Setting goals in coaching & Mentoring

Objectives come in many sizes and varieties. Research evidence shows that whilst objective-orientation is significant in overall leadership performance, the nature of effective objective management changes at different levels, from a focus on task (practical, usually short-term objectives) at lower levels of leadership to one on purpose (achievement of a broad vision) at higher levels. SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) work best at the task level, and can be dangerously distracting at higher levels of management. They tend to work best on short-term, relatively uncomplicated objectives.

In mentoring, SMART objectives have limited application, because the kind of issues people bring for discussion tend to be related either to longer-term, career-related outcomes, or to personal strategies, such as how to manage difficult relationships, or how to build one’s personal reputation. It is often the case that what appears to be the objective at the start evolves into something else. This is because the mentoring dialogue helps the mentee understand more fully their internal values and needs and the complex realities of the world, in which they live and work.

Research into how people set, pursue and review objectives tells us a lot about how to be more effective in how we manage them. Some of the key findings are that:

  • People can only cope with a small number of objectives at one time (no more than five or six). We can enlarge this number by setting at most one or two superordinate objectives (large, usually medium-term) and linking other, smaller and shorter-term objectives (subordinate objectives) to these.
  • The way people approach objectives varies with whether they are motivated by performance (showing how good they are) or by learning. If you are motivated by performance, you are likely to be much more narrow and less challenging in the objectives you set. Learning objectives are more likely to lead to positive and open behaviour to others, and to openness to different opinions, than performance objectives.
  • Objectives can be driven by what we desire positively or what we want to avoid. Both can be very powerful, but positive objectives are generally more effective.
  • Objectives can be driven by external factors, such as a promotion opportunity or praise from others or they can be driven by what’s congruent with your internal values, or both. Commitment to externally focused objectives is harder to maintain than to internally generated objectives. Good practice shows that “self-talk” about objectives is important in how tenaciously you pursue them. Saying “I want to do X” tends to be less effective than asking “Do I want to do X?”. This is because the former leads us towards external motivation (e.g. feelings of shame, if we do not do what we committed to) and the latter puts us in closer touch with our internal motivations and values.
  • Nonetheless, commitment is a key step in objective management. One of the most important roles of a mentor is as a “conscience”. What’s called the Pygmalion effect comes into play here. The fact that someone else believes strongly in our ability to achieve a challenging objective provides a very strong external motivation not to prove them wrong.
  • People tend to underestimate risk and are therefore generally less effective in assessing risk, when they are faced with specific, challenging objectives, than is the case when the objectives are less challenging and less specific.
  • Keeping long-term (superordinate) objectives in mind helps put current successes and failures into context, so you become more resilient to setbacks
  • People function best when they feel a sense of autonomy (being able to choose what we do), competence (feeling that they are competent at it or able to become competent) and relatedness (being supported, recognised and valued). Our ability to set and stick to ambitious objectives depends to a considerable extent on how positive we feel about these three aspects of our life and work.
  • Whilst stretch objectives (ones that take you out of your comfort zone) have become a feature of many organizations, good practice shows that they only work in specific, special circumstances such as:
    • when you already have a lot of confidence in your ability to learn from and master a new challenge, based on recent achievements
    • when you have sufficient resources to support you – for example, guidance from other people, time allocation and/or access to funds/know how

What all this tells us is that it’s important to think about and explore the objectives we set for a mentoring relationship. Some key questions to ask and to explore with your mentor include:

  • What are my motivations for this objective?
  • What superordinate objectives do I want to set and how will I link subordinate objectives to them?
  • How specific (SMART) do I want my objectives for mentoring to be?
  • Am I comfortable with letting objectives emerge as I learn more about myself and the career options open to me?
  • Who is the person I want to become?
  • How much support will I need in making my objectives happen?
  • Just how stretching a objective am I prepared to go after?
  • What has stopped me going after or succeeding in this objective before? How might mentoring make success more likely?
  • What am I prepared to stop doing, in order to make space to focus on this objective?
  • Will achieving this objective open up future possibilities for me or narrow them down?
  • What if any downsides might there be of succeeding at this objective?

