GOAL-SETTING, DECLARATIONS AND THE POWER OF CONTEXT
December 21, 2020
As we come to the end of 2020 and look ahead to 2021, many of us will be assessing the ground we covered this year and setting 2021 goals for ourselves, our teams and our organizations. This newsletter is intended to support you in this regard, but not by way of offering definitions of “SMART” goals or sharing sample goals set by others.
Instead, the invitation is to look a bit deeper and perhaps a bit differently at the “mechanics” of goal-setting, the power of declarations to establish a personal context for how we live our lives, the benefits of self-disclosure, and the power of enrolling others in a “network of support” moving forward.
Many of us have heard this expression: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll get you there!” I agree.
Two questions to consider:
· Where are you going? and
· Where do you say you are going?
Are these two questions basically the same question, just worded differently? Or are we really talking about two very different things here?
Those of you familiar with my books and my work – focused on the generative and creative dimensions of language and the power of internal and external conversations – will likely quickly come to the conclusion that these are two very different questions! I believe they are indeed very different.
To me, “Where are you going?” has a passive feel to it, as if we are asking someone on a train about their destination. The train appears to be the one setting the course, doing the work and the person is simply riding, going where the train is going. And of course, there’s certainly nothing wrong with going for a train ride!
The question “Where do you say you are going?” has a fundamentally different orientation. Here, you or I are consciously and proactively saying – declaring – where we are going. And it’s this purposeful declaration that creates a certain context (and not others) and makes all the difference.
Goals are Declarations… and Declarations Create Context
With our language, we human beings are always engaged in a “dance” – with ourselves and with others – that includes one of more of the following Fundamental Language Acts:
Goals are declarations. Our goals – as well as our values, standards, purposes and principles – are declared into being, are they not? And declarations are where language is most creative and generative… and least descriptive.
In my coaching work, I often assign as homework the following assignment: Complete the folIowing 4 declarations honestly and authentically. Then, on a separate page, complete them as you think you would’ve completed them 15 or 20 years ago. The declarations are:
· I am _____________________
· Life is ____________________
· Other people are ___________
· In the end, ________________
Think about it. Can you see how these private declarations (or if you prefer, private beliefs) establish a particular “come from” or “personal context” from which we live our lives? How they shape and impact how we will interpret certain situations and interactions that haven’t happened yet? And can you see how changes in these declarations – from the declarations we may have made 15 or 20 years ago to the ones we make today – can be equated to changes to our “way of being”? In a very real sense, I believe we are not human beings – we are human becomings! And it’s through changes in these primary declarations that our growth and becoming occurs.
In a fundamental way, when we declare a goal for ourselves we are creating a particular context, one in which certain future alternatives, choices and actions will be viewed as “appropriate”… “right”…“acceptable”… or “effective”… while others will be viewed as “inappropriate”…“wrong”… “unacceptable”… or “ineffective”. This is powerful to notice, is it not? This can be obvious when organizational goals or values are changed – the same behavior that didn’t raise an eyebrow last year can show up as “wrong” or “inappropriate” this year… precisely because the context has changed!
So what, exactly, is context? One of my Spanish-speaking friends told me one time that context = “con-text”… “with-text”… that which goes with the text, and gives it meaning! Webster’s dictionary defines context as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or a passage and can throw light on its meaning” and “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.”
While we can see that in some cases, our physical environment may be understood as the physical background or context in which we take action… as it relates to goals and meaning-making, nothing is physically “surrounding” anything – all of this happens in language.
So this sort of context isn’t physical, but it’s very real. And just as we create our personal context with our personal goals, values and purpose… we create our organizational context with our organizational goals, values, standards, principles, purpose and vision.
Private Goals vs. Public Goals?
All declarations – including goals – have a social commitment connected to them. When you or I make a public declaration, it is socially expected that:
· We have the authority to make that declaration; and
· We will act consistently with it.
I say that as an adult human being, you do indeed have the authority to make these sorts of declarations for yourself – goals related to where you say you are going, why you’re going there, how you’re going to treat others and be treated by others along the way. You do indeed have the authority to declare who you say you are and who you say you aren’t, as well as your personal standards, values and principles.
And once we make these declarations public, it is expected by others that we will act consistently with them – or face negative impacts on our public identity! (It’s precisely this social commitment that is at work when leaders are assessed as “hypocrites” by employees within their organizations – they hear the public goals and then they observe behavior that appears to be inconsistent with them). A great expression comes to mind here: “You want to know something about yourself? Then ask someone else!”
It is for this reason – healthy accountability – that I highly recommend making your most important goals public. Enroll other people in what you’re up to, and open yourself to feedback from them regarding your subsequent behavior. Authentic self-disclosure here is powerful, as are the feedback conversations. The Lone Ranger is fine for TV, but not so good for achieving important goals.
This is exactly how I ended up doing my TED talk back in 2014. I was a member of a peer group, and one of my previous end-of-year goals for the following year was to do a TED talk in the upcoming 12 months. I declared this publicly at our December meeting. The next year, in our June meeting, one of the members asked “Hey, Chalmers – how’s that TED talk goal coming along?” And I realized I hadn’t even started! Other members chimed in: “Look, if it’s not important to you anymore, you can certainly drop the goal or change it…” and I immediately realized it was still important to me, I didn’t want to further damage my public identity, and it was time to dramatically increase the priority settings for this! Long story short, I shifted some interpretations of what was important to me and what wasn’t in terms of how I spent my time, I took different action over the next few months, ended up doing the talk and can credit the power of public goals – declaring and then enrolling others for support – for making this happen.
To 2021… and Beyond!
Everything begins with self-awareness – self-awareness of the declarations you are currently operating out of, as well as your role as the author of these declarations. Self-awareness of your authority to establish new declarations, new goals, new beliefs… ones that may be better suited for this chapter of your life, this part of your journey, and are much more likely to take you where you say you want to go in 2021… and beyond.
I invite you to embrace the power of self-disclosure and public goal-setting, both personally and professionally. Enroll others in what’s important to you. And create spaces for periodic conversations for checking in on each other, offering healthy accountability, support and suggestions for navigating around the inevitable challenges that may lie ahead.
As Brene Brown says, we are “hard wired for connection”. No Lone Rangers need apply. Build relationships based on conversations in which we are authentic, vulnerable and “real” with each other… and very good things can happen!
I wish you well professionally and personally, and I look forward to hearing from you anytime for any reason… and remember: Never Stop Learning!