Don’t Set Goals

Let’s talk about the science and the art of life. By science, I’m not talking biology or chemistry, I’m talking about formulae for SUCCESS and HAPPINESS to the degree that they exist.  

Here’s a standard SUCCESS formula as widely proffered: set a goal, assess where you are now, consider your options, make a plan, execute, measure results. If it works, keep going. If not, rinse & repeat.

Meanwhile, here’s Martin Seligman’s famous HAPPINESS formula: H (happiness) = S (genetic set-range which unfortunately accounts for 50% of our happiness) + C (the circumstances of your life – ONLY 10%) + V (thoughts and actions under your voluntary control). The good news here, of course, is that the voluntary variables account for a full 40% of your happiness. To improve the C&V factors, you’ll need to set your mental, emotional and some physical goals and then do whatever practice or effort is required.

The common elements therefore appear to be: set a goal (physical or emotional), make a plan, do the plan. Keep trialling and erroring until you get there. Easy right?

For anyone who’s set a goal in life, let alone for any specific meeting or communication such as a sales meeting, conference presentation or performance review, you’ll be all too aware that it’s not so straight-forward. 

So yes, I want to explore in this next 4-part mini-series the benefits of having an outcome in mind for our various meetings and communication scenarios but we need to take an extremely pragmatic approach because (a) people are unpredictable and hence so are our communications with them and (b) goal-setting, as it’s most commonly practiced, is counter-productive.

Let’s look at the evidence for goal-setting. Firstly, the anecdotal evidence because the internet is full of success stories pointing us towards goal-setting as a critical success factor. Upon closer inspection however, there’s scant evidence that it’s a consistent element across most success stories and in fact appears to be the exception rather than the rule. 

Gates wanted to be a businessman and followed his passionate love of coding and dream of ‘a PC in every house’ rather than setting a goal to be the richest man in America. Oprah specifically attributes her fame and wealth to her complete lack of focus on money as her driving force. Jobs was spurred by innovation, revolutionising technology and competition, while Branson, Buffett, Zuckerberg and in fact Jobs too, all talk about following your dreams and doing what you love. None of them mention ‘goals’. They follow gut-level, innate visions and burning desires which are very different from goals in terms of a heartfelt connection to the outcome. Goals, particularly in business, are often mental ideas or numbers and can be difficult to connect with emotionally.

Let’s move onto the empirical evidence where there’s a growing number of academic researchers, career coaches and though leaders who suggest that goal setting as a way of achieving improved performance is not only flawed by ironically, keeping us from success.

Yes goal-setting, including corporate goals, can get you or your people to work harder, focus more and perform better in the short term but it can also kill creativity, make you more likely to cheat, act selfishly, feel demotivated and less likely to thrive in the long term.

Lisa Ordonez, vice dean at University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management says “goals in themselves aren’t bad. It’s how we treat them”. Or as the Bhagavad Gita, the foundational Hindu text of 2,200 years ago tells us “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”

Ordonez’s advice? “Use goals as a compass and not as a GPS. If you allow goals to guide your general direction, when things change, you can realign much easier….and don’t miss things.”

In short, the suggested course of action by most specialists in this area, is to focus on the experience and the process more than the outcome and you’ll ironically end up getting a more positive outcome than originally planned.

Or as someone said to me once many years ago “hold your goals with an open palm not a clenched fist.” It’s not just a go-with-the-flow hippie idea. It’s proven to be a more effective way to get results.

In the next 3 blogs we’ll have a look at how this applies to our various business communication scenarios so we can have a clear plan going into a meeting or presentation, and also be flexible according to what happens on the day.

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