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Mar 21 2022, 5 min to read

Stefan Söderfjäll talks about goals in GoalEnvision (Part 5: Different types of goals)

There is not just one kind of goal. We can formulate goals on four different levels of abstraction.


The first level of abstraction is about the result of what we want to achieve. It can be goals with financial results, goals with sales, goals with staff turnover, goals with customer satisfaction, etc .. Results are a final outcome of activities and events and achievements that will lead to the desired outcome. When we set a result goal, we thus indicate what result we want to strive to achieve.

The second level of abstraction we can formulate goals around is about our individual and common achievements. It is about the quality and quantity with which we perform our tasks. How fast we carry out work steps, how many tasks we have time to carry out or what precision we have in our work are examples of performance goals.

The third level of abstraction refers to learning objectives where we want to develop knowledge and skills that help us to perform well and contribute to good results. When we formulate goals with competencies and skills that we know are good to have so that we can run a good business.

The fourth and final level of abstraction is process goals or activity goals. These are goals that we formulate with concrete activities that we are to carry out, which we can check off on a checklist or on a to-do list. These are concrete behaviors such as to make 14 calls today, that I should sign up for this course or I should go in to this person and give this feedback. These are concrete activities that we formulate with process goals.

These four different levels of abstraction of goals all have their pros and cons. The advantage of a performance target is that the result determines the raison d'être of the entire business. If we influence the result in a positive way, the probability increases that our entire business will be able to continue to succeed. If we make money, save lives or win football matches, we have created better conditions for continuing with what we are doing. That is why we often set performance targets, because that is the purpose of the core business itself. If we have the direct opportunity to influence the result, and the individual feels that efforts and behaviors can be linked directly to the final result. 

If you feel that you have the skills and conditions for what you need to do to affect the result, result goals are absolutely excellent. But in many businesses it is a rather complex phenomenon, and results are affected by many different variables that we only partially know, and some variables that are completely beyond our own knowledge. 

The less direct control we have over the outcome of a goal, the worse the performance goal will work to influence the individual's actions and efforts. Therefore, it is a good rule of thumb, that if there is a direct link between efforts and behaviors and there is a competence in employees where they know what they need to do to achieve good results, then you can work with performance goals. But if, on the contrary, the result is dependent on very many different variables and there is not a strong feeling that they can control the result, then it does more harm than good. Then it is better to go down to the level of abstraction, for example to learning goals, which researchers have shown is an excellent level to formulate goals around. For learning purposes, you instead identify skills, competencies and knowledge that you need to acquire and develop because they help you to achieve good results and achievements.

Research has shown that when we formulate goals with the acquisition of knowledge and skills and competences, learning goals often have a greater positive impact on the actual result than the result goal. Whatever goals you formulate, you can always formulate for what you have the most direct immediate control over; process and activity goals. The advantage of activity-based goals is that you can quickly experience progress as you check the items on the activity list.

In summary, goals can be formulated for results, for achievements, for learning and for activities. The less direct control we have to influence a result, the better it is to keep formulating learning, activity and performance goals.

About Stefan Söderfjäll

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology Stefan Söderfjäll has studied our human behavior for over 20 years. Stefan wants to bring out research-based knowledge, above all about how we behave in working life. Stefan Söderfjäll is one of the owners of the Swedish digital tool for goal control, GoalEnvision. GoalEnvision is a powerful tool for you who want to set goals together in the company. GoalEnvision provides tips on successful goals and a simple methodology to get everyone to get the right things done.

About By Stefan Söderfjäll, author and PhD in psychology

Stefan Söderfjäll is a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology and has spent more than 20 years bringing out research-based knowledge about how we behave, especially about how we behave in working life.

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