By Rick Lewis
Exercising Caution Around Goal-Setting
Both the process and the outcomes of setting goals in a mentoring context can be powerful. But that does not necessarily mean goal setting is always a good thing.
Some mentorees are what I would call ‘goal-averse’. This is usually a result of having been exposed to an approach to setting goals that they found unhelpful or even damaging. The very mention of goals makes them shudder and they might have similar reactions to terms like ‘target’, ‘objective’, ‘outcome’, ‘checkpoint’, ‘ambition’, ‘mission’ and ‘aim’. Such ‘crunchy’ language does not, for them, sit well amid a heartfelt search for how God is working in their lives and how they can respond faithfully to His work. However, different language that emphasises a ‘softer’ side may be more appealing. Words like ‘hope’, ‘dream’, ‘desire’, ‘longing’, ‘yearning’, ‘hunger’, and ‘passion’ are useful to overcome previous negative experiences of goal setting.
While I am not committed to any particular vocabulary relating to goals and goal setting, I am firmly convinced that Christian mentoring necessarily involves helping a person consciously, deliberately and freely move from their present state of affairs to what, in God’s eyes, is a better state of affairs. That, in turn, necessarily involves the person having a clear idea of where they are, where God is calling them to be, and developing a desire to make the move forward.
What might contribute to a person having a negative experience of goal setting? In their 2009 Harvard Business School Working Paper, Goals Gone Wild, Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky, and Bazerman came up with five ways in which goal setting can produce negative outcomes. They identify,
“specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”
Although their research dealt with corporate/commercial settings, the relevance for Christian organisations and Christian leaders is not hard to see.
A further caution needs to be exercised around the use in mentoring of the popular ‘SMART goals’ methodology. The SMART acrostic emphasises Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-framed goals. (There are some variations to the acrostic in the literature.) This methodology was developed in the commercial sphere and is best suited to performance goals. It’s an approach that is well suited to coaching and does have some usefulness in mentoring when dealing with more superficial, intermediate goals. But the deeper, more transformational goals of Christian mentoring will have to do with personhood – the sort of person the mentoree is becoming as a result of God’s transforming work in their lives. The SMART goals methodology is not well adapted to this sort of goal.
Developing Healthy Goal Setting Practice
Taking into account the warnings of Ordóñez and her research team, and considering the special emphasis on personhood that undergirds mentoring, we Christian mentors should seek to develop healthy goal setting practices where goals/longings:
- are set by mentorees rather than their mentors
- are kept flexible and open for realignment and development
- are not simply about performance but also take account of the inner life and being of mentoree
- are progressively shaped around the hope God stirs within the mentoree
- are a grateful response to grace and not a means of currying favour or avoiding punishment
If these elements are firmly in place, the articulation of goals (or longings) within mentoring has the potential to:
- stimulate hope
- clarify priorities
- provoke movement
- calibrate progress
- prepare for celebration
Christian mentoring is built on the deeper reality of God’s already present activity in the life of a mentoree. Because this divine work is always transformative with a trajectory that begins where the person is today and arches forward into a better future where God has renewed the whole of creation, our work as Christian mentors will always have a place for the setting of goals, by the mentoree, which more and more closely reflect God’s intentions.
 Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting by Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083, 2009