May 29, 2022 11 min read

Types of Goals - Understanding the Nuances of Effective Goals

Understanding the different types of goals and their different dimensions can be critical to their success.

Goals and objectives are part of modern organizational reality. They are common parlance to the point where we often take them for granted.

But understanding the different types of goals can dramatically improve the effectiveness of the process and increase the likelihood of success.


What keeps me going is goals.

– Muhammad Ali [1]

The importance of goals and objectives

Context, and the language we use to frame that context, can be pivotal in how we perceive a given situation, our approach to, and our experience of it. Our skillset in a given area is a direct function of awareness and vocabulary in that area.

Setting goals and objectives is one such area.

By shaping the language and conversations in their organizations, goals and objectives are a powerful tool for managers to set the context and tone for their organizations. Thus they deserve a closer, more nuanced look.

A two-year Deloitte study found that no single factor has more impact than “ clearly defined goals that are written down and shared freely… . Goals create alignment, clarity, and job satisfaction.

– John Doerr, Measure What Matters

Setting goals is a standard exercise in modern organizations. Your organization might call them targets, key results, outcomes, objectives or something else. These come in various flavors and the process ranges from wide-open to very prescriptive.

But what is common to all systems is the assumption that managers and leaders understand how to go about setting goals.

Understanding the different types of goals

While there is a common sense aspect to goals where everyone understands the intent, there are nuances to setting goals that can make or break the whole process and define the whole experience.

It can influence how teams and entire organizations approach the process, whether it is with engagement or with complete disengagement and apathy, as one more thing to get out of the way.

The SMART framework is widely used in organizations and the core ideas behind it are well researched and proven. [9]

However, while acronyms like SMART are a good start and can speed up the process, they can also drive superficial behavior and a lack of engagement with the process itself. After all setting goals is the means and not the end.

How the different types can help

Looking through the lens of these different types of goals will invariably give you more insight and highlight what you might have missed out. Each type highlights a particular aspect . We need to ask where on the spectrum our particular goals lies. The intent is not whether it’s right or wrong but to get more perspective and break impasse.

We tend to have habits and orientations which make us more likely to prefer one type over the other. Research has shown that certain types like approach-based and process-based goals tend to have advantages but this should not be taken as gospel.

What works for one person or a team in a given situation might not work for the other. We need to figure out our own styles and the list below can help uncover and balance some of our biases and blindspots when setting goals and objectives.

Types of goals

1. Approach Goals vs Avoidance Goals

Are we moving towards a certain goal or are we trying to move away or stay away from a certain outcome? Many researchers consider this as one of the most important type and recommend leaning towards approach goals rather than avoidance goals.

Avoidance goals tend to focus on avoiding an outcome or state which invariably tends to be negative. An example might be avoiding failure in something vs achieving success. While there are clear indicators of whether we succeeded at something or not, the prospect of failure is always there and thus we might not ever reach that goal. We are in a limbo forever.

Avoiding problems or the expectation of a lack of problems is similar. When we solve a given set of problems, there arises a different set. Thus the avoidance of problems or non-existence of problems perhaps is not the best way to approach issues. On the other hand Approach goals tend to have clear markers of feedback. Avoidance is less likely to leave us with a sense of achievement compared with Approach goals.

2. Outcome vs Performance vs Process Goals

Outcome goals tend to be singular events or results whereas performance goals tend to be ongoing measurements and process goals tend to be focussed just on actions regardless of the results or performance. In the corporate world outcome and performance goals can be thought of as trailing indicators or output measures whereas process goals can be thought of as leading indicators or input measures

Picking outcome goals vs process goals really depends on what stage of development the person or team is in. For a seasoned team that already knows the game, an outcome goal on its own might be perfect motivation. On the other hand for someone who is still learning and the priority is on learning and mastery, process goals can be more effective.

The best goals are process goals, which, in layman’s language means “how to get there” goals, and they are important because they are controllable. Outcome goals are not controllable, and putting too much focus on them can be detrimental to a player’s overall performance because oftentimes outcome goals are not realistically attainable.

– Bob Tewksbury in Ninety Percent Mental [3]

Winning a 5k run is an outcome, running it at a pace 8min/mile is a performance goal, whereas showing up 3 times a week for a practice run is a process goal. As you move from outcome to performance to process the degree of control you have significantly increases.

I have much less control on outcome and performance and almost complete control over the process. Additionally, we have much more opportunities for feedback and correction in process and performances goals than in outcome goals.

