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Power of Intentions: Why People Hate Goals and What to Do Instead


By Darcy Hitchcock

In the U.S., one of the most common questions we ask when we meet someone is, "What do you do?" In other words, what do you get paid to do, what do you do for work? We spend so much time at work and derive so much personal identity from what we do that it is important to infuse our work with meaning. This is especially important in today's workplace if you want to attract good people. And our shift from an industrial economy to one based on knowledge-work only underlines this need even more, for we must rely on employees' mental energy, their commitment to the mission and task, to be successful.

All this said, we do not have particularly effective organizational practices to get at this more spiritual dimension of work. Sure, we do visioning, write mission statements and set goals, but these don't come close to embracing the experience of discovering meaning, setting intentions or developing commitment.

"Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, one based on a mission that troubles your heart." – Harriet Rubin, senior writer for FastCompany Magazine

Goal setting: One path to getting what you want

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to clump a bunch of practices under the heading of goal setting: strategic planning, visioning, writing mission statements, setting goals, writing action plans. If you get down to the root, all these practices attempt to influence the future; they help you get what you want. You figure out what you want, make a plan, work the plan, and if you're really advanced, plan ways to reward yourself along the way. It's a behaviorist's approach to management.
"Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.

"Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning." -- Gloria Steinem, activist in the women’s movement and founder of Ms Magazine

So, what's wrong with goal setting?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not against goal setting as an organizational or personal practice. It is often useful to set a measurable goal, develop a set of actions that will lead you there, and reward your progress. This practice works especially well when two conditions are true:

  • You know what the end-state should look like and

  • You have control over most of the critical factors for success.

Losing weight, running a marathon, planning a merger or releasing a new product are all examples of when goal setting can be helpful: Set the goal, make a plan, work the plan.
"Organizations are now confronted with two sources of change:
the traditional type that is initiated and managed; and external changes over which no one has control." —Margaret J. Wheatley, author of "Leadership and the New Science"

However, there are many situations when the above two criteria are not met. In today's turbulent business climate, how can you know where you should be in five or 10 years? And even if you set a plan, there are numerous factors outside your control that can throw you off: new technologies, an economic downturn, a vigorous competitor, new regulations, etc.

I think it was Bernard Baruch (the "Park Bench Statesman," who made his fortune on Wall Street in the early 1900s) who said, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." When all we have is goal setting, then we tend to use this same process whenever we want to influence the future.

But this can be counterproductive. I've often noticed that some people shut down when you ask them to set measurable goals. Suddenly, they're afraid. "Am I going to be evaluated on this? Is this part of my performance appraisal? What happens if I can't meet my goal?" Creativity, innovative thinking, and risk taking quickly devolve into safe, I-already-accomplished-it-anyway goals. And if you persist, it can feel abusive. Can you really expect your sales reps to set sales targets for the next two years when many of the success factors (the economy, the advertising budget, new product releases) are out of their control? The common alternative, setting process goals (e.g., number of sales calls per week) can result in people doing what you're measuring them on, even if that's no longer what's best for the company.

Used in the wrong situation, goal setting has a constipated feel to it: straining, forcing, teeth-gritting. It's about making things happen instead of letting things happen. It can grind out the joy, the discovery, and the openness to new opportunities.

It may seem obvious, but goal setting doesn't always work. We put so much faith into it that this fact is often denied. The next set of practices I will share with you also are not fail-safe. But I believe there are situations where they are more likely to get you what you want than goal setting will.

Intention setting: Another way to get what you want

Instead of making things happen, you can sometimes let things happen. This may seem over-the-top for many of you, a bit too ‘woo-woo,’ but there are many who believe and research to support that setting an intention does, in fact, seem to work. So hang in there with me a bit, experiment, and then make up your own mind.

Manifesting what you want as a thought can run the gamut from expressing a whim, making a wish or saying a sacred prayer. Unlike goal setting, you don't create a lengthy action plan; instead, you let it go and wait to see what comes back. MIT professors Claus Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge have made this the centerpiece of their Theory U or Presencing practice.

"Intention is not a powerful force. It’s the only force." — Brian Arthur, an economist with the Santa Fe Institute

Perhaps a personal story will show how intentions work. Over 30 years ago, I was moving into a new house, one I was purchasing with my husband-to-be. As I was unpacking boxes, putting books into the bookcase, a piece of paper fell from one of the books onto the floor. It was an intention setting exercise I had completed several years before which I had long since forgotten. It described our new house in eerie detail: 2500 square feet, chalet style, in the trees, on five acres. The only part of the description that wasn't accurate was the town I had listed (and if I had time to tell you my mud slide story, you’d know why I wish I had purchased a house someplace else!)

Many of you probably have similar stories. That's why we have phrases like, “Watch out what you wish for,” because wishes often seem to come true.

"When you broadcast such an intention, there is very little else you have to do. The broadcast of intention goes out and makes it happen." —Srikumar Rao, professor of business creativity at Columbia and Long Island University

Goal setting versus intention setting

 Goal Setting Intention setting
Deals with goals, measures, plans, rewards Deals with personal passions, wishes, reflection, and discovery
Works best when: you know what the end state looks like and you have control over key variables; situations of low uncertainty, stable environments; when top-down directives can get you what you need Works best when you may not know what the end-state should look like and/or you don't have a lot of control; dynamic/chaotic situations; when you need to tap into personal passions/commitment to get what you need.
 Assumes you can make things happen Assumes you can let things happen


In my next article, I’ll explain how to do intention setting with groups at work.

NOTE: This is excerpted from Great Work: 12 Principles for Your Work Life and Life's Work, Chapter 10. Quotations are all from BrainyQuote.com unless otherwise noted.
Image credit: Flickr/Ahmed Sinan

Darcy Hitchcock is the author of a number of award-winning business books including The Business Guide to Sustainability (now in its third edition). In her latest book, GREAT WORK: 12 Principles for Your Work Life and Life’s Work, Darcy shares what she has learned about finding a calling, making a difference and leading organizations. It’s available in print and also three e-books: "Finding Your GREAT WORK," "Designing Organizations for GREAT WORK," and "Leading Others to GREAT WORK."

Learn more at https://DarcyHitchcock.wordpress.com.

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