Goal Power 

{Driver, 2011. Coaching Positively.} 


Setting useful goals brings out your client’s best performance. Goals keep the coaching conversation focused, ensuring it has a sense of direction and purpose for the client. Developing clear, motivating goals makes a difference. Lack of focus arises because the goal has not been set clearly. A coaching session without a goal is either unproductive or far less productive than it could be. 

The coach helps clients set goals that generate positive change and drive performance. 

Goal setting 

As a result of more than fifty years of research and theorizing, it is common knowledge that employees are motivated by clear goals and appropriate feedback. Working toward a goal provides a major motivation to reach the goal, improving performance.

Goal setting is an intrinsic part of successful coaching, increasing hope and the belief that the client can achieve improved performance. When properly constructed, goals build confidence, wellbeing, and improved performance.

In short, goals provide focus, energy, and motivation and help achieve things.

From challenges to goals

In cases where the client faces a complex challenge and has yet to think through what they want, the goal might not be performance or action-oriented but, first and foremost, inquiry and learning-oriented.

Without a goal that gives focus and direction, the conversation begins to ramble. The client takes too long to recount issues, problems, and details, while the coach’s questions become disconnected, and the flow is lost. Another problem is the coach starts to lead and offer ideas or begins to analyze the situation and ask questions arising from their thoughts and ideas. Also, the coach begins to worry about their performance and whether they deliver value to their client, leading them to rush to “what can you do?” and the next steps.

Anecdotal evidence from clients satisfied with coaching sessions even when a clear goal has not been set is not a reliable argument for goals being non-essential to coaching. The client is not a coaching expert and is unaware of what good coaching could be. Just having someone’s undivided attention feels good. Momentary satisfaction is not evidence for long-term positive change.

Careful goal setting at or near the session beginning transforms the coaching. Hence, the client gets worth their investment of time, energy, and money.

What makes a goal motivating?

Motivating goals lead to enhanced wellbeing and performance. The client must value the goal, perceiving it as relevant, important, and beneficial for themselves or something they believe in. Part of coaching is to find the element within a goal that the client can fully own and take forward. An imposed goal just for its own sake is unlikely to work well as a coaching goal. How the client talks about the goal shows the value they see in it. If their energy is low, it is a prompt to challenge and clarify.

Another key area to address for a goal to be useful is the client’s expectations of success. While motivating goals must be challenging, the client still must believe they can achieve them, albeit with some challenge.

The third component of a useful goal is the mechanisms to achieve it. The client must identify strategies and pathways toward success that they believe will work. Vision and purpose are fundamental but of little use without the strategic thinking to work out how to achieve them.

To summarize, a valued goal, expectations of success, and the mechanisms to achieve it are the three key areas to consider when working with goals in coaching.

A valued goal engages the client’s energy and commitment to working towards it.

While asking, “What are we trying to achieve here?” might reveal a goal to focus on, it can also become an excuse for meaningless, measurable targets that produce alienation rather than energy. A goal imposed by a boss or the organization taken “as is” by the client, when achieved, might meet the organization’s needs. Yet, it is questionable as a client development vehicle.

An internally validated or “intrinsic” goal offers a payback or reward from within, such as feeling a warm glow or feeling good for achieving something, having done your best, fulfilling your potentials, or contributing to a valued cause. An extrinsic goal comes from outside or is externally validated, for example, winning a prize, earning more money, or being respected for your good work.

Where is success or achievement located? Internal or intrinsic goals are more powerful and get better results than external ones. Most goals can be restated to move them from extrinsic to intrinsic. This aspect is the “What” of goal setting.

The second goal aspect is whether it is imposed or autonomously owned by the client. Imposed goals are significantly less effective than autonomously created ones. This is the “Why” of the goal. A sense of autonomy is essential to high goal achievement.

Many organizations struggle to achieve results because they constantly impose and never talk. Employees’ freedom to develop goals within a given framework enhances goal achievement. Just articulating goals in intrinsic and autonomous language improves task performance. The challenge for the coach is to work to achieve a goal that would be more motivating for the client by getting the client to express it in intrinsic and autonomous language.

Stages of goal setting

A client can move through several stages in working toward a more motivating goal, moving from the resigned acceptance, gradually acquiring more personal ownership of the stated goal, and then connecting it to their values. For example, bringing in the element of doing their job well creates some autonomy for the client.

“What does it mean to you to deliver the task outcome on time and well enough?”

-“I will look good in front of the boss and the board; it will enable the firm to do a better job; I will feel competent and develop new skills.”

The coach helps the client identify reasons why even a negative requirement could have a good side, uncover benefits to themselves in seeing this through, and tap into the client’s broader values which connect to the goal.

