Goal setting may be a coaching basic, but it is certainly not a basic skill in coaching! – John Raymond

Reflections on goals setting for organisational coaches

Setting goals has been central to coaching ever since Sir John Whitmore popularised the GROW model in the early nineties with his seminal text Coaching for Performance (1992). Goal Theory however was long established by this time with Edwin Locke publishing his Theory on Goals in 1968 and then refining it further with Dr Gary Latham. However, even prior to this, goal setting was philosophically central to organisational performance and the personal development movement.

Although a goal is a relatively simple construct to grasp, the professional application of goals in coaching is anything but simple. Understanding goals is as complex as any human which is why all coaches should apply themselves to refining their understanding and utilisation of goals. So, with this in mind, I share a few relevant aspects of goal setting, and then ask a question for coaches to reflect on regarding this specific aspect. Let me start with this question…

Coach’s question – how do you keep up to date with current goal setting research?

Much of the goal setting literature comes from western researchers, and although there are commonalities across all humanities, cultural differences do impact the nature of goals. A couple of relevant examples. Hofstede identifies Individualism as one of his 5 cultural dimensions. On this dimension, when you compare Australia with an Asian country (e.g. India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Philippines) there is a stark difference in scores with Australia being high on individualism – 90 with other Asian countries ranging between 14 and 48 with most scoring around 20. Another example is a religious one as explained in the book Coaching in Islamic Culture by Christian van Nieuwerburgh and Raja’a Allaho. The authors explain that when a coach has an understanding of Muslim culture, positive intent becomes a more useful frame than talking about a goal.

Coach’s question – what cultural dimensions are influencing your goal setting processes? What are you missing?

Dr Gavin Dagley identified in his 2010 study with the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) that “exceptional coaches” are those who have “flexible approaches and range” to bring in the moment to best serve their coaching counterpart (or coachee). This means having a variety of approaches, and knowing them deeply, is paramount to excellent coaching, this includes the way a coach creates and manages the goal setting process. A great text to broaden and deepen your understanding of goals is Beyond Goals by David Clutterbuck, David Megginson and Susan David.

Coach’s question – what are the knowledge bases that underpin your goal setting? What other knowledge bases could underpin your work?

Coaching ROI continues to be a hot topic amongst organisational circles. Goal attainment is one of the obvious measures of success of coaching and a necessary component, whatever ROI equation is being used (if any). This could create a tension, therefore, for the coach in terms of the difficulty of the goal for the coaching counterpart? An easy goal means a higher chance of goal attainment and therefore a higher probability of success. Ethically, where is the line for a coach in terms of the challenge level of the goal?

Coach’s question – how do you manage your personal agenda when setting goals with your coachee?

Goals are designed to focus your attention and therefore regulate your cognitive and behavioural efforts accordingly to assist in achieving the agreed goal. As with everything we focus on, an opportunity cost now exists. In organisational coaching, as with life, the rate of change is increasing and so in this ever-changing landscape, where change is the norm, how flexible do coaches need to be with goals to stay relevant for the coachee’s success? One of my university tutors summed this up well when he described goals as “something we need to have in coaching, but we need to hold them lightly”


Coach’s questions – What are you not focussing on in your coaching? What is the impact of this to your coachee?

All goals are not created equally. Here are a few tensions…

  • Goals sit in a hierarchy – i.e. some goals are more important than others at points in time
  • Sometimes multiple valid and meaningful goals will cause conflict for the counterpart – any coach who was worked in organisations will know first hand the conflict between a high pressure job and family responsibilities. Balancing work performance and personal wellbeing could be another example of goal conflict
  • Performance goals (achieving an outcome) are different to learning goals (acquiring new knowledge, awareness or skill)
  • Some goals are extrinsic (manager’s agenda) and some are intrinsic (personal desire) which impacts motivation levels
  • Some goals are more appealing when they are framed as toward (moving towards something the coachee wants) and sometimes its more motivating when its worded as an away from goal (moving away from something not wanted)
  • Coaches work with session goals, short term goals and longer-term career goals – all at the same time and it is very common to have multiple goals, some that may be in conflict. With the leaders I work with one of the most common goal conflicts is between being the leader they want to be and the parent / spouse they want to be


Coach’s question – what is the most useful goal for the coaching counterpart to be working on in this moment? What goal do you want the counterpart to be working on?

And what about the shadow side of goals? In an illuminating article titled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting (2009) the authors challenge many of the widely accepted tenants of goal setting principles laid out by Locke and Latham. This also fundamentally challenges the way many organisations utilise goal setting to drive performance. For example, it describes the overuse of stretch goals in organisations to garner higher performance and the negative impact this can have on a person’s engagement with the goal and at work.

Coach’s question – what is the shadow side of the way you help your coachee craft their coaching goals?

Hopefully this has raised some great questions for you to bring to your reflective practice or coach supervision session.  And regardless of your position on these aspects of goal setting, one thing is clear – goals are a fundamental component of our coaching and having a deep understanding of this coaching basic is required to best serve our coachees.


John Raymond is based in Singapore and holds a Bachelor of Commerce, a Master of Coaching Psychology, and is a PCC with the ICF. He has over two decades of coaching experience and is an organisational coach and Head of Asia with IECL.