Help Clients Formulate Realistic Goals

Setting stretch goals can help clients energize themselves. They rise to the challenge. On the other hand, goals set too high can do more harm than good. Locke and Latham (1984, p. 39) put it succinctly:

Nothing breeds success like success. Conversely, nothing causes feelings of despair like perpetual failure. A primary purpose of goal setting is to increase the motivation level of the individual. But goal setting can have precisely the opposite effect if it produces a yardstick that constantly makes the individual feel inadequate.

A goal is realistic if the client has access to the resources needed to accomplish it, the goal is under the client’s control, and external circumstances do not prevent its accomplishment.

Resources: Help clients choose goals for which the resources are available

It does little good to help clients develop specific, substantive, and verifiable goals if the resources needed for their accomplishment are not available. Consider the case of Rory, who has had to take a demotion because of merger and extensive restructuring. He now wants to leave the company and become a consultant.

INSUFFICIENT RESOURCES: Rory does not have the assertiveness, marketing savvy, industry expertise, or interpersonal style needed to become an effective consultant.

Even if he did, he does not have the financial resources needed to tide him over while he develops a business.

SUFFICIENT RESOURCES: Challenged by the outplacement counselor, Rory changes his focus. Graphic design is an avocation of his. He is not good enough to take a technical position in the company’s design department, but he does apply for a supervisory role in that department. He is good with people, is very good at scheduling and planning, and knows enough about graphic design to discuss issues meaningfully with the members of the department.

Rory combines his managerial skills with his interest in graphic design to move in a more realistic direction. The move is challenging, but it can have a substantial impact on his work life. For instance, the opportunity to hone his graphic design skills will open up further career possibilities.

Control: Help clients choose goals that are under their control Sometimes clients defeat their own purposes by setting goals that are not under their control. For instance, it is common for people to believe that their problems would be solved if only other people would not act the way they do. In most cases, however, we do not have any direct control over the ways others act. Consider the following example.

Tony, a 16-year-old boy, felt that he was the victim of his parents’ inability to relate to each other. Each tried to use him in the struggle, and at times he felt like a Ping- Pong ball. A counselor helped him see that he could probably do little to control his parents’ behavior but that he might be able to do quite a bit to control his reactions to his parents’ attempts to use him. For instance, when his parents started to fight, he could simply leave instead of trying to “help.” If either tried to enlist him as an ally, he could say that he had no way of knowing who was right. Tony also worked at creating a good social life outside the home. That helped him weather the tensions he experienced when at home.

Tony needed a new way of managing his interactions with his parents to minimize their attempts to use him as a pawn in their own interpersonal game. Goals are not under clients’ control if they are blocked by external forces that they cannot influence. “To live in a free country” may be an unrealistic goal for a person living in a totalitarian state because he cannot change internal politics, nor can he change emigration laws in his own country or immigration laws in other countries. “To live as freely as possible in a totalitarian state” might well be an aim that could be translated into realistic goals.

Mara may be able to influence her father’s attitudes and behavior, but she cannot change his attitudes and behavior. Only he can do that. Carlos helps her see that she might have to set a pre-goal. She can hardly negotiate with him unless he commits himself to some kind of reasonably open dialogue—“Father, I know how you feel and maybe even have some idea why you feel the way you do, but I’d still like to talk more openly.” Her pre-goal goal, then, is to get him to commit to that kind of conversation. How to negotiate that kind of commitment is another matter.

 
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