As an accounting firm coach, mentor and consultant one of the things I am often doing is helping clients set goals and then supporting them to achieve those goals. I believe in the value of goal setting and believe it is useful. However, I have come across a small number of people who are not believers in goal setting and I thought it would be useful to share with you some of the research on goal setting. This article is a bit longer than some I write so stick with me as I believe it will be worth it.

When I completed my Master of Business Coaching degree (with distinction!) one of the group assignments I completed was on this topic so I have some good material to draw on. My thanks to Michelle Deroubaix and Greg Fisher who were my buddies for this work.

What is goal setting?

According to two of the leading researchers on goals, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, a goal is “a level of performance proficiency that we wish to attain, usually within a specified time period. Thus goal setting is first and foremost a discrepancy-creating process, in that the goal creates constructive discontent with our present performance.” Latham and another researcher, Yukl, say a goal is “what the individual is consciously trying to do.”

We were particularly taken by the definition put forward by O’Connor and Lages “a goal is a dream with legs. Goals are what drive us forward. They are what we want……goals are the bedrock of coaching. Coaching helps clients to articulate what they want, to dream good dreams, to give those dreams legs and to run with them.”

The evidence in support of goals

Our research found strong support for the usefulness of goals in four arenas, three of which I am sharing today:

  1. A large body of research quoted by numerous sources
  2. The reality that most coaching frameworks and models have goals as a key component
  3. Our own observations and experience – goals work!

1. Research on goals and goal setting

The most often quoted work on goals is that of Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, who together and individually, or with others, have researched and written on goals over a 40 year period. They have a large portfolio of writings on the subject and are regularly referenced by others. They have established goal setting theory and would seem to be the authorities on goal setting.

Although some research was done on goals as early as 1935, which Latham and Locke readily acknowledge, they note that their goal setting theory really takes its initial ideas from the work of Ryan (1970) who proposed that conscious goals affect action.

In essence Latham and Locke’s goal setting theory says that:

  • Specific difficult goals consistently lead to better performance than non specific, vague goals such as “do your best”, or no goals at all. In their 1990 paper they refer to 400 studies using more than 40,000 subjects and 88 different tasks over varying time spans as support for this. In their 2006 paper they refer to 1,000 studies!
  • There is a positive relationship between the difficulty of goals and the resulting levels of effort and performance.

The core premise is that “goal directed action is an essential aspect of human life. Without goal-directed action, people cannot attain the values that make their survival and happiness possible.”

They identify that goals affect performance in four ways. They:

  • Direct attention and effort toward goal relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant ones.
  • Energise – high goals lead to greater effort than low goals.
  • Affect persistence – when able to control their time people prolong effort with hard goals
  • Affect action by leading to arousal, discovery and/or use of task relevant knowledge and strategies.

In a 2006 article Latham and Locke summarise the benefits of goal setting as:

  • Affects our choices and gives direction to our pursuits
  • Increases our effort, prolongs persistence, and cues us to search for appropriate strategies to attain it
  • A goal is a regulatory mechanism for monitoring, evaluating and adjusting our behaviour (goal setting and feedback are the core of self management)
  • A goal can provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless task (stone mason/cathedral example)
  • Goal attainment gives us a sense of accomplishment and this increases our sense of personal effectiveness – a psychological need within all of us.

Other researchers on the topic, Scouler and Linley, note:

“Goal-setting is one of the most substantially researched areas in the entire field of organisational psychology. Studies conducted since the 1960s (Latham & Yukl, 1975; Latham & Saari, 1979; Locke & Latham 1990; Latham & Locke, 1991) and in a wide range of organisational and ethnic contexts have shown that in almost all circumstances the more clear the initial goal at the outset, the higher the performance outcome. This would seem to legitimise the heavy emphasis on goal setting in standard coaching models such as GROW (Whitmore 1996). “

Egan 2007 notes that “goal setting, whether it is called that or not, is part of everyday life. We do it all the time.” He then quotes Dorner 1996:

“Why do we formulate goals? Well, if we didn’t have goals, we wouldn’t do anything. No one cooks a meal, reads a book, or writes a letter without having a reason, or several reasons, for doing so. We want to get something we want through our actions or we want to prevent or avoid something we don’t want. These desires are beacons for our actions; they tell us which way to go. When formalised into goals, they play an important role in problem solving.

Egan adds “Because life is filled with goals – chosen goals or goals by default – it makes sense to make them work for us rather than against us.” He notes that there is a great deal of theory and research on goals and makes reference to Locke and Latham summarising 35 years of empirical research on goal setting in a 2002 article. He notes that according to this research setting goals empowers clients in four ways:

  • Goals help clients focus their attention and action
  • Goals help clients mobilise their energy and effort
  • Goals provided incentives for clients to search for strategies to accomplish them
  • Clear and specific goals help clients increase persistence.

2. Coaching frameworks that contain goals

We identified nine widely accepted and used coaching frameworks which have goals at their core.

We suggest that there would be few coaching frameworks that do not. Quite simply, goal setting is at the heart of coaching.

3. Our own observations and experience.

Each of Michelle, Greg and myself identified numerous personal instances over many years of the power of goals in focusing the mind and energising the mind and body.

