Goal-setting has played an integral role both in my personal life and my career, and provided me with useful frameworks for deconstructing the different components of success within larger, more complex constructs. As a young boy, I was introduced to the concept of goal-orientation vis-à-vis organized sports—and have remained convinced of its versatility and value. Following a recent visit to ROC (Taiwan), I began to think about the relationship between effective goal-setting as, articulated by the state to its citizenry, and its potential to mediate the achievement of national development objectives. When I tried to define Saint Lucia’s national goals—I drew a blank. I subsequently scoured the Internet for any official communications describing the government’s short to mid-term goals.
The most relevant information I encountered came out of a “National Vision Plan” commissioned in 2003 by the day’s government. Included in the plan are renderings of a Vieux Fort cruise port and a Canaries coastline redevelopment project, neither of which have been realized some 13 years later.
While attempting to dig deeper into the potential nexus between goal-setting and national development, I arrived in the realm of institutional/organizational psychology. It turns out that motivational alignment and goal-setting are among the more influential —if not the most influential—factors associated with high-level performance in the completion of complex tasks—a claim supported by 25 years of industrial/organizational psychology and 400 or so laboratory and field studies detailed by Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham in the October 2006 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
The scientific examination of goal setting and its impact on performance first gained popularity in the early 1970s, with many of its most elemental works originating in the field of educational psychology. After emerging as an important theoretical perspective in the study of achievement-behavior among school students and academic performance, goal-orientation theory eventually piqued the interests of the institutional/organizational psychologist community—where its theoretical framework prompted extensive research and the publishing of several intriguing studies in the early 2000s.
Goal-orientation is essentially the disposition of an individual or a group towards developing or demonstrating ability in achievement settings. However, to understand the basic properties of goal-orientation theory and its effective application in different achievement-situations, it’s important to understand how goals are conceptualized in the research literature. Broadly speaking, there are two types of goals: mastery goals and performance goals. Mastery goal orientation refers to an individual’s purpose of developing competence, or mastering the task at hand. Mastery-oriented students focus on learning, understanding, developing skills, and mastering information. More generally, mastery goal orientation can be said to refer to a purpose of personal development and growth that guides achievement-related behavior.
In contrast, whereas mastery goal orientation refers to the purpose of developing competence, performance goal orientation refers to the purpose of demonstrating competence. Performance-oriented individuals focus on managing the impressions that others have of their ability: attempting to create an impression of high ability and avoid creating impressions of low ability.
In Locke and Latham’s summary of goal-orientation research, they note that much of the findings fall roughly along eight categories—three of which will be introduced here: Framing; Group goals; and Macro-level goals. The concept of framing is well known in psychology; one way of thinking about framing is in terms of gains versus loss. Whether a person views a high goal as a challenge versus a threat makes a difference for that person’s performance. According to studies by Zahavy and Erez (2002), those who framed the goal in terms of failure achieved significantly lower levels of performance than did those who were made to focus on the usefulness of effort. Part of what makes the fusion of goal-orientation and national development such a fascinating blend, as the research affirms, is that goal setting can be just as useful within groups as among individuals. However, groups add an additional layer of complexity, as there’s always the potential for conflict among various group members. Studies show that having high personal goals that are compatible with the group’s enhances overall group performance—whereas having personal goals that
are incompatible with the group’s goal has a detrimental effect on how well the group performs.
Another element of group goals is that when goal vision is common among group members, they tend to share useful information with one another, leading to better performance in complex task management. Though there is little primary research on the effects of goal-setting on national development objective achievements, we’ve seen goal-orientation research be expounded upon from the group level to the organizational level. In a particularly interesting six-year, longitudinal study of the performance of small-venture entrepreneurs (the most important drivers of economic development), researchers found that growth goals, along with self-efficacy, and organizational vision, were able to significantly predict future growth. These three motivators almost entirely mediated the effect of future growth on the two personality traits of passion for the work and tenacity.
Additionally, a goal, once accepted and understood, remains in the periphery of consciousness as a reference point for guiding and giving meaning to subsequent mental and physical actions. There are also related findings suggesting that even goals that are subconsciously primed (and participants report no awareness of the primed motive) affect performance.
Suffice to say, goal setting can be a powerful force in any domain as long as an individual or group has some control over the outcome. It’s been applied in numerous contexts outside of academic and workplace performance, in fields ranging from rehabilitation to sports performance, and can be applied in numerous other settings. Goal-orientation remains an open-theory, meaning that there is virtually no limit on the number of integrations and combinations that can be made between seemingly unrelated fields—such as developmental economics, for example. Though not every nation shares the exact same experience, the development journeys of certain Central-Eastern European countries such as Slovenia and Estonia, as well as the Asian Tiger countries such as ROC (Taiwan) would be interesting models to inform our individual development trajectory. Of course, an important first step before embarking on such an intellectually stimulating exercise would be to squarely ask: What are Saint Lucia’s goals?