The case for goal setting

Superordinate goals

A superordinate goal, is a high-level goal that appeals to emotion due to its primary focus being on affect. In an organisation, superordinate goals exist to establish an objective that can capture people’s imagination, and excite and stimulate them to take action.

Examples of superordinate goals are: “To be the employer of choice”, or “To offer the best customer service in town”.

Superordinate goals are often criticised as being nothing but empty slogans, and are therefore often met with cynicism. They can also damage motivation by unrealistically raising expectations. The solution is the setting of concrete goals.

Concrete goals

Concrete goals attempt to make the superordinate goal a reality by converting it from a purely emotional statement to a series of action steps. In order to do this, concrete goals must be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timed.

Without being SMART, a goal is just an encouragement to “do this as soon as you can”, or “do your best” – the results of which pale in comparison to performance from setting SMART goals. SMART goals set a challenge. It is clear what is required of an employee if they are to achieve SMART goals. Simple “do your best” goals can result in an employee deluding themselves into thinking they are performing well and that others are being over-critical.

Two principles that help secure employee commitment

There are two principles that can help secure employee commitment:

  • Understand the outcomes people expect and you will understand their behaviour.
  • Change the outcomes people expect, and you will change their behaviour.

Main issues to look out for

Goal setting is not without its challenges. Here are some of the main issues to look out for:

  • When people have the necessary knowledge and skill, a performance-oriented goal should be set.
  • When people do not have the necessary knowledge and skill, a learning-oriented goal should be set. Setting learning goals initially will eventually lead to the ability to set performance goals.
  • Changes in environmental factors (e.g. STEEP factors) can result a reduction in the effectiveness of goal setting. A solution is to break down distal goals into proximal (or sub) goals.
  • Leaders must demonstrate their commitment to superordinate and SMART goals.
  • Leaders must also attempt to make people feel comfortable when they are challenged about behaviour that is not in line with superordinate or SMART goals.
  • Leaders must be accessible in order to let people know their goal attainment efforts are appreciated, and also to let people know they can disagree with the goals that are set.
  • In order to discourage group-think, leaders should attempt to discourage people from agreeing with goals they believe to be wrong.
  • “That which gets measured, gets done.” The measurement system should be aligned with superordinate and SMART goals in order for them to be effective, otherwise people will focus on “that which gets measured”.
  • The cause of dysfunctional behaviour is usually a misalignment of goals and the measurement system in use, rather than a problem with the person exhibiting the behaviour.

See also, the case against goal setting.

(Source: Latham, 2003, cited in B325 Organizational Collaboration).

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