‘If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal.’ Albert Einstein 

In the first weeks of a new year, many of us take time to create personal and professional goals for ourselves, yet we often struggle to fulfil them. What do we need to change to make our goals reality? And, as a people professional or manager, how can you support your employees to achieve their work-related ambitions?  

There is a well-established psychological principle that thinking positively about a goal or wish can have a detrimental effect on success. Positive visualisation of a goal provides an ideal version of a future event and allows us a sense of enjoyment about the future, and to a certain extent, satisfaction. As a result, we make less effort and lower our chances of fulfilling that goal because there is already a sense of achievement. Extensive research, including studies surrounding weight loss and academic achievement, has validated this concept.  

So, if thinking positively about future goals or wishes leads to lower success rates, how do you increase the chances of reaching your goals? My interest in this area was sparked when I attended the recent Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference. Keynote speaker and psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen encouraged us to rethink our approach to positive thinking when setting goals. She believes the use of mental contrasting is the secret to success.  

What is mental contrasting? 

Mental contrasting is the act of visualising a positive outcome while also visualising an internal struggle that could stop you from achieving your goal. The important part, and the bit that people often miss out, is thinking about potential obstacles and planning for ways to overcome them (should they occur). This concept resonated with me, mainly because this initiates a deeper level of thinking (or mental imagery) towards achieving a goal. Mental contrasting is essentially a way of developing mental associations to increase our awareness and ultimately influence our behaviour change.  

Gabriele and colleagues have developed a handy acronym for the mental strategy that helps to apply this concept in practice: WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). We can use WOOP for both personal goals and professional development. Visualise your goal and desired outcome, but also anticipate the obstacles that could be standing in the way of achieving your goal. Finally, devise an ‘if-then’ plan, which will help you to overcome that obstacle. 

Is there space for WOOP in the workplace? 

When you consider this in relation to the workplace, WOOP suggests that it’s not enough to think up carefully crafted objectives and outcomes for a piece of work. Instead, we should be going a step further and thinking about potential obstacles and planning how to overcome them. Simply recognising obstacles or risks isn’t enough. Devising a well-thought-out strategy and an ‘if-then’ plan is far more likely to lead to the achievement of your goals and even higher levels of success.  

If we relate this to how we manage people, it offers an interesting focus for the development conversations that take place in our organisations. Steer your conversations beyond objectives and outcomes towards the obstacles that confront employees, whether they be operational, interpersonal or cultural. Then, take the conversations one step further to plan: 

  • how the employee plans to overcome the obstacle  
  • how as a manager or people professional you can support them at each stage to increase their chances of achieving their goals, whether that be their career aspirations or as part of a specific project.  

The next time you decide to set yourself a new goal, work-related or personal, don’t spend all your time thinking about the ideal outcome alone. Instead, think critically about the blockers and barriers that prevent you from achieving success and devise your ‘if-then’ plan upfront.  

If you’d like to give the WOOP exercise a try, you can find more details here.  

About the author

Rebecca Peters

Rebecca Peters, Research Adviser

Rebecca joined the Research team in 2019, specialising in the area of health and wellbeing at work as both a practitioner and a researcher. Before joining the CIPD Rebecca worked part-time at Kingston University in the Business School research department, where she worked on several research-driven projects. Additionally, Rebecca worked part-time at a health and wellbeing consultancy where she facilitated various wellbeing workshops, both externally and in-house. 

Rebecca has a master’s degree in Occupational Psychology from Kingston University, where she conducted research on Prison Officers’ resilience and coping strategies. The output of this research consisted of a behavioural framework which highlighted positive and negative strategies that Prison Officers used in their daily working life.   

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