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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 12, 2023


This week we explore how goal setting changes over time and with our personality preferences. Could setting tighter goals make us more happy?



Welcome to episode 184 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore how goal setting changes over time and with our personality preferences.

People vary markedly in the way they set goals and where they focus their goals. In general though, tighter and clearer goals tend to be more effective than loose and general goals. A tight goal of exercising for 30 minutes each day is likely to be more effective than a loose goal of wanting to become more resilient. A tight goal of practicing giving presentations in weekly team meetings is likely better than a loose goal of wanting to become a better communicator. But the kinds of goals we set can vary over time and with our personality preferences.

A 2020 study by researchers at the University of California tracked the goals of participants from when they started college to 20 years later. They also looked at the personality preferences of participants, the impact these had on the goals set, and how personality changed over time.

The study found that personality changes impacted the kinds of goals people set. For example, participants whose levels of agreeableness, kindness and compassion increased placed more emphasis on family, relationship and social goals over time. Similarly, those who increased in responsibility, organisation and self-control placed more value on economic and family goals over time. This can help explain why our views of success vary so much - we value different things and set different goals.

The researchers also found that people placed less emphasis on goals as they headed into middle-age, and believed this was due to people being more selective in the focus on goals while also having achieved some of the major goals they set in the preceding 20 years. Interestingly, research also suggests happiness tends to reduce from a peak in our late teenage years, to a low point around 47, before increasing steadily into old age. The mid-forties often feature the greatest competing demands around relationships, parenting, career and health. It is however interesting that the period where we have fewer clear goals appears to coincide with the period when we are least happy. We can end up being so busy that we lose focus on what is most important. We end up focusing on survival rather than planning for the future.

As a leader, it's important to understand that different members of your team may have different approaches to goal setting based on their personality types. By understanding these differences, you can tailor your approach to goal setting to best suit each individual. For those with a strong sense of conscientiousness, it's important to provide clear guidelines and deadlines when setting goals. These individuals thrive on structure and specificity, so providing a clear roadmap and measurable outcomes can help them stay focused and motivated. On the other hand, individuals with high levels of openness may benefit from more flexible and creative goal setting. These individuals tend to be more innovative and enjoy exploring new ideas and possibilities. By providing a broader vision for the goals and allowing for more creativity in how they are achieved, you can tap into their strengths and keep them engaged.

So this week I encourage you to take another look at your goals. How clear and tight are they? What areas of your life do they focus on? Are there goals you need to let go, or new goals you need to set? Spend some time dreaming about what the future could hold, then use goals to mark clear waypoints towards the life you want.



Olivia E. Atherton, Emily Grijalva, Brent W. Roberts, Richard W. Robins. Stability and Change in Personality Traits and Major Life Goals From College to Midlife. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2020; 014616722094936

Blanchflower, David G. Is Happiness U-shaped Everywhere?  Age and Subjective Well-being in 132 Countries. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series No. 26641 January 2020.