The danger of goals and power

Archer aiming for the target

How long will it take to hit the target?

Two of the frequent aims of career coaching or counselling are to empower clients and to help them develop amibtious personal goals. Nothing could possibly be wrong with that, you might think.

However, according to studies performed by Mario Weick, from the University of Kent, and Ana Guinote, from University College London, people who experience feelings of power can seriously underestimate how long it will take to achieve their goals.

Weick, M., & Guinote, A. (2010). How Long Will It Take? Power Biases Time Predictions Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.005

In the research, university students (the usual victims) were asked to estimate the time it would take to complete their next coursework assignment. Half of the students had been led to believe that their opinions were going to have a significant influence an insitution-wide policy decision, the other half were told that their opinions would have no effect on the final decision.

The students convinced of their power to change policy were more likely to give overly optimistic estimates of how soon they would complete their assigments. Even though they often completed some elements of their task more quickly than the non-powerful students, they still got it wrong overall.

Feeling overconfident?

The researchers tested to see whether the effect was down to the empowered students feeling more confident in their abilities or perhaps feeling happier or more optimistic generally, but these factors didn’t seem to correlate with the unrealistic estimates.

In one of the studies, though, they told half of the empowered students to think about how long previous assignments had taken before making their estimate. This act of drawing attention to the past had the effect of making their projections more realistic.

Ignoring important information

From the preceding results the authors concluded that the effect of empowerment was to focus the students’ attention too narrowly on the specific goal. This led them to neglect other factors that might help to make a better time estimate, such as:

  • comparing this task with evidence from other experiences and similar tasks
  • predicting potential problems and obstacles on the way to achieving the goal
  • looking at the complexity of subcomponents of the task rather than viewing the task as one big but simple job

Goal setting and empowerment

Any good career coach should aim to empower their clients. However, if you are also helping them to formulate their career development goals, it could be important to also focus on the factors that will enable the clients to be more realistic in their estimates of the difficulty of achieving those goals. If our clients find that it’s harder than they thought to achieve their goals, they may lose hope and lose confidence.

  • Have you seen this effect in clients?
  • Do you spend enough time on making client action plans detailed and realistic?
  • Do you think about how to empower your clients?

Related post: The benefits of pessimism


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  1. #1 by CASCAiD - SK, Product Development on 30 March 2010 - 11:17

    Thanks for this David, I’ll use this to start a discussion about improving the Cascaid Action Plan and what info we provide back to the users. Very useful.

    • #2 by David Winter on 30 March 2010 - 16:30

      Thanks. Please feedback anything interesting that results from your discussions.

  2. #3 by CASCAiD - SK, Product Development on 31 March 2010 - 08:18


    This won’t be discussed until we are given the time and resources to improve the Action Plan – which may be 6 months +

    • #4 by David Winter on 31 March 2010 - 10:52

      You could start the discussion now (and here!). Then you’ll be really ready.

      I’ll be running a session on Action Planning as part of the AGCAS Advanced Guidance Skills course in June, so that’s why it’s on my mind now. Any thoughts, ideas or resources would be really welcome.

      Watch this space, I’ve got another post coming soon about what motivates people to follow through with intentions.

  3. #5 by CASCAiD - SK, Product Development on 31 March 2010 - 11:11


    At Cascaid, our Launchpad product has a integrated action plan (by integrated, I mean that the you indicate which subjects and careers you’re interested in and they are added to the Action Plan – there’s no typing in) that allows you to record a goal. We allow the user to write the goal and set a target completion date.
    The above post started me thinking that maybe we could provide an onscreen report that showed users each goal completed, the original target date and the actual date it was marked as being done. This would then help make their future target dates more realistic.

    • #6 by David Winter on 16 April 2010 - 15:26

      I like the sound of that.

      Do you have anything built in which helps them to break down the goal into manageable chunks?

      I’m guessing you might have the ubiquitous SMART objectives in there somewhere…?

  4. #7 by John King on 3 April 2010 - 16:22

    The study shows the time predictions were overly optimistic. But it also shows that they were able to complete some tasks more quickly than the control group.

    David your conclusions are somewhat pessimistic relative to the findings of the study. The study demonstrates that empowerment can boost results but that there is a mismatch in that the gain is not as big as expected. You assume that this is negative, and that the increased mismatch could lead to discouragement. My experience is that this is not the case, because expectations are frequently reset and reassessed. Clients measure their progress towards the goal they have set not as a proportion of what they said they would do, but as a proportion of the total goal. It doesn’t matter that you are moving forward more slowly than you want, as long as you are moving forward.

    • #8 by David Winter on 14 April 2010 - 10:29

      Yes, the empowered students did complete some elements of their tasks more quickly. However, the researchers do indicate that empowerment strengthens the narrow focus on goals which can lead to unrealistic estimates.

      I didn’t think I was being pessimistic, I just wanted to raise a question about possible dangers of focusing narrowly on goals.

      Quite often we are there when clients are formulating their goals and action plans and it’s tempting to get them to be as ambitious as we can, but we rarely see how those goals and plans work out in the reality away from the consulting room.

      However, I have had quite a few repeat clients who, when they returned had not achieved as much as they had previously planned to do. As a result of this they were feeling somewhat disillusioned. This bit of research made me question whether that was down to me encouraging them to focus too narrowly and unrealistically on the goals.

      When I do action planning with a client now, I’m trying to walk a delicate balance between empowerment and pragmatism.

  5. #9 by Alison on 7 April 2010 - 16:33

    It seems to me that optimism is a hugely important part of career planning and job hunting. However, I can see the reasoning behind the theory that being overly confident and failing to see the steps that need to be taken to reach your goal can be dangerous. It’s up to the adviser to help them to think about how they can reach that goal. Pointing out how much work needs to be done to succeed may come across as discouraging- but I think it’s probably necessary (in most cases) for the client to reach their goal.

    Yet again it seems to me that this is a career theory that can be metaphorically explained by an episode of Pinky and the Brain. Every night Brain (an overly confident lab mouse) has the goal to take over the world and consistently fails. Perhaps he should meet with a careers adviser to make a detailed action plan to help him succeed his goal! What do you think David? I’ll book him in with you :p

    • #10 by David Winter on 14 April 2010 - 10:38

      Interestingly, according to the research the unrealistic predictions didn’t seem to be related to confidence or general optimism. It was more about focusing narrowly on the particular goal in isolation and ignoring other information that might help you to make a more realistic estimate.

      You’re right – it could be easy to put people off doing things by making it all sound like too much hard work. But, as you say, having a more realistic idea of what is likely to be involved and what difficulties might crop up, may help people to realise that they are making reasonable progress even if things aren’t moving as quickly as they hoped.

      OK! OK! I’m now convinced that Pinky and the Brain contains all possible wisdom. I just need to find time to watch it!

  6. #11 by Vinny on 30 April 2010 - 15:09

    I can do a pretty good impression of Pinky and the Brain. I wonder if I can use it in my guidance sessions when goal setting…

  1. Focalism: What are you missing? « Careers – in Theory

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