It is okay to be unclear about your objectives initially. What your mentor will expect is that you have a broad sense of purpose and sufficient open-mindedness to join with them on a journey of mutual discovery. The more specific objectives will evolve naturally, as that journey takes place. Typical initial objective setting conversations start with, for example:

  • I feel ready for my next career step, but I’m not sure what roles I should be looking at…
  • I’d like to be a better team leader, but I need to understand what that means…
  • I feel I could be contributing a lot more in my department…

Some simple ways to set mentoring objectives

  1. Get to know yourself better. Seek feedback from other people – for example, your boss, colleagues, friends and family – about your strengths and development areas. (See the materials on feedback on the People Development Way portal.) Think about the learning or personal changes that might be needed to make you more effective in your current role and/or a suitable candidate for future other roles.
  2. Explore your own sense of identity. A simple exercise is to describe yourself using sentences beginning with I am the person who… Usually you will have a verb, an object and an elaboration. For example, I am the person who believes in (verb) treating people fairly (object) to help them work at their best. What changes would you like to make to become that person more consistently?
  3. Try to clarify your own values – what is genuinely important to you as a human being? What changes would you like to make to demonstrate your values more consistently?
  4. Monitor the challenges of your current role. Maintain a Frustration-Elation Log by capturing short descriptions every week of things that have really pleased and disappointed you. Write a few sentences on each. When you have several weeks worth, examine the log for patterns. If you are able, do ask other people to read your log and see what recurrent patterns and themes they see. . Each of the negative patterns is something you might want to address in mentoring and link to a superordinate objective
  5. Develop a clearer idea of your potential future career moves. What kind of roles might help you be more authentic and play to your strengths?
  6. Make your Individual Development Plan a living document. Consider including key information such as:
  • What you want to learn in the next period?
  • What accomplishments you want to demonstrate?
  • What you will do to build your personal networks and reputation?
  • What experience you want to acquire, that will enhance your judgment and build track-record?
  • What developmental opportunities you can find outside your formal role?

Review your progress against this regularly and use your mentor as a resource in refining these subordinate objectives.

Be honest with yourself: is this really a objective you want to achieve, or is it someone else’s objective for you, which you are going along with? Using a scale of 0 to 10 (10 = I am totally determined; 0 = over my dead body), how genuinely committed are you to this objective?

Some tips for sticking with objectives

  1. Be clear about how your objectives link to your personal values
  2. Develop a strong network of support around you. The more people you share your objectives with, the more people you have to help you stick to it. Know who to ask for help when you feel stuck
  3. Develop routines that reinforce your attentiveness to the objectives. For example, ask yourself at the beginning of each day ‘How am I going to use some of my time today to take me nearer to my objective?’ … and at the end of the day, ask ‘What did I do today that helped me towards my objective?’
  4. Find simple rewards for yourself, whenever you achieve a step on the way to your objective
  5. Allocate time for a) working on your objectives and b) thinking about your objectives. It is important to do both of these regularly, to maintain momentum.

Reviewing objectives

Because objectives constantly evolve, it makes sense to reassess them regularly, i.e. every three or four mentoring meetings. People often follow a objective blindly even though it is no longer appropriate, because they are unwilling to accept that things have changed. This is known as the “the sunk cost trap” – the effort we have put in pursuit of the objective is not recoverable, but our instinct is to continue to invest time and energy, because we cannot admit to ourselves that a objective no longer matters or is no longer achievable.

Some useful questions to ask here are:

  • Am I as excited/ motivated by this objective as I was?
  • What has changed in my environment with regard to this objective?
  • What has changed within me that might make me look at this objective differently?
  • Am I attached to this objective for the right reasons?

© David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved

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