Helping learners set goals: It’s not just how high, but what kind
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Helping learners set goals: It’s not just how high, but what kind

It’s a given that training is more likely to succeed if learners play an active role in setting their goals.

But that’s true only to a point. As a trainer, you need to pay careful attention to the kinds of goals they set for themselves – because some types of goals can be counterproductive.

Five types
Researcher Carol Dweck has studied goal-setting for decades, and she notes that most people will naturally set goals in one of the following ways:

  • Winning: One of the most common types of goals is competitive in nature. “I want to hit this drive straighter and farther than anyone else playing today.” Or, “I want to be the best salesperson in the company.”
  • Normative, or personal best: Doing better against an objective standard. “I want to make par, or improve over my best score so far.” Or, “I want to beat my numbers from last year by 10%.”
  • Ability-linked: Wanting to validate one’s abilities. “I want to drive the ball straight and putt effectively.” “ I want to be a better negotiator.”
  • Outcome: Wanting to do well on a particular task. “I want to make this putt.” “I want to pass this quiz.”
  • Learning: Wanting to develop skills; grow; understand. “I want to master the skills necessary to drive, chip and putt effectively.” “I want to be better at managing people.”

Dweck did a meta-analysis of numerous studies, and conducted followup research on what kinds of goals work best. Here’s what she found:

“Learning” goals are most effective. When students were focused on learning, and on growth in skills and understanding, they described (and later demonstrated) greater persistence despite difficulties. They were more likely to stay motivated in the face of failures and press on.

Take home: Many learners tend to take a narrow, technical approach to goal setting – for example, by focusing on a particular metric. Encourage them to think more broadly.

“Ability-linked” goals are least effective. The problem with ability-linked goals is that the abilities in question may take time to develop. So when learners can’t see improvements in ability in the short term, intrinsic motivation and performance decline. Learners conclude that the training failed.

Take home: Experienced workers may set these kinds of goals, and it can disconcert them if they fail. In these cases, redirect them toward a different type of goal.

“Winning” and “outcome” goals encourage learners to engage just enough to win. Highly competitive learners are less likely to engage in continuous improvement. Once they’ve won, they tend to be done.

In Dweck’s class, for example, competitive learners didn’t process chemistry assignments as deeply as other learners.

Ditto for outcome-focused learners: Once they achieved the outcome, they stopped trying.

Take home: See if you can get winners and “do well-ers” to compete against personal bests or stretch goals.

Source: Grant, H. and Dweck, C. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 85, No. 3, 541-553.

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