Thought Leadership

The Neuroscience of Goal-Setting and Its Impact on Your Culture

Have you ever set a lofty personal goal and surprised yourself by actually achieving it? Think about the most important goal you have. Do you know how to get there? 

Goal-setting has been linked to higher motivation, self-esteem, confidence, and autonomy. Once you get a goal in your head, your brain will continue to nudge you about it until you begin working towards or achieve it. That’s why you feel guilty when you don’t behave in ways that are conducive to achieving your goals: for example, sitting on the couch when your goal is to exercise more. 

Studies in neuroscience tell us that goal-setting rewires our brains. When we set a goal, we are biologically programming our brains to change or create new behaviors and reach them, because the way our neurons organize is impacted. Creating focus on specific goals allows the brain to create new, stronger bonds between neurons that help increase the likelihood that we achieve our goals.

Understanding the science behind this will allow you to leverage this knowledge to achieve the results your organization needs. Your brain has neuroplasticity, meaning it can modify, change, and adapt its structure in response to external stimuli, or what most people call “experiences.” Basically, goal-setting reshapes your brain. This impacts the ways in which the different sections of your brain communicate with one another, allowing you to more easily modify your behaviors so you can reach your goal. 

A University of Texas study on how goal-setting impacts patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) further proved this correlation. MS is a rare, potentially disabling disease that disrupts communication between the brain and body. This leads to symptoms such as speech difficulties, loss of sensation, muscle weakness, and more. 

For the study, researchers used goal-setting as an intervention. They found that MS patients who had ambitious wellness goals reported fewer, less severe symptoms than patients who did not. Goal-setting had restructured their brains, changing their behaviors to stay more focused on goals. In turn, the patients reached their wellness goals more easily, improving their health.

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Here are other studies that show the benefits of this phenomenon:

  • Journal of Experimental Psychology: When someone is highly motivated to achieve a goal, their perception of how difficult it is to attain it reduces. This means the more you want a goal, the less you’ll be bothered by obstacles along the way.
  • Journal of Applied Psychology: This study compared three groups: families that were asked to reduce their household energy consumption by 20 percent (challenging goal), families that committed to saving two percent (easy goal), and the control group. The first conserved the most and was the only group to save more than the control group. Although the second group was asked to save two percent, they didn’t conserve more than the control group. This suggests that easy goals aren’t as effective. Challenging goals lead to better results because they’re more motivating.

How goal-setting can positively shape your culture

When setting aspirational goals, such as achieving 10x stock price growth in five years, you must give your teams the necessary tools and resources in order to create the best experience. This experience will lead to the belief that they are capable of reaching goals, instilling confidence that they can achieve success. It also proves to your employees that lofty goals aren’t scary — as long as you give them a good starting point.

Armed with clarity and the necessary tools, resources, and beliefs, your people will have greater motivation to map out steps to meet goals. As noted in the aforementioned Journal of Experimental Psychology study, people with higher motivation are less likely to be intimidated by goals. As a result, your people will reach goals with greater efficiency and quality, meaning they’ll contribute more to your organization and help grow your business.

When you make goal-setting a priority for your culture, you create an experience that lets your people see and believe that lofty goals can be achieved when you break them into smaller milestones. In turn, your people will be less intimidated, giving them the confidence to know what steps will and will not get them closer to their goals. This will keep your people on track to get the results you need to grow your company.

Reaching aspirational goals requires alignment among all members of your organization — but at the same time, setting these goals can help create alignment. When your people set goals together and agree on them, it creates an experience that clearly defines expectations and who is responsible to meet them. In turn, you’ll experience less friction within the organization because everyone will have a better sense of their roles in achieving goals.

How to make goal-setting part of your culture

Know your larger business objectives

You need to clearly define your company’s larger business objectives so that your people can create goals that map back to those objectives. This is important because every goal set by an employee or unit should align with the overall direction of the business. 

Let’s say one of your business objectives is to bring your product or service into a particular vertical. If your people don’t know that, they’re likely creating goals that won’t impact that vertical.

Train your people to set SMART goals

The SMART goals method was developed in the 1980s to help organizations set goals in a structured, effective, and clear way. SMART is an acronym that represents steps people should take to set goals:

  • Specific: Focus on a specific area for improvement
  • Measurable: Quantify signs of progress
  • Assignable: Be clear on who is responsible for achieving the goal
  • Realistic: Identify which results can realistically be achieved, if adequate resources are provided 
  • Time-related: Specify by when the goal should be met

This also gives your people a methodical way to set and meet ambitious goals. This reduces possible fear of goals because you’re giving your people the tools to know where to start.

Give focused recognition

When you see an employee complete a goal or meaningfully contribute to reaching a goal, praise them. Not only does this positively reinforce their impactful actions, but also motivates them to continue setting new goals and striving to reach them. 

Also, if you give this employee positive reinforcement in front of others, it will motivate your other employees to reach their goals, creating a ripple effect throughout your organization.

When your people set goals, or when they work to achieve the organization’s goals, they must be accountable for reaching those goals. Make this accountability integral to your culture in order to realize the best business outcomes. 

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