Are you ready to loosen your grip of your goals?

Are you ready to loosen your grip of your goals?

Are you ready to loosen your grip of your goals?

I spent a few days last week in the Lake District with my family in our little camper van. It’s such a wonderful time to be there, full of colour and big skies. Our intention was to walk just a few of the  Wainwrights;  the Lakeland fells identified by Alfred Wainwright in his beautiful pictorial guides. We set our sights on the five peaks nearest to our campsite and, carrying plenty of food for the teens, map, compass, lots of water, head torches and a whistle (just in case!) and wearing all our waterproofs, we started on our way.

As we climbed further towards our first summit, Grisedale Pike, the realisation that this might take longer than we had anticipated began to sink in. The weather forecast was ‘wet and windy’ but we hadn’t anticipated quite how gusty the wind would be once above our relatively sheltered valley. Our first learning – check the mountain forecast specifically before making the walking plan. We were blown over a few times and had to stop more and 

more frequently to brace ourselves against the gusts. About two thirds of the way up to the top, we decided to let go of our goal of reaching the summit, in fact of reaching any of the peaks we had planned and instead, take our walk towards Whinlatter Forest, to the shelter of the trees and the warmth of the visitors’ centre. 

And all of this got me thinking about goals and in particular, goal setting:

  • What if we’d have kept going towards our intended goal without taking account of the conditions and the context?
  • How might we have felt if we’d have gone straight back to base instead of taking in Whinlatter forest?
  • How did we make our decision to adapt our goal?
  • Does the goal still stand?

Last week was week 1 of my Level 5 programme in effective coaching and mentoring. I introduced my lovely delegates to the TGROW (Topic, Goal, Reality, Options, Will) model and to OSKAR (Outcomes, Scaling, Know-how and resources, Affirmation and action, Review) among many other things and we discussed the important of starting coaching sessions with the end in mind.

But what if, after some exploration and movement towards it, our clients realise the goal isn’t quite right? We talked about how the linear TGROW model can get messy (we’re working with humans after all!) and how it can be useful to move up and down it at times as our coachee’s thinking and reflection develops.
Is it possible that being excessively connected to a goal sometimes get in the way of making progress?

  1. Stretch vs Risk

Here’s an extreme example of how sticking to a goal which no longer serves us can invite excess risk. According to Kayes (2006), world-class high-altitude guides, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, identified so closely with the goal of reaching the summit of Everest that they made 11 risky decisions that led to their own and 6 of their clients’ deaths. In his article, Kayes identifies warning signs of leaders who associate so strongly with their goals, they take unnecessary risks jeopardising the success of projects and teams. Overly fixating on goals can give a skewed sense of reality and lead to poor decision making. 

It’s absolutely essential to explore with our coaching clients the fine and sometimes wavy line between a stretch target or goal – one which takes them out of their comfort zone to new learning – and a goal which invites an undesirable amount of risk, negative influences their behaviour and future problems.  

  1. Focused vs spacious

There are times when a goal can be too focussed for a particular context. In our example, we set a goal of taking in 5 of the Wainwright peaks. It was focussed and in fairer weather conditions, an achievable stretch. What we hadn’t taken into account was the changing environment, the thing we couldn’t have known or planned for before we began our journey (though we could have mitigated this to some extent my reading the mountain weather forecast.)

So as coaches, what if, somewhat controversially, we were to support our clients be less focussed (less SMART) about the goals they set and instead, explore spacious goals which allow for changes of situation and environment? If we’d have set ourselves the goal of taking a walk in the Lakeland fells for a day, for example, enjoying each other’s company and getting some fresh air and exercise, how would our experience have been different in the adverse weather we encountered? And under what circumstances would our focussed and specific goal be useful?

Inviting our clients to check in with their goals enables them to re-evaluate how relevant, achievable and timely they are. Perhaps the goal remains relevant and achievable in different conditions or perhaps a re-assessment is needed when the context shifts. We certainly haven’t let go of our Wainwright goal fully, it’s still there for when the conditions will support us to reach it.

  1. Challenge and failure vs. high-quality outcomes and a sense of self-efficacy

In the moment we realised it was unsafe to continue, I felt reluctant to let go of our aim to reach the summit. I experienced a momentary sense of failure, of not completing what we’d set out to do. The thought of turning around and returning to the start was utterly demoralising.

Very quickly though, we looked at the map afresh, in the context in what we knew of the weather and plotted a different route. The sense of failure and defeat turned to one of excitement as this was an option we hadn’t explored previously, in part because of our fixation on bagging a few peaks! On this new route, which was still pretty long and by no means ‘easy’, we felt safer than we would have been on our more exposed route. We began to notice what we wouldn’t have seen in the high fells – fungi, tree bark, squirrels, berries. The re-route had become our success and offered us what we didn’t know we would enjoy at the start.

In their article ‘Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting’, Ordonex et al. explain that in negotiations, challenging goals can increase negotiation and task performance, but decrease satisfaction with high-quality outcomes (Galinsky et al., 2002; Garland, 1983). These decreases in satisfaction in how people view themselves have important consequences for future behaviour. They go on to cite Mussweiler and Strack (2000) who found that giving someone a challenging goal versus an easy goal on an attention task or an intelligence test improved performance, but left people questioning their concentration abilities and overall intelligence. It seems there was an impact on people’s sense of their own self-efficacy and perhaps even esteem.

  1. Performance vs learning

There is an argument to say that challenging goals inhibit learning (Cervone, Jiwani, & R. Wood, 1991). An individual who is narrowly focused on a performance goal, will be less likely to try alternative methods that could help them learn how to perform a task differently. There is power in getting it wrong – as the saying goes, the learning most often comes from our mistakes. The narrow focus of specific goals can inspire performance but get in the way of new learning and innovation.


So as coaches, if we loosen our grip on goal setting, what does that mean for how we approach working with our clients? I think the message here is not to let go of goals entirely – as we all know, for many people, starting with the end in mind has a positive motivational impact as well as helping people create a strong visualisation of their outcomes, which in turn can make their goals more achievable.

I do feel that there are times when too tight a hold on the goal can become a distraction and get in the way. The ‘Well Formed Outcome’ model from NLP can help us check the ecology of goals with our clients and that the conditions won’t invite undue risk, narrowness of vision or inhibit progress. I’ve been exploring narrative coaching, which focuses on the stories clients tell themselves and which they bring along, often unconsciously, to their sessions. I’m drawing on my experience as  coaching supervisor, where alternative models to TGROW, such as the 7-eyed model and the 4 Territories are more appropriate.

I’d love to know what you think! You can share your thoughts on this blog post as it appears on my website or drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Kayes, D. C. (2006). Destructive goal pursuit: The Mount Everest disaster. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan