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How to Deploy Goals at Work

Would you be interested in the inside scoop on deploying and achieving goals at work? Would you like to know what we knew about goals 40 years ago, versus what we know now? Would it surprise you to know that all that stuff about SMART goals is only partially correct? In fact the whole premise for goals is based on shaky ground. So what if I set the record straight based upon actual data? Let’s do a quick review of what’s been discovered about goals and we’ll finish with a quick cheat sheet to use going forward and why ManagePro is such a powerful platform for using goals at work.


40 Years Ago: This is a summary of what we knew from research on deploying goals at work as of 1975(1)
  1. Goals work. Production is significantly higher when work is structured around goals.
  2. Goals require buy-in and follow-up. Performance only improves for employees when they accept the goals, and when they are supported and encouraged by their superiors.
  3. Goals are self-fulfilling for high-achievers. Goals work best for people who have a previous track record of success, people that are already high achievers, and are self- confidant. Belief about ability to accomplish a goal is self-fulfilling. If you don’t think of yourself as successful, you won’t be.


What we know as of 2015: I’ve broken this down into 5 key themes, so it’s easy to remember.

The Efficacy of Smart (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time bound) Goals
  1. Although the acronym of SMART has a lot of common sense to it, there appears to be insufficient data to confirm that SMART characteristics are tied to improved performance. The whole process of setting goals based upon SMART definitions is a well-intentioned methodology, but the SMART characteristics do not appear to be the critical characteristics correlated with goal achievement or improved performance at work.
  2. What does have research behind it is the concept that goals have to have emotions behind them or they don’t drive behavior. There are three emotions in particular that need to be aroused at work to support goals having an impact. Goals with the following emotions attached directly impact work behavior:
    1. The first emotion is the anticipation of feeling very good, not just positive, but inspired to accomplish something really meaningful.
    2. The second emotion is one of being challenged by the stretch of the goal and aspiration.
    3. The third emotion is a link to helping. We have to feel like it is really going to help, and even this drives goal behavior even stronger if it feels like we need to help in a way that’s absolutely necessary.
The Relative Value of Pleasure versus Pain as a Goal Motivator (3)
  1. We humans are risk averse. We are motivated almost twice as strong to avoid pain or discomfort, as we are motivated by the opportunity to obtain something positive. Given that relative strength difference:
    1. The feelings of inspiration, challenge and helping will be most effective drivers when they help the individual or others ultimately avoid or remove some negative contingency. Use negatives, make the negatives explicit, and don’t avoid them in your goal setting process.
    2. Secondly, be careful not to be in a hurry to remove or reduce the threat of the negative contingency before the needed changes are in place or the goal is achieved, as it will likely derail some aspect of the motivation driving the (change) goal process.
The Role of Fun – What we have learned from athletes (4)
  1. From the environment of sports we have confirmed 4 different factors that all positively impact our ability to reach goals.
    1. We all need a game plan, what’s next, what works, what’s critical.
    2. We all need a scoreboard, some way to tell if we are getting ahead or falling behind.
    3. We all need a game clock, some way to tell how much time we have left to work with.
    4. In confirmation of the Hawthorne effect from the 1930s, we know that having someone observe, including coach, helps improve the chance of reaching goals.
  2. Even though avoidance of present or future pain or discomfort is such a strong motivator, we’ve also learned that positive emotions (#1 above) effectively drive goal behavior, specifically making the goal process fun and achievement recognized.  We all are motivated to accomplish goals if the process can be fun and provide the opportunity for recognition.
The Inverse Effect of Talking About Your Goals (5)
  1. We’re all familiar with the value of social support for goal setting and accomplishment. However there is also a negative effect about talking about your goals, especially as goals are framed by solving a painful situation. Social psychologists, Kurt Lewin, Vera Mahler & Peter Gollwitzer have all noted that talking about goals, especially when acknowledged by someone else, creates a comforting sense that “feels” like the goal has already begun to be accomplished, and serves as a substitution for the actual work needed to accomplish the goal. To the extent the comfort of being listened to reduces some of the pain that is motivating you to accomplish that goal, it gives a false sense of making progress, and is inversely related to achieving goals. In at least one study, it served to make the “talkers” less likely to follow through on the steps needed to reach a goal.
Unachieved Goals and the Role of Time and Obstacles (6)
  1. Our own research indicates that two factors account for a large proportion of failure to achieve goals:
    1. Achieving goals requires more than intent. Actually, as you’ve noticed above, it requires a number of things, but it especially requires the resource of time.  Often more time than initially planned. Not continuing to set aside time, blocking it out on one’s calendar, and seeing the effort through by prioritizing achieving the goal in the presence of all the other demands on one’s time and calendar is one of the most common goal failure characteristics.
    2. The other most common contributor to goal achievement failure is not successfully resolving, adapting, and working around obstacles that emerge. Rarely is the path to any goal a straight trajectory of goal setting, new behavior practice, and goal achievement. People that successfully achieve goals kick into active problem solving when facing unforeseen obstacles. People who struggle to achieve goals tend to give up the pursuit once they run into such obstacles.
Strategic Goals (7)

