary biology over the past twenty years suggests that deep inside, we operate according to goals whether we want to or not. Our genes, according to this theory, create our drives and have, over time, created our patterns of thought.  One recurrent pattern of thought is the basic drive to accomplish objectives.

As Robert Wright explained in his controversial but important work, The Moral Animal, “the commonsense way of thinking about the relation between our thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and our pursuit of goals, on the other, is not just wrong, but backward.  We tend to think of ourselves as making judgments and then behaving accordingly,” he explains, but “if evolutionary psychology is on track, the whole picture needs to be turned inside out.  We believe the things—about morality, personal worth, even objective truth—that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation.”  (Wright, (1994)). Thus, “It is the behavioral goals—status, sex, effective coalition, parental investment, and so on—that remain steadfast while our view of reality adjusts to accommodate this constancy.  What is in our genes’ interests is what seems ‘right’—morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order.” We want, perhaps, because wanting is in our genetic interests.  And we want most effectively when we clearly define our goals.


Goals Are Not Panaceas – But They Tend to Work

Having goals increases the likelihood of achievement.  Of course, they do not provide guarantees.  You might have goals but be unable or unwilling to follow through.  You may have goals that are unrealistic, so that you get discouraged.  Furthermore, research suggests that even having goals and achieving them is no guarantee of what we term “success.”  You might be so Type-A that you achieve and achieve without stopping to bask, without stopping to consider the reason for the achievement, and without having a plan for what you are aiming at.  Moreover, lots of things can go wrong along the way.

So goals are not a magic bullet.  But, on balance, they are one of life’s best practices.


And Why on This Blog? 

And again, what does this have to do with risk management and process improvement? Everything. Process improvement depends on goal-seeking behavior because improvement necessarily implies a standard. Risk management, similarly, rests on assessments of and responses to threats and opportunities. Risk management can only be performed in light of judgments about what an individual or organization wants to accomplish.



E. Locke and G. Latham, Goal Setting – A Motivational Technique That Works! (1984).

M. Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow (1997).

R. Wright, The Moral Animal at 324-325 (1994).

(I originally published another version of this post years ago on a personal development blog I ran at the time. I have edited the post slightly to update the content and reflect my current views.)

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