50+ CareersAppraisalsBusinessCambridgeCareer BrandCareer CoachingCareer PathCareer TheoryCareersCoachingDecision MakingEmploymentGoal SettingJobsNonconsciousOrganisationsPrimed GoalsProblem SolvingPsychologyWork

Managing Your Career Goals – Without You Even Knowing

cropped-cropped-team.jpgYou know when you get really interested in a subject, things just seem to pop out of the woodwork without you even noticing?  Like when you have bought a new car and you start to notice all the cars same as yours. Same colour and same model etc. The motivation, goal or the drive to notice these things hadn’t been there before, so why now?

In this post, I am going to have a go at helping you to manage your goals.  We can start to get you and those goals moving without you even knowing. Now, this techniques is not for the obvious conscious goals, but the non-conscious ones. The goals that the non-conscious part of your brain can do all the heavy lifting for you without you even paying attention.

These are the goals can be primed to provide longer-term goal attainment and performance.  We know that conscious goal tends to consume cognitive resources and your thinking time. It’s always tiring thinking about your goals and how to achieve them. Hence the cognitive miser effect and our tendency strive to use the least amount of processing power possible.

Bit of Goal Setting Science

A paper from Shantz & Latham (2011) suggests that the phenomena of nonconscious goal priming have implications for employee efficiency in the workplace “an unconscious goal affects behaviour in the absence of attention or awareness of goal pursuit”. (Shantz & Latham 2011). Happy days no need to think about achieving goals then. Well, its never that straightforward I am afraid.

Goal setting has been around since Caxton was a boy and has been proved to be effective performance appraisals, coaching, training, transfer of training, and self-management. Indeed in a coaching setting specific performance goals resulted in twice as much improvement in an employee’s performance than did a discussion of general goals, or criticism without reference to a specific goal (Burke, Weitzel, & Weir, 1978). Anyway, so how do primed goals differ from conscious goal setting?

Primed Goals

A primed goal as stated by Custers & Aarts, (2007) “only affects subsequent behaviour to the extent that it pre-exists in an individual’s mind as the desired state associated with positive affect” I am sure you have seen those motivational posters and the sometimes cliched statements about achieving your goals etc. Well, that is trying to help you maintain motivation through nonconscious nudging effect. Though they will only work if you have been primed with the images of statements to know that they will motivate you to reach your goal.

The primed goal then acts as a motivator and increases employee efficacy. It works akin to a pattern matcher to help out goal schema or memory recognise particular environments that will then lead on to goal-directed behaviour and achievement. As I am sure you can appreciate all this is going on behind the scenes. So you do not have to think about achieving the goals they are ticking away in the background keeping you on track.

Use with care

It’s an interesting sideways view of goal setting in the workplace that may raise some ethical issues, akin to the subliminal marketing controversy in the past. So if used, primed goals will need to be applied with care. However environmental cues in the workplace, such as posters, photographs relevant to positive appraising, coaching and training staff teams, applying the knowledge gained during training to the job and working diligently in the absence of direct supervision (i.e., self-management) may significantly increase employee efficiency performance.


There is still a lot more research to do around this subject such as what primed stimulus constitutes a motivator. Is it something around the appraisal or training or even coach or coaching method? To date, there is no research on whether a prime can have a negative effect on behaviour in an organisational setting. So although a nice idea currently its certainly a theory that we can watch develop over time and hopefully help more people at work be motivated to reach their goals, though not be consciously aware of them perhaps.



Burke, R. J., Weitzel, W., & Weir, T. (1978). Characteristics of effective employee
performance review and development interviews: Replication and extension.
Personnel Psychology, 31, 903-919.

Custers, R., & Aarts, H. (2007). Goal-discrepant situations prime goal-directed actions if goals are temporarily or chronically accessible. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 623-633.

Shantz, A. & Latham, G. P. (2011) The Effect of Primed Goals on Employee Performance: Implications for Human Resource Management. Human Resource Management.