Surprising Goal Fact: Your Teams Don’t Need To Set Their Own Goals—You Can Assign Them

Business leader assigning goals to teammates in a meeting

Goals are among the most effective ways to accelerate growth without causing extra stress for your team. They’re powerful because they make work effective:

  • They align your team so you’re working in sync

  • They motivate and focus effort on the tasks that matter

  • They encourage your team to persist in the face of challenges

Specific, challenging goals can actually improve the economic output of a team by 18% over “do your best” goals. That’s almost the equivalent of an extra workday each week. The result is more strategic progress, but also a happier team.


One of the goal challenges we hear most often from leaders is that they are hesitant to assign goals to their teams. They feel like it’s micro-managing or that their teams are only really motivated if they set goals by themselves. But actually, the research on goal theory suggests that setting goals for your teams can be as effective as having them set their own goals. 


In this article, we’ll explore the research on setting goals and show how setting goals for your teams can be as effective as if they set their goals themselves. 

Three types of goals: Assigned, participative, and self-set

The research distinguishes between three ways to set goals: assigned, participative, and self-set goals. 


Assigned goals are those set by the leader and not negotiated with workers.


Participative goals require input from the team on what they should achieve. These goals are not mandated but co-constructed together with the leader. 


Self-set goals are those that workers set by themselves without input from the leader. 

Assigned goals are as effective as participative and self-set goals

This is a counter-intuitive fact about goal setting: goals work just as well regardless of who sets them.


When we tell leaders this, they are surprised. And then relieved. Many of us have internalized the idea that, if a person is to be motivated to achieve a goal, that person must participate in creating the goal.


But it turns out that that’s not the case. In their massive review of the research on goal setting and performance, Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham note,

“Assigned goals were found to be as effective as participatively set goals if both were at the same level of difficulty and … the rationale for them was explained.”

You don’t necessarily need to carry out a time-intensive, company-wide goal-setting exercise to get the best out of your teams. You can just give them goals and get great results.


The takeaway: Don't be afraid to set your team’s goals—the research suggests that assigned goals can be just as effective as participative and self-set goals.

Your team may prefer assigned goals

We don't have research on this, but we've often seen it in our clients: people actually often prefer assigned goals. There are a few reasons for this. 


One is that they often don’t have enough context for making appropriate goals. It’s hard to set goals anyways, and it’s much harder when you aren’t crystal clear on the organization’s long-term vision and strategy. People can sometimes feel like they’re trying to guess what would be appropriate. It’s sometimes a relief to have someone suggest what their goals could be.


Another reason is that they’re overwhelmed with options. There’s usually a number of potential priorities to choose from and a sense that some of those are the right ones to choose. But again, without all the relevant information, it can be difficult to make those choices. Having someone else recommend the goals can remove some of the stress of having to choose what’s important. 


The takeaway: Assigned goals are not just effective, they may actually be preferred by your teams.

Requirements for effective assigned goals

There are some requirements for making assigned goals first, which Locke and Latham hint at in the quote included above.


Your team must understand their goals. It’s not enough to tell people what their goals are—you must also spend time explaining what the goal is and what success looks like. Like any other goal, the goals you assign to your team should be specific and measurable.


Your team must believe in their goals. Another important aspect of effective goal execution is commitment to the goal. Your teams need to not only understand the goals you give them, but they must also buy into the goals. 


The takeaway: Make sure you explain why you've assigned them that goal and how it contributes to the company's larger vision. They need to know how their goal fits into the company’s broader vision.

Caveat #1: One way participative goals are better than assigned goals

There is one way that the research has found that participative goals may be superior to assigned goals: they tend to be harder.


Some evidence suggests that when teams are told to create their own goals, they often end up specifying quite challenging goals—sometimes more challenging than their CEO would have assigned to them. 


That matters because the research also clearly shows that there is a linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance: harder goals lead to better outcomes. (Keep in mind, though, that that relationship lasts until the goals become impossible. Impossible goals can lead to much worse performance).


So while assigned goals can be just as effective as participative goals, they may not be if they're easier than the participative goals would have been.


The takeaway: For best results, ensure any goal you assign your team is challenging (but possible).

Caveat #2: Your team may be different than the “average”

The research suggests that, on average, across a number of different teams and contexts, assigned goals tend to be as effective as self-set and participative goals.


But your team—or individuals on your team—might be different from the average. Be sure to check in with each member of your team to see if they’d prefer that you suggest their goals and then refine them together, or if they want to come up with their own goals from scratch.


In other words, don’t insist on assigning goals if your people would like to set their own. But also shouldn’t assume that you can’t assign goals. 


The takeaway: Ask your teams how they want to be part of the goal-setting process.

HabitStack’s recommendation: How to assign goals

Putting all that together, here is how HabitStack recommends assigning goals to your teams.

  1. Ask your teams how they’d prefer to develop their goals. You can say something like, “Would you like to set your own goals from scratch, or would you like me to suggest some goals and then we refine them together?”.

  2. Choose goals that are specific and measurable. Both you and your people should know what success looks like and be able to track progress.

  3. Choose goals that are challenging. But not too challenging. 

  4. Ensure everyone on your team understands the goals and believes in them. 

Don’t be afraid to set goals for your team—assigned goals work

Here's the main takeaway for business leaders: Don't be afraid to set your team’s goals. The research suggests that assigned goals can be just as effective as participative and self-set goals—which is to say, very effective.


If you follow our suggestions, you should be able to set goals that align with your strategic vision, boost the performance of your team, get you closer to achieving your big wins, and also help your team stay motivated and happy.

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