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Goal Setting for Reducing Organizational Stress

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Insecurity and uncertainty are significant sources of organizational stress. This lesson explores practical ways that setting and achieving goals can reduce organizational stress by decreasing fear and uncertainty.

Goal Setting: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Organizational stress, the tension between an individual and their workplace, comes from a wide variety of sources. Although there are a number of techniques that can be used to reduce this kind of stress, goal setting is an especially powerful tool because it reduces stress in four ways simultaneously. Let's use a hypothetical, but very realistic, workplace scenario to look at each of these four facets of stress reduction through goal setting.

Professional boredom is deadly to motivation, and it causes organizational stress.
Fig1

A Case Study in Organizational Stress and Goal Setting

In 2008, the labor market in the United States tightened dramatically in response to a significant economic recession. As employers shed jobs, talented and skilled individuals were laid off at alarmingly high rates. Many of these individuals faced a particularly difficult challenge when, after years at a high-wage, high-skill job, they found themselves applying for positions for which they were truly overqualified. An employee believes they are overqualified when they feel their employer isn't making good use of their skills and knowledge.

Our example will follow a highly skilled individual named Kareem, who was laid off from a job at an international computer giant and subsequently accepted an IT help desk position six months later. In his job with the large corporation, he was a senior technician with a salary greater than $100,000 a year. The job he was hired for, however, was an entry-level position paying less than $40,000 a year.

At the onset, Kareem was highly motivated by the fact that he needed a job - any job - in order to keep his family in the area and maintain his family's lifestyle. Kareem's skillset was very deep, but unfortunately it was also very narrow. He was a technical wizard, but his knowledge was limited to just a few, very specialized products.

When Kareem was hired into the help desk role, the situation became the perfect storm for occupational stress. Kareem was under stress related to financial challenges, job insecurity, and a profound amount of uncertainty regarding the future. This was compounded by the fact that the skill and experience of his last 11 years were now totally irrelevant.

The Four Facets of Goal Setting for Stress Reduction

Satisfaction: A Job Well-Done

Although the ideal way to reduce Kareem's stress would be to find him a job at an equivalent level to his old job with equivalent pay, doing that was out of the question. However, a good manager would (and did) realize that, although the new employer did not need many of Kareem specific technical skills, he would still reap the benefits associated with a job well done. For the manager's part, it was important to give Kareem a task with specific goals that needed to be accomplished even if those goals did not require him to fully leverage his technical skills. By assigning him projects with specific deliverables, Kareem's manager dramatically increased his job satisfaction by allowing him to take pride in being excellent at his job, even if that job wasn't his ideal role.

Even when it is not their dream job, occupational stress is reduced when goal setting provides the opportunity to showcase high-quality work.
Fig3

Participation: It Pays to Play

Another way a savvy manager reduced Kareem's stress was by making him an integral part of the IT team. Although it would normally be above the paygrade of a help desk technician to participate in overall IT project planning, Kareem's manager wisely involved him in that process in order to help him further reduce occupational stress. Thus not only did Kareem benefit from being given a specific, task-oriented goal that could provide satisfaction from a job well done, he set an additional goal for Kareem to provide meaningful input to an IT project, even if the project would not be his.

Employees respond well to goal of sharing their experiences and sound advice.
Fig2

Motivation: Target Practice

A third way that Kareem's manager helped reduce his occupational stress was to ensure that there were always long-term goals in front of him. This helped Kareem avoid the tremendous stress that builds when employees feel that their life has become an endless monotony of menial tasks. Kareem's employer reduced this stress using what they called a technical ladder. The technical ladder laid out a path that Kareem could follow in order to become more valuable to the employer and more valuable to himself as well.

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