3. Creating New Realities vs Solving Existing Problems

Are we solution-focussed or problem-focussed? Are we trying to solve an existing problem or are we trying to create a new future/new reality? Problem-solving is inherently energy-draining while visualizing new realities is inherently energy-building and generative. This is especially relevant during the process of setting goals.

The idea is not that of avoiding facing existing problems but rather of approaching them from a completely different set of assumptions. When we look at solving problems our context remains the same whereas the context has to be different when creating new realities.

4. Performance Goals vs Learning/Mastery Goals

Performance goals are focussed on execution whereas learning goals are focused on mastery of a given skill or task.

Learning goals tend to be more concrete, within our control and ultimately lead to the performance we seek. Setting outright performance goals, while motivating, without supporting learning goals can be demotivating when not reached.

Performance goals tend to work better in situations where you have simple tasks or tasks that have been already figured out beforehand. But in complex situations which require creativity with no predetermined answers, learning goals tend to work better.

5. Importance & Commitment – Strong vs Weak Connection

How strongly do we feel about a given goal when compared with others? How strongly is one goal pulling us compared to the other? What evokes more powerful emotions? How committed are we to a certain outcome? How important is this goal when compared to others? How likely are we to drop this when competing goals arise? This can be a good litmus test when picking amongst multiple competing goals.

A short list of 3–4 well chosen goals that we feel strongly about is much more effective than a long list that we are partially committed to. Also there is a spillover effect where doing well in one area invariably leads to improvement in other areas as well, whereas distributing our commitment over a large number of goals might make us ineffective at all of them.

The one thing an MBO system should provide par excellence is focus. This can only happen if we keep the number of objectives small. In practice, this is rare, and here, as elsewhere, we fall victim to our inability to say “no”—in this case, to too many objectives.

We must realize—and act on the realization—that if we try to focus on everything, we focus on nothing. A few extremely well-chosen objectives impart a clear message about what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to—which is what we must have if an MBO system is to work.

– Andy Grove in High Output Management [5]

6. Challenge/Degree of difficulty. Stretch Goals vs Shift Goals

Goals that are relatively easy to achieve do not motivate as much as goals that are relatively harder. At the same time, they need to be realistic. This is where the directive for being achievable and realistic in one version of the acronym SMART does not help.

One of the strongest and most consistent findings in the goal- setting literature is that people tend to show greater progress when they act towards more difficult goals compared with easier ones.

– Mick Cooper in The Psychology of Goals [6]

Stretch goals are extreme and “exist on the fringes of possibility”[4]. While thinking about and ideating about these can be great, they can often end up acting as a demotivator and reason for procrastination because they don’t look actionable.

Shift goals on the other hand are not only challenging but they are realistic as well. Perhaps a series of cascading shift goals can get us to our stretch goal. The trick is to balance ambitious goals that drive engagement with actions to followup on the promise.

We need stretch and SMART goals. It doesn’t matter if you call them by those names. It’s not important if your proximal goals fulfill every SMART criterion. What matters is having a large ambition and a system for figuring out how to make it into a concrete and realistic plan. Then, as you check the little things off your to-do list, you’ll move ever closer to what really matters. You’ll keep your eyes on what’s both wise and SMART.

– Charles Duhigg in Smarter, Faster, Better [7]

7. Intrinsic, Autonomous Goals vs Extrinsic, Controlled Goals

Research has proven that we are much more likely to stick with our intrinsic goals than extrinsic. It also tends to be more satisfying and self-generating in them long run. We need to aim for more self-concordance(alignment with our intrinsic values and motivations).

Intrinsic goals are defined as those most directly associated with the pursuit of what is inherently valued, such as close relationships, personal growth, and contributing to one’s community. Extrinsic goals, in contrast, are those focused on instrumental outcomes, such as money, fame, power, or outward attractiveness. These goals can therefore be understood as lying along an axis from intrinsic to extrinsic.

– Richard Ryan & Edward Deci in Self-Determination Theory [8]

In organizational contexts, it’s important to link organizational objectives to the person’s own values and goals so that it appeals to their intrinsic motivations rather than coming across as handed down from up above. This is also why keeping a healthy balance of ideas that are bottom-up from all ranks and those that came top-down is much more effective at driving engagement.

Ryan and Deci, originators of intrinsic motivation theory, put it this way:

Intrinsic goal framing, relative to no-goal framing, led to higher autonomous motivation and better test performance, and it also resulted in greater persistence in both the short and long term. In contrast, extrinsic goal framing, relative to no-goal framing, undermined participants’ autonomous motivation, performance, and long-term persistence.

