Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Unlock your workplace potential: The power of aligning personal goals with organizational success

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Gary Latham

Businesses are made up of individuals, each of whom comes into the workplace with their own motivations. When those personal goals are aligned with those of their broader organization, great things can happen. When there is misalignment, however, the opposite is true.

That’s according to Gary Latham, an award-winning researcher, author, and professor of organizational effectiveness at Rotman, who has dedicated his career to studying goal setting and performance.

Based on Latham’s research, when self-set goals are aligned with assigned goals, individual performance improves. “Without such alignment, personal goals have a detrimental effect on a group’s performance,” he and co-author Edwin Locke wrote in a 2002 retrospective published in American Psychologist, titled “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation," and which remains relevant today.

And since aligning personal goals with organizational ones ultimately improves outcomes for both, Latham shares four strategies to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship between your personal ambitions and your organization’s objectives.

Choose your employer wisely

Aligning your personal goals with those of your organization starts before the first day on the job. During the recruiting and selection process Latham says it’s important for individuals to seek out roles that speak to their personal ambitions, and for employers to use the interview process to weed out anyone who doesn’t share the organization’s mission and values. In fact, many job postings now include statements about the organization’s goals and values to help prospective employees determine if they align with their own, and Latham encourages candidates to ask about those ambitions during the interview process.

For example, Latham says he would never take a job at an academic institution that didn’t allow him to pursue his own research interests. “To the extent that I can align my objectives with the organization’s objectives, I require little or no supervision because I am self-motivated and I’m doing what I believe in,” he says.

Find your passion

Often people choose jobs without taking that alignment into consideration, or deprioritize it over other attributes of the role, and even those who begin on the same page as their employer sometimes see that alignment fade over time. When that happens, employees often experience a lack of personal motivation and disengage from their work, which can be a costly problem for their organization. To return that alignment, Latham says employees should work with their managers to find new ways to contribute to the organization in ways that better align with their personal interests.

For example, when Latham was hired as department chair at the University of Washington, Seattle, he says there were a number of faculty members who had clearly lost interest in their jobs. One of his first orders of business was to sit down with each over lunch to discuss how to get them to contribute more.

“They had been teaching the same courses from the 1960s through the 1980s, so I gave them permission to come up with brand new courses that they would love to teach,” he says. “Suddenly there was a bounce in their step, and that lasted until the day they retired.”

Latham explains that when personal goals are lacking, or not in line with those of the broader organizations, it’s incumbent on individuals to work with their managers to find new ways to contribute — or accept that the relationship may have run its course.

“Within the parameters of the organization’s overall goals and vision, what’s the one, two, three things that you could do that would you make you feel good?” he says. “In big organizations, it’s much easier to find a home for these people than in a smaller organization.”

Set organizational goals from the bottom-up

Those who seek employment at organizations whose values and mission align with their own are much more likely to be successful in the short term. Maintaining that alignment, however, often requires a certain degree of wiggle room, which is typically more present at some organizations than others.

Objectives that are dictated from management, Latham says, are more likely to be achieved if teams and individual contributors lower down on the corporate ladder have some degree of flexibility to contribute in ways that align with their own goals.

That is why he believes it’s important for management to be transparent about organizational goals, and not too rigid in how individual contributors, teams and departments work toward that shared objective. According to his research, this bottom-up approach to goal setting is more powerful than those that are top-down because they are “expressed in the language of the employees.”

“Senior management comes up with an overall, five-year plan, the goals they want to attain, and the overall strategy they want to see the company pursue,” Latham says. “Those us much lower in the organization can then set goals for our department that link directly into the upper echelon.”

Seek feedback

Individuals might feel confident that their personal goals are in alignment with their organization’s, but the only way to know for sure is to ask. According to Latham’s research, goal setting is much more effective when people have a sense of their progress. He adds that it is incumbent on managers to provide feedback — but also on individuals to seek it out — to maintain ongoing alignment.

“Feedback has two functions; one is informational, it gives information about what you need to start doing, stop doing, or consider doing differently,” he says. “Feedback is also motivational in that it tells you whether you’re making progress toward goal attainment.”

Maintaining strong alignment between personal goals and broader organizational objectives, Latham adds, requires regular, detailed, and thoughtful feedback. “You personally need to take the initiative to seek feedback to clarify the goals you should be working towards,” he says.

Gary Latham is a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management.