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The Science of Goal Setting

Adapted from IOC Research Dose, co-authored by Margaret Moore and Andy Cook titled: What is Goal Flourishing.


Most people find setting goals that involve starting and sustaining new behaviors challenging.

Kenneth Nowack’s article titled: Facilitating Successful Behavior Change: Beyond Goal Setting to Goal Flourishing is a terrific resource for coaches. Nowack review issues and best practices in goal intentions, goal striving, and goal flourishing to serve coaches in maximizing client success.

Nowack summarizes plenty of interesting research, including neuroscience studies that show “broad and meaningful individual differences in our motivation to try new behaviors, willingness to take risks, and a tendency to seek novel and intense experiences.” Helping clients pursue goals then requires a customized approach.

Nowack’s Six Questions on Goals

Here are Nowack’s six key questions about goals:

  1. What are the key characteristics of goals?

  2. What works best to facilitate behavior change?

  3. When are clients most motivated?

  4. How long does it take for new habits to form?

  5. When should people “fold” in goal striving?

  6. Does practice make perfect?

Question 1: What are the key characteristics of goals?

Nowack lays out some key characteristics of goals:

  1. Difficulty (easy vs. challenging) – encouraging clients to set challenging goals is more likely to encourage initial readiness to change

  2. Proximity of the end state (short term vs. long term) – focus on specific and short-term goals and the steps/behaviors to facilitate progress

  3. Number of goals (single vs. multiple) – more than one goal can work as long as they are not in conflict

  4. Type (learning vs. performance) – if a client doesn’t have the skills, focus on learning not performance goals. The latter are more stressful when skills aren’t developed. Learning goals also increase commitment, self-efficacy and self-regulation.

  5. Motivational mindset (avoidance vs. approach) – avoidance refers to an unwanted outcome, approach is aimed at a desired outcome. Approach goals focus on start doing, doing more, or doing differently, while avoidance goals focus on stopping or doing less. Stopping behaviors or doing less is harder, and the approach mindset is typically more effective.

Question 2: What works best?

Nowack cites some fascinating research on the limitations of goal intentions: Most successful coaching engagements involve encouraging our clients to start, increase, decrease, modify, or stop behaviors that contribute to their effectiveness and performance on the job. Goal intentions (e.g., “I want to be a more participative leader”) have been found in a recent meta-analysis to be a weak predictor of acquiring new habits, accounting for only 28% of successful behavior change efforts.”

Nowack goes on to point out that “current research suggests that availability and type of social support as well as regulation of emotions are equal to, or even more important than, cognitions in predicting both intention and initiation of new habits.”

He then shares what goes wrong in 360-degree feedback in leadership coaching: “One of the purposes of using 360-degree feedback in coaching interventions is to illuminate strengths as well as potential areas for development.

Some negative reactions to such feedback might actually be motivating, but neuroscience research provides answers about why “underestimators” (whose self-ratings are more critical than the ratings of their observers) or those who interpret the feedback as judgmental or hurtful are disengaged and lack motivation to change behavior.

Interpersonal judgment and social evaluation tend to elicit strong stress reactions, with cortisol levels being elevated 50% longer when the stressor is interpersonal versus impersonal. Individuals who negatively interpret feedback and experience emotional hurt, rejection, and pain tend to have both blunted motivation to initiate behavior change and diminished readiness for creating implementation intentions that are crucial for successful behavior change.

These findings suggest that coaching has an important role in helping clients process their emotional responses to behavior change, improve social support, and help clients welcome, understand and accept feedback as beneficial and growth-promoting.

Some other interesting findings:

  1. It’s vital to “chunk” long term goals into small, manageable steps.

  2. It’s important to experience setbacks early; setbacks that happen when less time remains for goal achievement are more likely to lead to abandoning the goal.

  3. Writing out goals, sharing them with others, and communicating with others on progress improves goal success.

  4. NOT having a backup plan can improve goal achievement.

  5. Given that goal intentions are weak predictors of change, focus on overcoming challenges and make implementation or practice plans.

  6. Use the if/then technique – for example “if my heart starts to race, then I will breathe deeply to relax

Question 3: When is motivation highest?

Motivation typically follows a U-shaped pattern: motivation is highest at the beginning and end of a goal pursuit rather than in the middle. When clients work toward goals, they monitor their progress in two ways—what they have achieved so far, and how much they have left to do. They switch from the first way, what they have achieved, to the second way, what is left to achieve, about mid-way toward a goal, which decreases motivation.

Because beginning and end (vs. middle) positions are often arbitrarily determined, coaches can help clients shorten the “middle” by creating subgoals that are smaller actions with shorter follow-up periods.

Question 4: How long does it take to establish new behaviors?

Creating new habits requires an abundance of self-control and emotional regulation. Behaviors vary in their complexity and how long they take to reach automaticity, averaging 66 days in one study. Neuroplasticity isn’t established until new behaviors are sustained, emphasizing the importance of dedicated and continuing practice.

Question 5: When should you fold in goal striving?

When goals are unattainable, out of reach, quitting or folding leads to better well-being as perseverance in the face of too much challenge is stressful and inflammatory. Happier people disengage from failure, don’t ruminate, and re-engage in new goals and activities.

Question 6: Does practice make perfect? Nowack summarizes the research: “deliberate practice is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to explain individual differences in skills, and it appears that more variance is NOT explained by deliberate practice than what is explained by it.

He goes on to say provocatively: “Coaches should encourage clients to practice new skills until they become comfortable and automatic, but they should be cognizant of the limits of deliberate practice in realistically converting “competent jerks” into “loveable stars” on the job. In practical terms, the magnitude of behavior change expected and required by organizations that hire coaches to help employees change behavior may, at times, be both unrealistic and unattainable for some.

Nowack’s 3 E Model

Nowack created a practical model based on four bodies of scientific work (theory of planned behavior, social cognitive theory, health-belief model, and goal setting theory) called 3E for – enlighten, encourage, and enable. All of these models conclude that good levels of both motivation and self-efficacy are a critical predictor of successful goal adoption and maintenance. Coaches can help clients fully unpack their sources of motivation, ranging from the highest life values or calling to the simple benefit of “I feel better.”

Enlighten stands for:

  • Accurate insight

  • Identify signature strengths

  • Ideal self vs real self

Encourage stands for:

  • Motivation

  • Self-efficacy

  • Skill building

  • Goal implementation

Enable stands for:

  • Practice plans

  • Reminders

  • Social support

  • Relapse prevention

  • Evaluation

Takeaways for coaches

  • Help clients fully unpack all of their sources of motivation, ranging from their most heartfelt life values or calling to the simple benefit of “I feel better.”

  • Help clients create not just goal intentions but address their challenges in implementation plans, to steadily increase confidence.

  • Goals come in different sizes and, like shoes, should fit the client. Help clients optimize the goal time-frame and chunking, decide whether to focus on learning or performance and perhaps focus less on backup plans.

  • Help clients appreciate that failure in accomplishing goals is not a weakness. Terminating pursuit of unrealistic or unattainable goals might prove to be a better strategy for physical health and psychological well-being.

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