I decided to throw in a quick section on strategic goals as a bonus, as they seem to represent their own separate universe. Here are 2 directives we have verified will help you when build them into your strategic goal process:

  1. Avoid the following miss-steps in the strategy goal creation process:
    1. Most strategic plans are a list of prioritized activities, not a well-articulated plan defining exactly how to get to the target of growth or mission fulfillment.
    2. Fundamentally strategy is a bet against the future, resting on a set of potentially wobbly assumptions. Don’t bother to create strategy goals unless you plan to support with active effort and resources.
    3. If you can’t come up with a compelling measurement for a strategic goal, then you need to rethink the value of that goal in achieving your overall strategy.
  2. Verify that your strategic goal is backed by the answers to 3 questions:
    1. Why does this particular strategic goal or objective create the most direct return/value (of the various choices available to us)?
    2. How are we being explicit about the assumptions behind a strategic goal and testing/verifying that our assumptions are correct?
    3. What are we going to do next, based upon the test results? Build it in actionable terms.
  3. Deploying Goals at Work using ManagePro Checklist:

    1. Do use goals at work, realize high achievers will make the best use of goals, and remember that goal realization occurs most commonly when regularly reviewed/encouraged by management.
    2. Choose goals that are inspiring, challenging, and help participants feel they are making an impact/helping. If there’s no emotional tie-in, SMART characteristics only mildly help.
    3. In creating goals, be explicit about the negatives to be avoided by goal achievement.
    4. Support goal achievement with the following: have a game plan, scoreboard (measure results/progress), time remaining, coach and the experience of having fun and recognition.
    5. Gather written updates on actions taken; verbal process discussions don’t substitute for action.
    6. Set aside regular time blocks (goals need regular, persistent effort), and treat obstacles as simple a challenge to overcome, not a sign to stop.
    7. Strategic goals need compelling proof of directly creating the most value, explicit assumptions and market testing, clear action plans that are regularly reviewed and results measured.

    Please note that each of these 7 checklist action steps are directly supported by ManagePro.  It’s designed to provide the tools to help you and your team successfully set and achieve goals at work.



    We hope you have great success using all five strategies to improve the results you get from using goals at work.  But don’t leave without first signing up below to demo ManagePro, it’s the ultimate work smarter goal-based software.  Here’s to your success at realizing the benefits of goals at work!

    Note: If you would like to download this page as a pdf, click here


    1. Latham, & Yukl’s “A Review of Research on the Application of Goal Setting in Organizations.” You can find it in the Academy of Management Journal 18.4 (1975): 824–845; http://www.managepro.com/what-the-research-says-about-you-goals/
    2. http://www.managepro.com/most-of-what-youve-read-about-smart-goals-is-wrong/
    3. http://www.managepro.com/what-makes-us-follow-through/
    4. http://www.managepro.com/the-secret-to-raising-your-game/
    5. http://www.managepro.com/the-hazards-of-talking-about-your-goals/
    6. http://www.managepro.com/smart-goals-hard-goals-and-lost-goals/
    7. http://www.managepro.com/category/strategicplanning/