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During the first few weeks of every year, the majority of our conversations in the workplace are centered on goals. What are your personal resolutions? Professional resolutions? What are our team's objectives? How should our company change or advance this year?

We eventually come away with plans, timelines, and both "safe" and "reach" goals. I have no doubt that, for most of us, a considerable amount of time and thought goes into planning these annual objectives. But do we understand why we're setting goals in the first place?

In order to set meaningful goals that truly push our limits and help us improve, it is crucial to understand what motivates us to set goals — and whether those are meaningful and healthy motivations.

A Toe-Dip into Goal Theory

The literature of goal-setting theory offers two different psychological approaches: performance-oriented goal setting and learning-oriented goal setting.

People who are performance-oriented are also known as "extrinsically motivated." They determine their success by the amount of recognition they receive from others. Performance-oriented people like awards, money and recognition. They want to be the best on the team, in the company and in the industry. And generally, they don't mind finding the easiest way to get there.

Learning-oriented people, on the other hand, are "intrinsically motivated." They measure success by the process as opposed to the destination. They enjoy learning new things and often engage in activities for the sole purpose of trying something unfamiliar — even if they are not the best at it. They don't like cutting corners, and instead prefer to fully immerse themselves in a new project, activity or topic until they fully understand it.

But perhaps the most significant difference between performance- and learning-oriented people is how each group views failure. As you might guess, performance-oriented people avoid failure at all costs. Learning-oriented people? They tend to see failure as necessary.

The Importance of Balance—and Falling

Originally, psychologists categorized people as either performance- or learning-oriented people, until studies emerged showing that people can be multiple goal-oriented. In other words, we may be extrinsically motivated in some areas of life, and intrinsically motivated in or for others. Sometimes, it's a mix of both.

This range of motivations begs us to be honest with ourselves and others when setting goals: Are you taking a performance-oriented approach, or a learning-oriented approach? Both are of value, but relying too much on one or the other could be harmful. HR pros should ensure that managers are providing their individual employees and the team with a mix of both — you can have a sales quota, but it shouldn't come at the expense of great customer service, management skills and creativity.

Most importantly, while goal setting requires striking a balance between performance and learning, it also requires not being afraid to fall along the way.

During your goal setting meetings this month — whether it's with your direct team, the C-suite or an individual employee — focus on penning down a few objectives outside of the collective comfort zone. Demonstrate that failure is integral to success. (And for those performance-oriented people, try framing failure in a new light with a "Best Failure of the Year" award — making a gusty risk may not go as planned, but there's always a lesson to be learned.)

Always Be Developing

As you finalize your goals for this year, also remember that progress isn't just annual — it's ongoing. Continue to revisit the goals you set, and continue to think about the creating a balance between performance and learning, and success and failure.

I often repeat the phrase "always be developing" to my team at Cornerstone, because I believe that our potential is limitless — we can always do more, learn more and see more. This can be a scary thing, yes, but it should also be exciting. If you apply the same mentality to your goal setting and development this year, I guarantee you will be surprised by the things you never knew you could accomplish.

Photo: Creative Commons