Goal setting is often a significant component of performance improvement programs in the corporate world, because employees who are committed to specific, challenging goals perform more effectively on the job. Researchers have identified a number of factors that explain why goal setting can improve job performance. Working toward a specific, challenging goal motivates an individual to work hard and provides a focus to the individual’s effort. In addition, the establishment of a goal helps the individual develop a strategy for accomplishing the task and provides feedback for monitoring progress and performance.
Although substantial research has been conducted on the importance of “task” goals or “work” goals as described above, far less research attention has been directed toward the study of career goals despite the fact that career goal setting is often a central feature of career-planning and career-development programs. This entry discusses the meaning of a career goal, the advantages and cautions associated with career goal setting, and the factors that enable individuals to set useful career goals.
The Meaning of a Career Goal
Jeffrey Greenhaus, Gerard Callanan, and Veronica Godshalk have defined a career goal as a desired career outcome that an individual intends to attain. It is important to note that a career goal is more than a wish or a dream; it also represents an intention or a striving to accomplish the outcome. Many people equate a career goal with a specific target job, such as becoming a vice president of sales or becoming a head coach of a Division 1 collegiate football team. However, Greenhaus and his colleagues point out that a career goal need not target a specific job. Instead, it can represent the type of work experiences an individual intends to achieve, or what is called a conceptual career goal. For example, an individual might set a conceptual goal to attain a position that involves extensive financial data analysis and preparation of written reports in an office setting with minimal travel. Both types of career goals, conceptual goals and target job goals, are important. Conceptual goals are useful because they focus on the attributes of a position that are compatible with one’s talents, needs, and values. Target job goals are important because most work experiences are embedded in specific jobs in an organization. In fact, achieving a target job should enable the individual to meet his or her conceptual career goal. Moreover, it is likely that a number of different target jobs are compatible with a person’s conceptual goal.
Advantages and Cautions Associated with Career Goal Setting
Career goals can be useful for the same reasons that task goals are useful. Holding a specific career goal can motivate an individual to work hard to achieve the desired outcome, suggest useful strategies to attain the desired outcome, and provide feedback on how effectively the individual is directing his or her efforts. For example, a salesperson who sets a goal to become sales manager (the target job goal) may be energized to do what it takes to achieve the position and may explore, through readings and discussions with other people, the most effective strategy for becoming a sales manager. Moreover, because the goal is a consciously held objective, the individual is able to gauge how well his or her actions (e.g., attending a management skills workshop or returning to school to acquire an MBA degree) are facilitating the accomplishment of the goal. Research has shown that employees who set career goals, who are committed to their goals, and who have clear career goals and plans are optimistic and resilient in their careers, highly involved in their jobs, and successful in job-search activities.
Nevertheless, there are some cautions associated with career goal setting. Greenhaus and his colleagues suggest that a career goal is likely to be dysfunctional when the goal has the following characteristics:
- It is someone else’s vision. The goal is seen by another person as what is best for an individual rather being than the individual’s own vision for meeting his or her personal needs and values.
- It ignores family and lifestyle preferences. Some jobs may be so demanding or intrusive that they prevent a person from meeting other important needs for family, leisure, or community service.
- It ignores the current job. Some people are so preoccupied with achieving a promotion or another position that they fail to see that many of their needs and values can be accomplished in their current jobs, especially if they work with their managers to improve their jobs to achieve greater fit with their personal preferences.
- Is too vague. The conceptual goal discussed previously— a position with extensive financial data analysis, preparation of written reports, office setting, and minimum travel—is specific enough to steer the individual toward a target job and strategies to attain the job. An overly fuzzy conceptual goal (e.g., “a job that is fun”) may not provide enough information to be useful.
- It is too easy or too difficult. The accomplishment of a goal that is too easy doesn’t provide the same feeling of accomplishment as the accomplishment of a challenging goal. However, a goal that is too difficult is unlikely to be attained and can produce frustration. This is why it is often recommended that individuals set “challenging but attainable” goals.
- It is inflexible. People change; technologies advance; career paths disappear; organizations merge; and new industries develop. Individuals who hold on to outmoded career goals in the face of change are not adaptable and run the risk of failing to get their needs met.
Factors That Enable Individuals to Set Useful Career Goals
Self-awareness is an essential ingredient for effective career goal setting. An individual who is unaware of his or her needs, values, strengths and weaknesses, and lifestyle preferences can certainly set a career goal. However, it may not be a useful goal. Even if the goal is achieved, it is unlikely to meet the individual’s personal needs and values and take advantage of the individual’s talents, because it wasn’t based on an accurate self-assessment.
An awareness of the environment is also crucial to effective goal setting. Individuals may understand themselves well (high self-awareness), but what if they are unaware of the duties and requirements of different jobs or career paths, the cultures of their organizations or other organizations where they might seek work, the impact of technology on their work lives, or the changing nature of the economy? Their career goal is likely to be flawed because it is not based on a realistic assessment of the environment. Opportunities may be missed (“I never knew that there was such a job as fuel cell technician”); goals may be unattained (“I didn’t realize that jobs in farming are declining so much”); or goals may not meet the individual’s needs (“It never occurred to me that engineering managers spent more time solving people problems than technical problems”). In short, an effective career goal should be based on extensive knowledge about oneself and the work environment.
Achieving self-awareness and awareness of the environment is ultimately an individual’s responsibility. Therefore, people should seize every opportunity to learn about themselves and the work world. People learn a great deal from everyday experiences: introspection, reading, and conversations with colleagues, mentors, friends, or family members. Awareness can also be derived from more formal activities, such as seeing a career counselor, joining a professional association, attending a conference, or participating in a training-and-development program.
Moreover, organizations can help their employees become more aware of themselves and the environment so they can select a viable career goal. For example, organizations can offer orientation programs for new employees, career assessment and planning assistance, career counseling services, performance appraisal programs, coaching or mentoring programs, job rotation opportunities, job posting, training and development activities, and outplacement services. All of these initiatives have the potential to enhance individuals’ knowledge and awareness, which should contribute to their well-being and, ultimately, to the well-being of the organization as well.
- Greenhaus, J. H., Callanan, G. A. and Godshalk, V. M. 2000. Career Management. 3d ed. Fort Worth, TX: Dryden Press.
- Greenhaus, J. H., Callanan, G. A. and Kaplan, E. 1995. “The Role of Goal Setting in Career Management.” International Journal of Career Management 7:3-12.
- Souerwine, A. H. 1978. Career Strategies: Planning for Personal Achievement. New York: AMACOM.