Possible reasons for a goal not being useful

Perhaps the best overview is provided by Latham and Locke who list 10 potential pitfalls for goal setting, which they describe as a “behavioural science intervention.” Their 10 possible pitfalls are:

  1. A difficult goal sometimes leads to poorer performance than telling them to “do their best”.

There may be poorer performance if the person lacks the knowledge and skill to attain a performance goal. Latham and Locke suggest that in these situations the assignment of specific high learning goals, as opposed to performance goals, often leads to the highest performance. In their 2002 article they note that a “performance goal” can sometimes lead to evaluative pressure and performance anxiety. The person is so anxious to succeed they look at options in ineffective ways and don’t learn what is effective.

According to Egan goals set too high can do more harm than good. He quotes Locke and Latham:

“Nothing breeds success like success. Conversely, nothing causes feelings of despair like perpetual failure.  A primary purpose of goal setting is to increase the motivation level of the individual. But goal setting can have precisely the opposite effect if it produces a yardstick that constantly makes the individual feel inadequate.”

Egan describes a goal as realistic if:

“the client has access to the resources needed to accomplish it, the goal is under the client’s control and external circumstances do not prevent accomplishment.”

  1. Group Performance

A performance goal can have a detrimental effect on a group’s performance if there is a conflict among group members. When two or more people believe their goals are competitively rather than cooperatively related they may be tempted to pursue their own goals at the expense of others. They suggest a “super ordinate goal or vision” is required to address this.

  1. It may be viewed as a threat rather than a challenge

Latham and Locke quote an Israeli study that showed a drop in performance in such circumstances. They propose that this can be addressed by framing a goal positively and say the same study supported this. We note that others have also highlighted the need for positivity in goals.

  1. Adverse effect on risk taking if failure to attain a specific high goal is punished

If failures are judged severely, less difficult or vague abstract goals are likely to become the norm. This is opposed to the situation where failure to achieve a goal is part of the learning process. In that instance Latham and Locke quote the research of Frese which suggests this ultimately leads to improved performance.

  1. Inappropriate use of previously successful strategies

This is about success in achieving goals breeding very high confidence and a type of complacency. This may lead to inappropriate use of previously used strategies where there is a radical change in business environment. Latham and Locke suggest encouraging constructive conflict (different views) can assist in dealing with this.

  1. The temptation where money is attached to goals

Where money is attached to goals there may be a temptation to overstate achievement and even to manipulate outcomes to give the appearance of achievement so an incentive is received.

Latham and Locke quote a suggestion from Jack Welch – don’t punish managers for not attaining stretch goals so long as certain minimum standards are met.

  1. Idealised goals and risky irrational actions

An idealised goal that leads to irrational, risky actions to achieve the goal regardless of possible costs and consequences. Reality checks are necessary!

  1. Non-goal performance dimensions may be ignored

This can also be an upside to the extent that it provides focus on priorities. If a certain outcome is important a goal should be set for it.

  1. Increase in stress

This is particularly so where someone has too many goals. Make sure the person has the training and resources appropriate to the goal – their self-confidence matches the difficulty of the goal.

  1. A spiral of increasing goals that are ultimately unachievable

People who reach or exceed challenging goals may be given goals for the next year that are impossible to achieve.

To these we might add:

  1. Imposed goal having opposite effect

We found some conflicting views on this but our own experience was that in some instances an imposed goal will not be appropriately owned and there will not be the same motivation, perhaps even when compared to no goal. This is also discussed by Goldsmith – see comments below.

  1. Unhealthy focus on goals

For some the forming of the goal may become the focus of great attention and they never really get beyond that because they are still shaping their perfect goal. Also in some situations some people may have real difficulty in actually deciding on their goal.

Goldsmith has also provided his views on why people give up on goals:

  1. Ownership

The more people feel that change is imposed, the less likely the change is to occur.

  1. Time

People typically underestimate the time to achieve goals and when achievement does not occur within the original expectations the temptation is to give up. Input from others in identifying progress is helpful here.

  1. Difficulty

Similar to time, we tend to be optimistic in terms of the degree of difficulty. Discipline is required.

  1. Distractions

It is also easy to underestimate distractions and competing goals. Focus is required and also thinking up front about possible distractions and how they could be dealt with.

  1. Rewards

If a business is looking for immediate profit gains or an individual looking for immediate promotion or other recognition they will often be disappointed.

  1. Maintenance

Many goals can be “undone” if maintenance is not done. Take for example the goal to lose weight. Some who reach a weight goal celebrate by returning to previous poor habits and the cycle starts again.



We were left in no doubt there is enormous value in goal setting. Done well it is very useful. Amongst other things we identified that goal setting helps clients focus their attention and action, mobilise their energy and effort, provide incentives to search for strategies to accomplish them and increase persistence. Through the work particularly of Locke and Latham and Goldsmith we see that there are pitfalls associated with goals but we also see that a good coach will work with their client to avoid these or at least minimise their impact.

I’m giving the final word to another author, Jenny Rogers, who said “Without goal setting it is unlikely there will be any significant change……………..If you have no goal you cannot measure success.”

Next month I’ll share three models for thinking about goals which can be really helpful in practice.