Why Leaders Should Set Development Goals They’ll Never Reach

Why Leaders Should Set Development Goals They’ll Never Reach

By | December 18, 2021

Analysis of our coaching data shows that when it comes to setting development goals, the secret to success is keeping your goals just out of reach

Setting a goal is relatively easy — for example, you want to lose 20 pounds. But achieving that goal tends to be more difficult. And what about sustaining the behaviors that helped you achieve your goal? Ask the overwhelming number of dieters who regain most or more of the weight they lost.

Coaching isn’t immune to this phenomenon. Executive coaches help leaders set ambitious development goals for themselves. These leaders put incredible effort toward their development goals. Yet, in the months and years after a coaching engagement ends, many leaders backslide, adopting the same counterproductive behaviors they worked so hard to overcome.

Why don’t the outcomes achieved in some coaching engagements stick? And, how can you avoid a similar fate?

For development goals, 80% is better than 100%

Preliminary analysis of AIIR’s coaching data indicates that the secret to achieving significant, sustained progress toward your development goals may be to keep them just out of reach.

Analyzing our coaching data, we see that individuals who reported 80% progress toward their development goals actually experienced greater growth along 20 leadership key performance indicators (KPIs) than individuals who reported achieving 100% progress toward their developmental goals. These KPIs included areas like strategic thinking, self-reflection, and driving change.

In other words, individuals who viewed their development as incomplete, and therefore ongoing, typically achieved greater progress than those who viewed their development as finite.

Focus on the journey, not the destination

Other research reaches a similar conclusion. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors demonstrate that leveraging a popular metaphor — the journey versus the destination — can be motivating as you work toward developmental goals and, more importantly, after you hit the developmental milestones set at the beginning of your coaching engagement.

You might think the phrase “focus on the journey, not the destination” seems like a mantra better suited for a bumper sticker than a boardroom, but a metaphor is a powerful tool. The idea at the heart of this metaphor is that self-improvement is continuous and never complete. It is central to a Growth Mindset, Lean and Kaizen business practices, and the reinforcement phase of the AIIR Method (AIIR is an acronym that stands for Assessment, Insight, Implementation, Reinforcement), a coaching methodology that has produced sustainable change for leaders across the Fortune 500.

So how does shifting your mindset to viewing development as a journey rather than a destination help you maintain your gains after a coaching engagement?

Difficult development goals help you stay hungry

Rocky III is one of my favorite movies of the Rocky franchise. In the iconic scene where he refuses to support Rocky’s bout with Clubber Lang, Mickey touches on one of the reasons we often see leaders regress after a coaching engagement: “This guy is a wrecking machine, and he’s hungry. You ain’t been hungry since you won that belt.”

When you set a goal, there’s a motivating distance between where you are and where you want to go. Change is hard, and adopting new behaviors takes a tremendous amount of mental and emotional effort — the workplace equivalent of those gritty training montages from the Rocky movies.

When you view your development goals as binary, once you achieve your goal, the gap between your current and desired state disappears, and there is no reason to keep up the level of effort it takes to maintain the behaviors you adopted in service of your goal. The natural tendency is to backslide.

When you view your development as a journey, on the other hand, you can appreciate the progress you have made from where you started, and see the intrinsic value in maintaining and building on the behavioral changes you made along the way.

When your goal is progress, not perfection, you can’t lose

The nature of development goals is that you never really reach them.

For example: You are naturally reserved, but a 360º survey reveals that you need to connect with your employees. Your development goals will center around adopting behaviors that make you more accessible to your employees — using active listening skills, holding eye contact, showing warmth and concern.

With time and effort, these behaviors may become habits. That progress will show up on your next 360º. However, your natural inclination is still to maintain distance between you and your employees. And because you’re human, you will occasionally slip.

When we view goal attainment as a destination to be reached, 80% is still a failure. Failing to achieve a goal can deal a serious blow to your psyche, and can result in worse long-term performance than your peers who declined to set goals for themselves.

On the other hand, when we view goal attainment as a journey, we can recognize the growth that has been achieved even when the goal hasn’t yet been reached — 80% is tremendous progress.

Maintain your gains

Coaching can create incredible change. But, change is hard, and adopting new behaviors requires a substantial amount of mental and emotional effort.

Reframing development as continuous rather than binary (complete or incomplete), as a journey rather than a destination, can help you stay motivated during and, as importantly, after you reach your development goals.

Are you ready to shape a better future together?

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