Mastery Goals

Setting the Right Goals Can Build Resilience

What would it be like if all of your employees bounced back in the face of adversity, always kept trying when they didn’t quite reach their goals, and continued to grow and develop despite challenging assignments?

Now take a moment to think about yourself: Have you ever failed to reach a goal and felt that you just weren’t good enough? Perhaps the feeling came from not receiving that promotion, or not getting the top grade in a class. When you fall short of a goal, it can be incredibly detrimental to your self-esteem – that is, if you have a performance goal orientation.

Performance goals are characterized as goals that focus on achievement and on demonstrating your ability (Halvorson, 2011).

Do you tend to be concerned with how others view you? Do you set goals based on concrete outcomes such as a specific sales target? If so, it is likely that you have a performance goal orientation.

Individuals pursuing these types of goals tend to be high achieving and can be incredibly motivated (Halvorson, 2011). When coupled with a reward (such as a raise or promotion), performance goals can significantly rally an employee up.  However, when challenges arise, performance goals can lead people to doubt their abilities and question whether the hard work is worth it- leading them to quit or give up. It has also been shown that those with performance goals face higher rates of depression and are less likely to take action when faced with road bumps (Grant, Baer, & Dweck, 2009). This depression and self-doubt can lead them to be less effective in other aspects of their lives as well.

So what can you do to build up employees’ resilience to setbacks and difficulties?

Steer away from performance goals, and instead set mastery goals with your employees. Mastery goals focus on helping people get better at something, as opposed to focusing on showing their worth and ability. This type of goal aims to facilitate growth and learning.

What could this change do for your employees?

  • They will be less likely to procrastinate (Howell & Watson, 2007)
  • They are more likely to persist in the face of adversity (Grant & Dweck, 2003)
  • They are more likely to attribute failure to something that can be changed
  • They will try different ways to solve a problem
  • The continuous effort to overcome challenges will help pull one out of depression more quickly (Grant et al., 2009)

Why does a change in mindset produce such noteworthy outcomes? Unlike an achievement goal that is either met or not, focusing on growth is not an all or nothing type of deal. Someone with a mastery goal would recognize that even if they got a B on an exam, that doesn’t mean they didn’t learn and grow from the experience of taking the class. Someone who is achievement focused, on the other hand, may feel like a failure if they didn’t earn an A. (Halvorson, 2011). Also, focusing on growth allows one to focus on endless possibilities of novel ways of tackling challenges. It propels individuals forward into action, as opposed to discouraging them from trying.  Most importantly, mastery goals are about improving one’s self, not validating that one is good enough. Therefore, missing the mark is not detrimental to a person’s self-esteem.

How do you set mastery goals for yourself and your employees?

  • Aim to build new skills and experiences by identifying what type of work excites you or your employees.
  • Shift your reasoning behind a goal, for instance shoot for a promotion because it will give you new responsibilities and opportunities to grow, not simply for the sake of improving your status.
  • Work with employees to craft goals that are focused on learning, as opposed to achievement. Set goals that can help them in their pursuit of new knowledge and skills.

As an employer you may counter that you want your employees to perform and you care more about their achievement than their growth. Keep in mind, however, how failure to meet a performance goal will affect employee morale and future performance. Mastery goals may ultimately be more effective for the long-term performance of your employees.



Grant, H., Baer, A., & Dweck, C. (2009). Personal goals predict the level and impact of dysphoria. Unpublished manuscript.

Grant, H. & Dweck, C. S. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 541-53.

Halvorson, H. G. (2010). Succeed: How we can reach our goals. USA: Penguin Publishing Group.

Howell, A., & Watson, D. (2007) Procrastination: Associations with achievement goal orientation and learning strategies. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 167-78.

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