Concordant goals

Self-concordance answers, “Is this really me?” It means checking whether a given course of action aligns with an individual’s needs and identity. Self-concordant behavior is linked with greater wellbeing and improved performance.

The more self-concordant a goal is, the more a person feels they believe in the goal, and the greater effort they put into achieving it, with a greater likelihood of success.

For example, managing imposed change is a tough call. The client must get in touch with what makes them tick to get through the confusion of change to reach some concordance. Taking note of unhelpful language, conflicting goals and values, and the emotional side of stated goals reveals how hard the issue is perceived to be.

The client works to alter the goal or find self-concordant elements that become their focus. Alternatively, the client examines how their beliefs about themselves might need to change to achieve greater concordance with the goal or sometimes to create different goals.

Not all goals need to touch a higher purpose to be valid, and the client does not need to avoid working on such goals. People often pursue externally imposed goals or goals that bring only external rewards. This is sometimes valid because some other need or aspiration is served by doing them. For example, pay, security, and a pension are valid causes for doing our work. Equally, our identity as family members or providers is a strong driver for success. The client is the source for reconciling different life aspects, prioritizing professional interests and fulfillment with family or community roles and interests.

The coach does not impose their values on the client’s agenda. It is perfectly fine for a client to work with external goals as doing so might help them concord with something fundamental to their self-view. In this sense, the client’s goals are concordant even though they are neither chosen nor intrinsic.

Specific examples

Working with outside-imposed goals

Many of our client’s goals are externally imposed or originate as such. So do we leave it there, or do we do something more?

Such goals might come as a vision statement accompanied by a catchphrase like “Every child matters” or “Essence of care.” When we meet clients living with a “handed down from above” goal, we help digest and interpret it to achieve real meaning where there has been none. We must help our clients move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Or at least to a position that satisfies their relevant need.

The “Whither Me?” client

When clients have questions about where to go with their lives, the coach helps them focus on more manageable goals. A useful technique is the “At My Best” inquiry, asking clients about times when they were at their best and in “flow.” Then, from these stories, the client draws out four or six key elements which made them special and which are most important to them. These are then used to assess various choices or give a guide to the kinds of future areas to explore.

Another useful approach is to use a strengths inventory and apply the findings to the current situation.

Using both techniques together is powerful and gives the client a lot of new data about themselves and their choices.

Handling the “referred” client

Clients referred by, for example, an HR Director might not agree that they need to change but accept coaching to please HR or their line manager. First, the coach must make it clear that coaching is about change and that any client has to want something to change or be different; otherwise, there can be no coaching. Then, the coach and client work to seek a goal that the client believes in and wants to achieve.

With referred clients, a three-way contract may be needed, and some persistence in working out a truly usable goal.

Unpicking self-imposition

Expressions such as, “I really should do; I have to do; I must do” indicate an imposed goal that has become an introjected command. These goals are not highly motivating because there is no real ownership. Introjections are ideas or beliefs that we swallow whole without processing or digesting. The coach must probe beyond the raw stated belief and help the client build personal ownership, making the goal more valuable and energizing. The questions might be, “What would that do for you?” and “If you had that, what would be better in your life?”

Moving from analysis to goals and working with insecurity and confusion

Problems or issues never have a simple single cause. So, being analytical and investigative with a particular issue using problem-solving questioning is not an effective way to enhance a client’s insight and awareness.

Another concern is when clients are overly focused on what they do not want, such as a myriad of interlocking problems, other people’s behavior, or their own inadequacies. So, asking “What do you want?” early on does not open the conversation up to possibility.

Similarly, clients used to formal learning environments in which they are told what to do and what to learn might get confused and scared when asked to set a goal on their own.

Occasionally, a coaching session’s goal becomes, “What is my goal?” And for some people, this is an important first step to independence and self-management. The coach must encourage without taking away ownership and support without rescuing. In particular, the coach must remain silent while the client grapples with new questions and ideas. Instead, the coach should offer a mini tutorial on goals and why they are important in coaching.

A useful starting point where the client is not specific about what they want is to use a strengths inventory or an activity such as the “Balance Wheel,” rating their satisfaction with the important life areas they value most and then developing goals based on the insights that emerge.

Another “goal” situation arises with energetic clients leaping from one topic to another without ever resting on a single issue long enough to clarify what they need and what they are doing about it.

On the one hand, the client might be highly motivated to change and grow. On the other hand, highly dispersed energy and enthusiasm create the danger of never going anywhere and finishing with a jumble of unrelated, incomplete ideas flying around in their head as they leave the session. Interrupting free-floating energy and pace and openly challenging such a style by talking explicitly about goals and why they are important might bring the sessions to earth to form concrete goals and work plans.