Power In Goals

Engage your brain to achieve your goals
Engage your brain to achieve your goals

Neuroscience increasingly provides fabulous insight into what the brain actually needs for our performance to improve. As a coach, I am aware of how individuals and teams can improve their capacities as they establish goals that engage the brain, and then they work to keep the brain engaged in pursuing their ambitions. By recognising goals as personal and/or team developmental opportunities and approaching them with the correct mind-set much power can be developed.

SMART goals have been written about endlessly, with more ways of applying words to the acronym than I have been able to keep up with. The version I have adopted is Specific, Measurable, Agreed to, Realistic, and Time Bound. It is a great formula, and is used with success in pursuing individual and team goals the world over. Projects use SMART goals to define high-level goals for the project, and the goals that define results needed from each phase, milestone and work package. In many respects, these goals can be considered Checklist Goals, short- to medium-term goals that must be satisfied for the project to be delivered, and achieving them signifies some degree of delivery has been realised. Checklist goals have a lot of clarity about HOW they will be achieved. The clarity of how to progress, and then the tangible, relatively short time frame for delivery really works well for our brains. They get the brain fired up and engaged in a pattern now recognised with staying focused and on task.

SMARTI goals are a special form of goal, the Stretch Goal. The ‘I‘ for Inspiring, recognises that real change comes from doing something outstanding, something almost impossible. J. F. Kennedy provided a very clear SMARTI goal when he stated that Americans would land on the moon before the end of the decade (1960’s). The power of his statement inspired the nation, indeed the world, and provided a fantastic aspiration that galvanised years of research, development, action and delivery. The inspirational component provided a common purpose and direction that aligned countless teams of people to make landing on the moon a reality. What really worked for the moon landing was the combination of inspirational element that clearly spelled out the aspiration, and the planning detail that spelled out how to achieve the goal, as the how came clearer. An important aspect of sound planning is that it progressively elaborates on the detail and irons out the kinks in approach, addressing work to be done, risks to address, and who will do what when.

Performance against Stretch Goals is undermined by a lack of planning detail on ‘how’ to achieve the goal. Neuroscience has discovered that Stretch Goals do not fire the brain in the same way that a Checklist Goal does. The long-term nature of the Stretch Goal and the frequent lack of substance on how to achieve it means the brain does not engage as it does with the short-term goal. It is a contributing factor for why energy and focus drops for Stretch Goals and they get dropped after a while. Science is showing more clearly that Stretch Goals must be supported by ongoing attention on how to achieve them, effectively engaging the brain with some clarity on ‘how’, and with recognition that there will be obstacles to overcome for them to have lasting motivational power.

When I work with coachees on their goals I ensure that their stretch goals are aspirational, and that there is sufficient detail developed on how to achieve the goal for the coachee to stay engaged, and performance can be monitored. Not only is it important to know how you will achieve something, it also matters that you recognise and acknowledge progress, or its lack, and regularly fine tune your behaviours to align with your purpose. Much of the power of coaching comes from a coachee owning their results and recognising what they are doing that is making the difference. Goals can be short-, medium-, or long-term in nature. It is the ownership and commitment to our goals, the responsibility we hold for their success, and the action we take to deliver them that strengthens our power, our ‘ability to take meaningful action’.

Make goals work for you. Include an aspirational component that inspires you to action, and develop the detail so that you can stay engaged and monitor your performance.

You “Should” “Just” Do It

"Just": Only This
“Just”: This and Only This

Anyone who has read my book, “Appreciate The Fog: Embrace Change with Power and Purpose”, will be aware that I believe the words we choose can be empowering or dis-empowering. “Should” is a strongly coercive word, and whether instructing someone else, or directing it at ourselves, it has the effect of removing choice. It dictates the path that must be followed with a veiled threat if not performed as required. It is a word often associated with shame. A manager speaking to a subordinate with “should” is edging on, if not already immersed in, micromanaging. “Should” stifles creativity and spontaneity, establishes expectation, and those hearing that word argue with the predetermined at their peril. “Should” requires us to park our intelligence at the door and follow the prescribed path, irrespective of how unproductive, futile or irrelevant the instruction seems to us. Replacing “should” with “could” opens the possibility for new ideas, innovation, testing and challenging of the status quo, or of the proposed request, and allows a degree of freedom that is unavailable with “should”. Such a small change in word can lead to a significant shift in meaning.

The adverb “just”, another word I frequently hear myself using, is similarly problematic. Meaning “exactly, precisely; actually; closely, close”, “just” can be used to box or contain ideas and expression. Often when we use “just” we don’t mean it. The effect is to suggest precision in what we are saying and that only what is being proposed or stated is the case. “Just” impedes us from engaging in a deep and meaningful manner. Stevie Wonder’s song “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, a song I love hearing, is a classic example. If he truly just called to say “I love you”, he would hang up as soon as he said it. Preposterous, but that is what the line means. Read the rest of the song. There is so much more he wishes to convey. If the song was “I Called to Say I Love You”, there is no similar exactness, and it “unjustifiably” allows more to be said. Using “just” in this way creates an emotional escape hatch, putting an artificial limit on the conversation. While we may say more, “just” signals that what is coming is all there is. “Phew! I said that. Now I may say something more.” It is highly habituated in everyday use. I hear myself using it and cringe, and then ask myself “What am I afraid of? If I were to fully express myself here and now , what would I say?” That has the effect of connecting me with what is going on within me, and freeing me up to be more fully present and authentic in expressing myself. That, I find, is highly productive to the relationship I am in at that moment.

A related favourite is “I just wanted to say…” That may be followed by “I love you”, “I cherish our friendship”, “I find you incredibly annoying” or any number of possibilities. In using “wanted to” the sentiment has not actually been delivered, only the suggestion it is there to be said. It is a safety mechanism used to test the waters without fully committing to the statement. I have been known to respond with: “Are you going to actually say that to me?” The common response is a somewhat startled or perplexed expression. Recognition of what was said and its meaning often leads to a cognitive shift, with a fresh statement being uttered that is more fully aligned with their real intent. Such a shift often relates to what is referred to as an “ah ha” moment.

And then words like “always” and “never” are absolutes that are rarely the real truth in terms of how we use them. “It always rains on my day off.” That may feel true sometimes when weather is inclement for several weekends in a row, but it isn’t actually true. Such absolutes are may be used to artificially end debate or to express a global belief that the speaker holds. Usage often highlights a black and white, on or off, blinkered view of the subject, where colour or shades of grey are not recognised or acknowledged. The effect is to contain the dialogue, dismiss uncertainty, and to ensure distance from feeling, opinion and connection.

I am not suggesting that every use of these words is wrong. Rather I am offering that what we say, including the specific words we choose, can have significant and unexpected consequences in our communications. Taking time to reflect on the message we wish to convey and ensuring our words, tones and gestures are aligned and support our intent can assist us be clear about what matters to us, and reduce the risk that we gloss over something important. “I just called because I wanted to say I love you”. I just called to say I love you”. “I called to say I love you.” “I love you.” If your significant other was on the phone speaking to you, assuming love is part of the expression of your relationship, which of those phrases would you prefer to hear?

Our brain does hear what we say, and does pick up on the nuances, even if we don’t consciously recognise them ourselves. Coercive or constraining language does impact our performance, our experience, our attitude, and the meaning we make and take from our experiences. As we choose language that is more fully aligned with our intentions, our capacity to realise the results we seek increases. As a coach one of the areas I attune to are the words and messages of the coachee, and whether their thoughts, feelings and actions are aligned with their declared aspirations. Take some time to check on what you are communicating and if it is “just as it should be.”