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5 Characteristics of Successful Goal Setting

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Goals set the tone on the job. They may energize, establish what’s important and unimportant, determine activities and unite employees. Ideally, workplace goals are unified, different departments and people choosing objectives that work together to ultimately accomplish a vision set by top management. Too often, though, the best intentions fizzle because those charged with goal-setting, whether managers or employees, don’t know how to turn ambition into achievement. Research conducted by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham in the second-half of the 20th century showed that successful goal-setting shared certain key characteristics. The findings underpin goal setting theory in today’s business world.

Commitment and Motivation

Successful goal-setting must take commitment into account. Individuals need a reason to strive for goals, a reason that will motivate action even when persistence becomes difficult. In the workplace, goals that are relevant to the company’s well-being, that further a department or a performance area such as profitability, for instance, increase the perceived importance of a goal. Managers and employees should come up with goals together, if possible, to increase a sense of personal investment.

Clear-cut and Specific

It’s important that the goals themselves are chosen wisely and then well-defined. The more concrete the goals, the easier they are to imagine, plan for and achieve. A vague goal such as make more sales won’t motivate as well as increase sales 5 percent. As much as possible, successful goal-setting includes numbers. By quantifying an objective, the goal-setter provides a target to aim at, while also making it easy to measure progress. Specificity also prevents different interpretations of goals between people.

Challenging, Yet Realistic

Locke and Latham found that difficult goals generally lead to higher performance than easy or vague goals such as “Do your best.” Success is more likely when the goals cause people to stretch, which increases their involvement in the required tasks. Some companies use stretch goals to make giant leaps forward in place of smaller targets that allow for step-by-step progress. These stretch goals are also known as BHAGS or big, hairy, audacious goals. Of course, any goal must be perceived as attainable when resources are devoted to achieve it. Impossible goals discourage.

Link Goals to Time

Successful goal-setting requires deadlines, which can’t be chosen arbitrarily. Task complexity and know-how must be considered. For instance, producing a motivating company newsletter will take longer for a person who must first master publishing software than it will for one with a graphic arts background. Deadlines also must harmonize with other goals. The deadline for a medium-term goal might need to support a long-term goal’s deadline. Meanwhile, completing that same medium-term goal might depend on achieving other short-term goals first.

Feedback and Rewards

Feedback allows people to periodically check the progress they’re making toward goals, and, if necessary, adjust their plans. Whenever people meet certain milestones in progressing toward goals, the successes must be recognized and rewarded. Feedback times, milestones and the attendant rewards should be predetermined so people feel a sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm as they progress.


Sophie Johnson is a freelance writer and editor of both print and film media. A freelancer for more than 20 years, Johnson has had the opportunity to cover topics ranging from construction to music to celebrity interviews.

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