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Setting better goals: how brain science can help

Although widely used in organizations, goal-setting processes are often lacking in key motivational elements. Jennifer Gervès-Keen explains how they can be improved

Colleagues conversing about chartsOrganizations need to understand that goal setting is not just measured by financial success (Getty Images/Westend61)

Goal setting is a common process in most organizations but is often not as effective as it could be. CPA Canada spoke to Jennifer Gervès-Keen of JGK Consulting in Richmond, B.C.—an award-winning executive coach, facilitator, speaker and author. As a Certified Mentor Coach who specializes in change management and leadership, Gervès-Keen has done extensive research into brain science and its relationship to human behaviour. Here, she shares some of her thoughts on goal setting and its impact on performance and mental health.

CPA CANADA: What are the most frequently used goal-setting tools?
JENNIFER GERVÈS-KEEN (JGK): Goal-setting tools are not new. Every organization seems to have its own process, usually wrapped up in evaluations. Some use key performance indicators (KPIs), while others use objectives and key results (OKRs), or S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals.

CPA CANADA: How effective are these tools?
From a brain science perspective, one key ingredient is clearly missing in all these processes. There is no emotional side to them. There is nothing in them that asks, do you care about the goal? If an individual doesn’t know why they have to accomplish the established goal or has no autonomy or any kind of participation in what those goals look like or how to achieve them, motivation will be low.

There is a big difference between doing something because you are told you have to do it and actually feeling it makes sense and is something you care about. In many cases, goal setting is mainly based on hitting revenue or other performance targets, without taking into consideration the individual’s motivation, or amplifying their connection to the overall purpose of the goal.

CPA CANADA: How does this affect mental health?
JGK: In these uncertain times, we are seeing a lot of hesitation and lack of focus which is having a massive impact on mental health. Some organizations have gone from 10-year to five-year strategic plans and are now looking at 18 months or less. These days, no one knows what will happen in three months, let alone 12.

If a person is in a volatile industry that has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and their boss says they need to set up annual goals, people are reverting to a threat response and literally freezing, checking out, or, if they really feel powerless and undervalued, leaving.

Goal setting for its own sake is not an effective motivational tool at the end of the day. If you can’t find a motivator that appeals to employees as much as it appeals to the company, it’s a tough slog for everyone.

CPA CANADA: How are organizations dealing with the limitations of goals and goal-setting processes as they stand today?
JGK: The mental health factor is something that really needs to be considered. Some organizations are really getting tapped into the issues and changing a lot of things. Others are still driving the same as they did in the past with their goal setting processes, but it is becoming clear that these companies are not setting people up for success.

We try to get organizations to a place where yes, they are going to have organizational and maybe team goals. But people need to have goals around personal development and stabilizing their own mental health or coming to terms with things that have happened in the last few years. Researchers are saying the repercussions from the pandemic from a mental health perspective could last up to 10 years.

CPA CANADA: How do you create effective goals?
JGK: An effective goal must make sense and have some kind of emotional attachment for the person. It also must be communicated clearly. People need to know, what is the first step? What does it look like? Otherwise, they won’t care or can’t start.

If you have been given a goal you are indifferent about, even if you see it as something you have to do, you won’t feel connected to it and your brain will lead you to procrastinate and make it that much harder.

If all the elements are in place--that is, you care about the goal, it makes sense, and you have specific steps to get you there--your brain will do a better job of cutting out distractions and things that make you procrastinate.

CPA CANADA: Can you share some best goal-setting practices?
JGK: The first step is to establish why you are setting goals. There’s a very big difference between setting goals purely to fill in your performance evaluation at the end of the year versus having a cascading goals system in which the entire staff actually knows the company’s strategic plan for the year, what they have to accomplish, and how they are connected to the overall purpose.

Explaining that purpose is key. There needs to be a lot of communication around why everyone needs to hit the goals that have been set. For a staff member, working toward a common goal where you know the impact it will have on the entire organization can be highly motivating. It’s much more compelling than hearing “I’m your manager, you need to get better at this, and here is the goal.”

Goals also need to be linked to organizational values. When your industry or the world in general is in the middle of some major crisis, it is important to come back to values that matter and embed them into your goal-setting process. Values-based communication provides stability to counteract today’s uncertainty.

Also, you need to assign accountability and determine what that looks like. What will the individual be accountable for? Are there financial and other incentives around that? Does this accountability support what you are trying to achieve with your goal-setting process?

CPA CANADA: Any final thoughts?
JGK: Organizations need to understand that goal setting is not just measured by financial success. It’s about hanging on to your people, retaining their attention, and creating a positive work environment. You can’t do that if you don’t understand their motivation.

We are seeing a lot of unproductive behaviour in the form of quiet quitting, disengagement or burnout. It has been a tough ride, and people are tired, whether they are on the front lines serving customers, or in a leadership position where they are having to make hard decisions about layoffs.

On the plus side, there are opportunities to make some positive and impactful changes. But to seize that opportunity, you need to gain a better understanding of how people work and what drives them.


Learn more from Jennifer Gervès-Keen in our online courses on how to use emotional intelligence to be a better leader, and how to use coaching skills to improve performance management. Plus, make sure to sign up for the Public Sector Conference, where Gervès-Keen will be facilitating a session on leading into the future on October 25, 2023.