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Goal Setting, Why Bother?

Recently, a mentee brought his friend to our coffee chat. After a quick exchange of introductions, I learned that this gentleman just completed his undergraduate studies and was struggling with knowing what sort of career he wishes to embark upon. However, he told me that in 2020 he wants to get into a master’s program. “That is a good goal!” I applauded him for his tenacity and intellectual interest. Out of curiosity, I asked him why a master’s program. He was a bit shocked. He paused, then he told me that’s what his parents want him to do. “Is this something YOU want to do?” I replied. He looked a bit embarrassed by my question and whispered “yes”. I didn’t want to make it difficult for him in front of his friend, so I changed the question, “Will pursuing a master’s program help you realize the type of career you want to pursue?” Unfortunately, he did not know the answer.

Recently, through my outplacement work, I met a lady who had just been laid off. She cried about her recent termination experience and expressed how painful that was. As soon as she wiped her tears, she told me that her goal for 2020 is not to be laid off again. Sad, but that is a goal. “Why is not being laid off in 2020 a good goal for you?” I asked. This may sound like a harsh question, but as her consultant, I need to know more of her intentions. Then I learned the essentials: for two consecutive years, she was laid off from two companies prior to this last position. “Those indeed must have been painful experiences! But what was the most difficult part of losing a job?” I persisted. The lady was stunned by the question. After a few minutes of silence and reflection, she smiled, and said, “You know what, it’s actually the fear of going to interviews that made the layoff so difficult.” Now it’s what we need to focus on to help her through this transition period.

Also, recently, I was having a “teatime” with a few friends by a fireplace. We were celebrating with one of our friends who had achieved great success in 2019. I was also happy to hear that she exceeded her goal of growing her LinkedIn connections by 15% in the past year. As the friend was enjoying our envious gaze, another friend’s 8-year old boy came to the conversation circle and asked, “Aunty Linda, why is having more connections a good thing?” …

This boy’s question truly gave me an “ah-ha” moment. Why is growing the number of connections on LinkedIn important? Is the number of connections just a number or is each connection a genuine connection who we know offline and can turn to when we have a question? Does having more connections convert to more achievement of business results? It subsequently made me reflect that many times, we are so busy setting goals so we can check them off by the year’s end, but when thinking more carefully, we are unsure of why we set them in the first place.

Certainly, goal setting is critical and has great benefits - keeping us focused, helping us measure progress and giving us self-confidence. As an HR practitioner, I realized that often we are adamant about coaching business units to set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) because goal setting is part of employees’ annual performance review process. Without goals set, it would be hard to measure results the employees achieved during the year and attach salary adjustments for the new year. Effective goal setting comes from employees’ understanding of the organization’s vision and objectives, and can align their behaviours and results to the organization’s needs. However, we often see employees set goals to satisfy the “paperwork requirement” without linking the “what” to the “why”.

If an organization is using the “cascading approach” to employee goal setting (the organization has its goals, then cascades the goals down to each appropriate area / department and level of employees), then for employees to link their behaviours to the organization’s needs, management should make sure that there is a mechanism for feedback transmission from the employees to the decision makers. There are two elements here: 1) I have seen some companies slowly moving away from the traditional hierarchy and getting employees to be more involved in goal setting at departmental and organizational levels. 2) Managers, of course, should have an influence on the employee goal setting process, but also need to make sure that employees take the initiatives to set their own goals. Additionally, managers can discuss with employees about their own career interests and support those interests with workplace tasks, as reasonably as possible. This reminds me of when I was a young student: I disliked when teachers told me to study hard just to get good grades. I did not take that advice seriously until I realized the personal connection between what I was doing and the benefits I would reap off in the future.

When goal setting is properly done, employees should be able to easily say what their goals are for the year, and very importantly, what achieve those goals would mean. Present efforts must align with future achievements.


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