Training employees to set and achieve goals: It’s all about the ‘approach’
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Training employees to set and achieve goals: It’s all about the ‘approach’

Setting and achieving goals are among the most critical skills that employers seek to instill in their employees. After all, business success requires creating and reaching goals for everything from daily activities to bottom-line profit.

And there’s no lack of advice out there about the best training and coaching techniques for goal-setting, including the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely) and HARD (heartfelt, animated, required and difficult) methods.

But whatever training you provide in this area, there’s one aspect that, behavioral research demonstrates, will be critical to its effectiveness.

Positive vs. negative

Research in the field tells us that goals fall into two distinct types:

“Approach” goals

These are goals that people seek to achieve in a positive sense. “I will read 30 pages a day of the book on my nightstand” and “I will make 25 cold calls a day” are examples.

“Avoidance” goals

These are goals that people seek to achieve in a negative sense. “I will not have more than two beers each evening” and “I will not curse in the workplace” are examples.

Now, it’s pretty obvious that in certain situations, an avoidance goal is appropriate. Employers would agree, for example, that they want employees to not come in late. If avoidance goals foster good behavior, fine.

But for the most part, approach goals are more powerful and effective in bringing about behavior change. If you’re training employees to set and achieve goals, this is the kind you want them to focus on.

Self-esteem, performance

Let’s look at one particularly interesting study that confirms this idea. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts carried out two experiments with student participants. The first experiment looked at the effect of goal-framing — approach vs. avoidance — on their self-image. The second measured the performance of students who were given approach goals against those given avoidance goals.

In both experiments, the researchers found that approach goals resulted in better outcomes than avoidance goals. In the first, participants who formulated more approach goals reported feeling higher self-esteem and optimism than those whose goals were avoidance-oriented. In the second, participants who were given approach goals performed better on a set of creativity tasks than students who had avoidance goals.

Here’s how the two contrasting sets of goals in the second experiment were worded:

  • Approach: “We are interested in the creative abilities of college students. You will be asked to complete four tasks which are designed to reveal creativity, or lack of creativity. Creative responses are novel and unique while remaining appropriate and useful to the task at hand.”
  • Avoidance: “We are interested in the ability of college students not to be typical or ordinary. You will be asked to complete four tasks which are designed to reveal creativity, or lack of creativity. Uncreative responses are either commonplace and usual, or inappropriate and not useful to the task at hand.”

It’s not about logic

The researchers acknowledged that approach and avoidance goals appear functionally identical. Logically speaking, “I will brush my teeth after every meal” and “I will not let a meal go by without brushing my teeth” are the same thing.

But to see the two kinds of goals as equivalent is to fail to reckon with human nature and emotion. “The specification of desired versus undesired end states appears to have a marked impact on people’s appraisals of their behavior,” as well as their task performance, the researchers wrote.

So, if you’re training employees in goal-setting, think about stressing the kinds of goals that will make them feel good about themselves, and perform better on the tasks that reaching their goals requires.

This blog entry is based on the following research study: Coats, E.J. et al. (1996). Approach vs. Avoidance Goals: Differences in Self-Evaluation and Well-Being. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 22, No. 10, 1057-1067.


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