A beginner's guide to goal setting at work

We don't have the same enthusiasm for self-improvement at work as we do in our personal lives, writes Goodby Silverstein & Partners' managing partner.

No gluten in 2017! Work more! Try meditation! Work less! Stop texting and driving, even at red lights!

We love a good New Year’s resolution. We are, as a people, wired for self-improvement. When you know better, you do better, as Oprah popularized years ago.

However, getting coworkers together and saying, "Hey, everybody, let’s do some goal setting for 2017," inevitably brings out heavy sighs and eye rolls all around.

We just don’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for self-improvement at work as we do in our personal lives. And yet it’s probably more important in a client-service business like ours than anywhere else.

It sounds obvious, but one of the biggest traps of client service can be the service part itself. It’s easy to get stuck. Clients ask; you answer. Clients call; you fulfill. Even with the loveliest clients, the monotony of it all can make you a little crazy. There is always the question of whether the work will be only as good as the request. And after a while, the "serve-the-request mentality" can lull you into believing you don’t need to proactively stake a way forward.

Perhaps we could borrow some precepts from personal goal setting and apply them to the workplace. With that in mind, here are five tips for inspiring people you work with to set some goals:

Rebrand it. At its worst, "goal setting" sounds like work on top of existing work, which never sits well with anybody. But really, it’s simply asking ourselves, what are two or three things I want to do to make the new year at work better than the previous one? Maybe simply calling it "New Year’s work resolutions" could prevent people from reaching for their phones the moment the meeting starts.

Ask don’t tell. We hate it when people — Mom, Dad, significant other — insist on telling us what our personal New Year’s resolutions should be. The same applies to work resolutions; there won’t be a faster path to rejection than handing out predetermined goals. Instead get people together and talk as a group. Feed off the energy and ideas in the room regardless of whether you are after group goals or individual ones.

Get specific. As with many things, the more specific the resolution is, the more attainable it will be. "Get healthier" is undefined and immeasurable. "Eat fewer carbs during the week" or "Try two new fitness classes during the month of January" are both more tangible and more interesting. "We want to become a more adept mobile agency." Too broad. But "Our first five presentations in the new year will lead with mobile ideas"? Better.

What are you leaving behind? Sometimes the things you abandon are the most important. Many gurus—and by gurus, I’m speaking specifically about my favorite SoulCycle instructor, Jenna—will ask you to not only focus on what lies ahead but also on what you can let go of.  So ask yourself, what behaviors am I willing to leave behind? For example, "I’m not going to spend time worrying about [specific thing] because it’s beyond my control." That’s as much a recipe for change as determining what’s going to be different.  

Don’t forget to celebrate. There’s an e-card floating around the Internet that reads, "Here’s to pretending anything changes when the year does." It may be cynical, but it’s also accurate, given that 75 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by January 15.  Maybe if resolution setting included regular check-ins and small rewards along the way, our hit rate would be higher. At work try meeting again in March with a bottle of wine or champagne to celebrate the success of those who are still committed.

I’ll leave you with an adage that is as true in life as it is in business: old ways won’t open new doors. 

Here’s to hoping that New Year’s work resolutions abound this year. 

Good luck.


Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free