Setting Big Goals at Work for Career Success

Spoiler alert: Setting goals creates motivation.

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Scientists have studied for years why humans perform and have given us amazing insights that can directly improve our performance. At the heart of that science is motivation— the push that makes you deliver. We’re motivated to deliver either because we enjoy what we’re doing (intrinsic motivation) and/or because we’ll get something we value when we complete it (extrinsic motivation). Goals can create motivation and help you to apply it in a productive way.


Setting bigger goals ensures that what you plan to deliver is important enough for others to care about. Your focus on fewer, bigger goals doesn’t mean that you should ignore important tasks or work less overall. It means that you understand which tasks add the most value to your organization. The “fewer, bigger” mindset also separates high performers from those who just want to perform the minimum requirements of their job. High performers want to meaningfully overachieve in the areas that matter most to the company— they promise big and deliver big. When you try to overachieve, there’s a larger risk for failure as well, but you will never be a high performer unless you take the risk to outperform. Many of you write goals as part of your company’s performance management process. You use your company’s approach, your manager plays a role in helping set goals, and you may have to use a specific technology solution, and so on. My advice is written with that in mind. If you’re not in a corporate environment and don’t have those constraints, all the advice still applies, and you can avoid the corporate bureaucracy that can makes goal setting unpleasant. There is a simple process to set goals that drive high performance— align, promise, increase, frame.


You can only be a high performer if you work on what your company values most, so you need to understand which company or department objectives are more important than others. In some organizations, goals are translated from the top of the company or your department to each level below. In that case, getting direction may be as simple as being told, “Here’s what you need to work on.”


A new mindset is the essential starting point for setting bigger goals. Eliminate from your mind any past beliefs about how to choose a goal. Ask yourself, “What are the three big promises I will make to my organization this year?” This new framing shifts your thinking from things you need to do to what you’ll deliver. You’re not just highlighting a few job responsibilities and calling them goals. You’re personally committing to deliver bigger results in the areas that matter most to your manager, department, and company. Using the word “promise” rather than “goal” may sound like nothing more than a cute word trick. But that change in language elevates the seriousness and emotional commitment of what you’ve stated. There’s a difference between saying you have a goal to complete a project by September and promising that you’ll complete the project by September.


To get closer to your maximum performance, you’ll need to increase what you promise. Remember that science has clearly found that bigger goals deliver bigger results, so increasing the challenge of your goals should help your performance. Bigger goals will also help you grow, since you’ll need to learn new ways to accomplish tasks to meet the larger goals you’ve set.

Bigger doesn’t mean unrealistic or unachievable, but that you find a way to improve on your promise on one of these ways:

  • Speed: You’ll get the project done earlier, the process to run faster, or the sales cycle to be shorter than it has been.
  • Quality: You’ll reduce the number of defects, increase the number of satisfied customers, or improve the look or feel of the product by an amount that puts you among the world’s best at that activity.
  • Cost: You’ll sell a product or service for more, or you’ll reduce the cost of delivering it.
  • Quantity: You’ll sell, produce, or shop more of a product or service.

The pivotal question is, how much will you improve one of these elements? Start by asking yourself what it would take to be 20 percent better at any of the items listed. If that’s an unreasonable stretch, try 15 percent. The difference must be enough so that your high performance will be meaningfully better than others and noticed by those who care about your results. One great measure of a bigger goal: you should be a little scared about your ability to achieve it.


Now that you have a few big, aligned promises, you need write them in a way that succinctly tells your manager what you’re promising to achieve. That may sound easy, but most of us fail in this step by being too lengthy, too complex, and too vague. I introduced the SIMple goal concept in One Page Talent Management to help make goal setting easier and more focused. The initials S- I- M in SIMple stand for:

  • Specific: Describe your promise in ten words or less. “Complete the Corn Crunchers product launch by February 1,” “Reduce cycle time on machine one by 20 percent,” or “Increase average private client account balance by $100,000.” Remember that each is the entire goal statement; there aren’t ten bullets underneath listing subgoals.
  • Important: Each promise should help the organization to deliver one of its most important objectives. Don’t include trivial goals or big tasks. If you limit yourself to three goals, it’s much easier to ensure each is important to the organization.
  • Measurable: There must be a way to assess whether you’ve achieved, exceeded, or fallen short of the goal. Quantitative goals are the easiest to measure, but many people work on projects or processes where the best measure is the quality or acceptance of the output. In those cases, you can measure by customer perceptions, sales, your manager’s assessment, being on time, successful delivery, and so on.

With fewer, bigger, aligned, well- written goals in place, you’re on the path to higher performance.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from 8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest), by Marc Effron. Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.
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