The desire to do something different is often associated with a temporal milestone. It can be a new season, a new job, the start of a new semester at school or the start of a new year. It’s a natural turning-of-a-page moment. We are put in a place where we can see the possibilities. However, we get stuck in the possibilities of the big, overall goal if we don’t break it into its component parts.

Success Requires Science

A new year is a big deal. It’s a chance to start something new. Maybe that’s why people make resolutions instead of goals in the new year. It evokes a greater sense of determination. But a resolution is simply a goal, and whether or not we fail in our resolutions all depends on how well we apply behavioral science.

Corporate training professionals need to approach their directives the same way. The organizational “resolutions” are often too broad, undefined, or they’re not broken down into their component parts. There are four main problems that typically keep us from achieving them.

  1. We don’t start. It hasn’t become part of the daily routine. We may even have opportunities to start but are reluctant because it’s new and uncomfortable, or we are worried about pushback.
  2. We get derailed. Your current workload may not be conducive to achieving the goal. Situations or circumstances aren’t fostering success.
  3. We don’t pause the pursuit of a goal when it becomes unproductive for us. We continue to pursue that goal in spite of recognizing things aren’t working anymore, whether it’s some cost, or dissatisfaction with progress. We try to persevere instead of taking a step back to pause and assess where we need to go next.
  4. We overextend ourselves. We might be setting too many goals at once or a goal is completely unrealistic in terms of our capabilities, our effort and our desire to even achieve in the first place.

We can avoid these pitfalls by using good goal-setting theory to get started on the right foot.

Ways to Success

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham’s goal-setting theory has progressed since the 1960s. What’s explicit in that theory is that specific and challenging goals — but not too challenging — are really going to urge us to put forth our best effort. We want to make sure that we can measure progress toward that goal. It must be relevant within the context of what we’re trying to achieve. There also has to be some timeliness; milestones that can help us measure and assess progress.

Other things we need to think about include our own level of self-efficacy and confidence that we bring to that new goal or task. Also, what are the conditions surrounding us that might help us? Is there feedback? What are the potential setbacks? Where might we need to pause and decide what to do next?

Peter Gollwitzer developed an extension of goal-setting theory — implementation intentions. It’s essentially having “if-then” strategies in place. We can have all the right ingredients for shaping our goals and bring the right level of effort and self-efficacy, but when we are faced with a situation that could derail us, we may need an alternate path or route to success. Anticipating the areas that could “trip us up” gives us more tools in our toolbox. It offers flexibility and multiple options if you face difficulty along the way.

On an Organizational Level

As leaders of change, we are trying to help people learn new skills, behaviors and ways of thinking. We cannot just teach people how to set goals to learn those new skills or behaviors. We also have an opportunity to build agility in that learning process. We may have once shown people how to set a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) goal and send them down one path. Applying implementation intentions encourages developing options for when we might encounter challenges, setbacks or new obstacles. That is teaching flexibility, adaptability and different ways of thinking which are prized in the current business environment.

We also have an opportunity to apply this in our own planning. What we’ve experienced in the last two years has shown us the best laid plans will be disrupted. If we don’t have this flexibility and maybe scenario planning in our own strategies, we’re definitely going to lose people along the way and we’re not going to be able to change more rapidly. It has become “practice what you preach.”

It’s equally, if not more important to consider how we are structuring the environment around our people to help maximize their effectiveness. Are there opportunities for consistent feedback along the way? Do they have the right kind of social support? Have we provided the right resources and tools needed to help them be successful? As learning professionals, we know that autonomy is important in pursuit of goals. It’s great that employees have more agency over their career development, but we cannot ignore that as organizational leaders, we have a responsibility for putting the supporting mechanisms around each person so they can be successful in driving their career.

While learning and human resources (HR) leaders navigate a plethora of tricky situations, our practices and approaches, historically, haven’t been agile; they have been more compliance driven. It’s imperative that we maintain a broader, more flexible approach to people development as we continue to be an essential, strategic force that drives the business forward.