In early January, many people resolve to do things differently in their lives. By mid-January, most people have already given up on those resolutions and gone back to watching too much TV, eating hot dogs wrapped in pretzel crust from Auntie Annie’s, and using their treadmill as a place to hang clothes.
But what if your responsibilities include helping other people reach their goals? Is there something you can do to get them through January and—gasp—beyond? Whether you are a manager, parent, or friend, research on goal-setting shows there is plenty you can do to help someone out.
New Year’s resolutions are all about change: eat less, exercise more, spend time with friends, get less stressed out. And let’s face it, change is hard. Here are four things you can do to help the people you care about:
1. Call B.S.
If I have learned one thing from coaching executives and tracking their progress toward business and personal goals, it is this: Unless an individual is committed to reaching their goal (and I mean really committed—not just that they think it is the right thing to do, or their boss or spouse thinks they should do it, or all of their friends seem to be so much happier because they are doing it), it won’t get done. The drive has to be there, and it has to be genuine.
I have an activity that I use called the "B.S. detector." It challenges executives to describe to me why they are motivated to achieve a goal. The activity involves, among other things, listing what they have to give up to reach their goal, and compares it to what they have to gain. If, during this exercise, I get the feeling that they are not committed, we drop it and go on to something else. Otherwise, we are wasting each other’s time, and I resolved to stop wasting time in 2013.
We all know the old saw of using SMART goals. As it turns out, the SMART approach is pretty, well, smart. The one trouble involves the A, which stands for "attainable." Turns out that people work harder and perform better when the goals are moderately difficult. One of the classic studies on goal-setting was done 10 years ago by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, who summarized 35 years of goal research in an article that appeared in the journal American Psychologist. Their work showed that people made the greatest effort toward achieving goals that were a challenge, and made the least effort when the goal was easy or extremely hard. Keep that in mind the next time you sit down with someone and review the goals they have set.
3. Use Tough Love
Remember when you were a kid, and a teacher, or maybe one of your parents smiled at you and said, "Just do your best."? They weren’t helping you much. The S in the smart goal model stands for "specific," and Locke and Latham found that moderately difficult, specific goals led to substantially better performance than instructions to just do one’s best. They suggest that instructions to do the best you can provide no external referent, and people define their own acceptable performance level. If you are a parent, can you remember times when you instructed your kids to "Do the best you can?" Did it work?
4. More Love
Locke and Latham’s research supports my anecdotal observation on commitment. They describe a second factor that is also critical to goal achievement—self-efficacy (the belief that we can actually achieve the goal). They suggest that there are three ways leaders can raise the self-efficacy of their subordinates: by providing adequate training opportunities for the individual to be confident, by exposing the person to successful role models, and by expressing confidence in the individual’s abilities. So resolve that 2013 is the year you will release your inner Bela Karolyi and use more "You can do it!" feedback with your subordinates. It might at least get them through February.
And if you’re really lucky, maybe someone will commit to following through on these four tips for you as well.
—Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.
[Image: Flickr user Daniel X. O'Neil]