Goal setting is a standard first step in most coaching models. However, goal setting is not always easy or even useful! In this article I will explore some of the potential downsides of goal setting and consider some possible alternatives.

“Knowing how and when to set goals in coaching, knowing how to gauge the client’s readiness to engage in a robust and explicitly goal-focused conversation or when to work with more vaguely defined or more abstract goals, are skills sets that distinguishes the novice or beginner coach from more advanced or expert practitioners.” (Grant, 2012)

What is a goal?

There are many different definitions of the term “goal”, and they all focus on a slightly different interpretation of the concept. 

Some focus on a goal as a pragmatic outcome – the thing a person wants to get or achieve. For example, I want to get a promotion, or I want to be able to run a marathon, or I want the children to live with me.

Others focus on the goal as a mental representation – the vision of what is desired in the person’s mind. For example, I want good work/life balance, or I want to be fit and healthy, or I want to have a positive co-parenting relationship with my ex-partner.

There are also definitions that refer to a goal in relation to its potential purpose – a tool for directing effort and then for monitoring, evaluating and adjusting one’s actions. In this sense, a goal is something that provides a reference point by which progress can be measured. For example, Am I getting closer to my goal? How much time is it taking?


Why are goals helpful?

In coaching, some of the reasons we think of goals as helpful include that:

  • When the client has to set a goal, it reinforces that it’s the client’s responsibility to identify and then do the work towards meeting their aspirations;
  • It can provide direction and purpose for the coaching conversation;
  • Having a goal can motivate people to make and sustain their efforts until the goal is achieved.
  • Having a goal helps people to use their knowledge and skills to formulate strategies for goal completion;
  • When the client has a clear goal, this allows the coach to manage the process and time to best suit the client’s needs in relation to that goal.

Sometimes the process of setting a goal is helpful, irrespective of the goal itself (e.g. setting a goal can encourage a person to take responsibility for identifying their future needs). However, sometimes the goal itself can be problematic.  


Some potential problems with goals

The goal may not be SMART. In other words, it may not be specific enough, measurable, attractive, realistic, and time bound. Goals that are vague and unrealistic are not likely to be effective motivators or the basis for clear action planning.

However, even if the goal is SMART, Grant (2012) points out that “SMART goals can dumb down coaching.” In other words, the goal may tick all the boxes for a SMART goal, but not be the right goal for the person at that particular time. 

“Even when a goal can be clearly articulated and its achievement measured, it is not necessarily appropriate for the client.” (Clutterbuck, 2012).

It might not be achievable for some reason (for example, the system does not support the client’s efforts towards the goal). Another problem might arise if the goal is only achievable with significant risk or costs (e.g. the effort required would be exhausting for the client, or achieving the goal means acting unethically or in a way not consistent with the client’s values).

“Goals are for people who care about winning once. Systems are for people who care about winning repeatedly.” James Clear

Goals that are set too quickly, without the necessary information and deep reflection on what is important and why, may end up creating a great deal of effort towards the wrong end.

 “The rush to seize and set a specific goal too early in the coaching process is a key derailer – a common trap for the novice.”  (Grant, 2012)

Some other examples of when goals can be counter-productive include:

  • When the goal is not well thought through;
  • When the goal imposes a limit and discourages ongoing development and artistry;
  • When people’s mindset doesn’t change to enable them to achieve the goal;
  • When people’s motivation is not be high enough to achieve the goal;
  • When the goal is overly linear within a complex system;
  • Over-emphasis on the end state at the expense of other considerations (ethics and unintended consequences);
  • The goal is too short-term and ignores the long-term big picture;
  • What’s required to work towards the goal is not aligned, interferes with healthy lives;
  • Forecloses on the search for what they really want;
  • Ignores the challenges associated with sustaining the outcomes.
When goals can be counter-productive


How can use goals in a productive way?

Clutterbuck (2012) suggests goals should not be the starting point for the coaching, but rather should develop from a more open-ended exploration of the issues. He also questions whether coaches should put less emphasis on defining goals, and rather focus on deepening the client’s reflection and imagination about goals. In this way, goals can be useful as a reference point, but should always be seen as emergent – prone to shifts, revisions, and transformations.


How do you use goals with your clients?

In what ways have you found that goal setting can limit what your clients can achieve?

How can you use goals in a more emergent way?


Additional reading on goals

  • Clutterbuck, D., Megginson, D. & David, S. (Eds.) (2012), Beyond Goals: Effective Strategies for Coaching and Mentoring. Gower Publishing, London
  • Drake, D. (2018) Narrative Coaching: The definitive guide to bringing new stories to life, 2nd Ed. CNC Press, Coaching without goals, pages 254-260.
  • Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54 (7), 493–503.
  • Anthony M. Grant (2012) An integrated model of goal-focused coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review 7(2) 146-165.
  • Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705–17.
  • Lisa D Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky and Max H. Bazerman (2009) Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of over-prescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives 23(1), pages 6-16.

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