Motivators can frame goals in more extrinsic versus intrinsic terms. The latter will be more likely to produce sustained engagement and, ultimately, wellness.

– Richard Ryan & Edward Deci in Self-Determination Theory [8]

8. Internal vs External Locus of Control

To what degree are the goals within our control and are they dependent on other external factors We can always control our own actions and choices but the outcomes of those actions and choices is typically not in our control.

9. Time Horizon-Proximal vs Distal

The time-frames we use for our goals can have a huge influence on whether or not they look doable. Given an infinite timeframe almost anything can get done.

Proximal goals are closer in timeframe, in the coming days and weeks, compared to distal goals which can be in terms of months, years or a lifetime. Both goals are equally important and having a balance of both has been proven to be more effective. It’s an excellent tool to break impasse when stuck in just one view. Proximal goals tend to be more action oriented whereas distal goals tend to be more values oriented.

10. Metalevel- Complexity and Connectedness

The complexity and connectedness varies for each of our goals. Some goals sit higher on a value hierarchy and more complex. As a result these will have a slew of related or sub-goals associated with them.

11. Specificity- Concrete vs Abstract

Consider whether the goal is too specific or too fuzzy. Either one is not good or bad. Sometimes when stuck and frustrated in the details of something, its worth zooming out and reminding ourselves of the overarching goal that we set out to do.

12. Congruence and Concordance

Vertical Congruence: Are our goals consistent with our higher-order values or goals? Most of our frustrations and lack of motivation tend to happen when what we are pursing either is not in alignment with our higher-order values/goals or we actually have not connected that goal with a higher-order value/goal. We need to discern the reasons behind why we set those goals. Are we doing it because we “want to” or is it because we are “supposed to, ought to or have to”?

Horizontal congruence/ Competing vs Complementary goals : Is the gamut of our goals self-reinforcing or do they act against each other? Do they complement or counteract each other?

13. Conscious, Known Goals vs Unconscious, Unknown Goals

In theory, every one of our actions and thus behavior is undertaken in support of some goal. Unknown goals are the hidden motivations and desires that drive our actions and sometimes these can be in direct conflict with what we explicitly set out to do.

This can be hard to figure out on our own because by definition we are blind to them. One way to approach this is to do a factual inventory of all our behaviors and asking ourselves what was the intent or goal behind those behaviors. This can give some clues. Working with a trusted coach or colleague can be transformative in this area.

14. Behavioral/Competency Goals vs Outcome Goals

Is it a certain outcome we are trying to achieve or is it a consistent behavior or a particular competency that we are trying to develop? Being clear on our intent can drive more clearer action whereas muddled, unclear goals can frustrate action.


Balancing the types of goals

Hopefully, this list gave you insight into how you can look at your goals differently by understanding the different types. The idea is not to set the perfect goal but to enable agility in thinking about them and to make the process more effective.

One great example of balancing goals is how Google divides its OKRs (objectives, key results) into two categories of committed and aspirational.

Committed objectives are tied to Google’s metrics: product releases, bookings, hiring, customers. Management sets them at the company level, employees at the departmental level. In general, these committed objectives—such as sales and revenue goals—are to be achieved in full (100 percent) within a set time frame.

Aspirational objectives reflect bigger-picture, higher-risk, more future-tilting ideas. They originate from any tier and aim to mobilize the entire organization. By definition, they are challenging to achieve. Failures—at an average rate of 40 percent—are part of Google’s territory.”

– John Doerr in Measure What Matters [2]

Most important types

Amongst all the types of goals listed, the most important ones are the process vs outcome, approach vs avoidance, and intrinsic vs extrinsic.

In multiple research studies and meta-analyses, these have been proven to be significantly associated with the effectiveness of goals. They directly influence how we experience the process and whether or not we stick with them long-term.

Further Reading

Goal setting can turn into dogma without actually understanding what lies further upstream. I explore these themes in the following articles:


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Footnotes & References

  1. Attributed to Muhammad Ali.
  2. Measure What Matters by John Doerr.
  3. Ninety Percent Mental by Bob Tewksbury.
  4. Goal-setting in Coaching by Ruth Price in The Coaches’ Handbook by Jonathan Passmore.
  5. High Output Management by Andy Grove.
  6. Working with Goals in Pscyhotherapy & Counseling by Mick Cooper & Duncan Law.
  7. Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg.
  8. Self-Determination Theory by Richard Ryan & Edward Deci.
  9. SMART Acronym definition. There are numerous versions of these floating around but the most common version is Specific, Measurable, Actionable/Ambitious, Realistic and Timebound.
  10. Additional references on goals:

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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