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The Science Behind Resolutions

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Every bright and shiny new year comes with so much potential and new possibilities, and whether you love it, or love to hate it, it also comes with new year's resolutions. For some, this time-honored tradition can really set the tone for their year, but for others it can can feel like a sure way to set yourself up for disappointment later. No matter where you stand on the topic of resolutions, setting goals is generally seen as a great way to complete or achieve your desired result. In fact, you've probably heard many sayings about how goals are the "key to success" or how if you just "write them down" then you're already halfway to accomplishing them. Well, there is actually some truth behind these sayings, and its all backed by science.

In 1968, Dr. Edwin Locke, an industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologist (just like the ones our team), created goal-setting theory, which is a scientific theory based on the idea that setting specific and measurable goals is more effective than setting unclear goals. While the theory was created for application within organizations, the basic foundations have taken root in much of the literature we read about goals today. In fact, we commonly use a version of this theory to set diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals with our clients before the outset of any project or intervention.

Locke theorized that employees are more motivated by well-defined goals and constructive feedback and are more likely to accomplish these goals when they are specific and measurable. There are five basic tenets of a good goal:

  1. Clarity: Goals must be clear and specific with understanding of task objectives and deadlines.

  2. Sense of Challenge: To keep employees engaged and focused, goals should be sufficiently challenging. Goals that are too difficult or, conversely, too easy have a demotivating effect.

  3. Commitment: Employees need to understand and support the goal from the beginning. If employees don't feel committed to the goal, they are less likely to enjoy the process and ultimately achieve the goal.

  4. Feedback: Consistent reflection and discussion of an employee's progress will help them stay on track and stay motivated.

  5. Task complexity: Goals should be broken down into smaller goals. Setting milestones for employees to reach along the way to the larger, loftier goal in a great way to give a sense of accomplishment and avoid demotivation.

Now that we've covered the basics, you're probably wondering how you can realistically apply these within your own organization or life. One of the best ways to do this is by creating SMART goals, which are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound.

Let's see what this would look like for a Mattingly Solutions client whose 2022 diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) objectives included wanting to increase their organization's retention rate of employees belonging to minority groups.

  1. Specific: The retention rate of employees belonging to minority groups to be increased from the current rate of 80% after 12 months employment at the organization to 90% after 12 months employment at the organization due to the implementation of an intervention created by Mattingly Solutions.

  2. Measurable: The mixed-method intervention will include the retention rate being calculated quantitatively at different time points (3,6,9,12 months) in order to observe the "drop-off" points for employees belonging to minority groups. Additionally, the retention rate will be measure qualitatively by examining exit-interview responses of employees belonging to minority groups who choose to leave the organization.

  3. Achievable: The organization has managerial buy-in, a supportive DEI department, and a proven track record of implementing successful DEI interventions in alliance with Mattingly Solutions.

  4. Relevant: This goal will align with the organization's overarching goals of creating a culture that prioritizes DEI objectives.

  5. Time Bound: The intervention and data-collection will be completed and the retention rate will be increased to the goal percentage within 12 calendar months.

Need more help making your own goals or want to learn more about how we can apply our flagship DEIX framework to assist you in meeting them? Set up a free 30-minute call with us now to see how we can help you in meeting your organization's DEI initiatives.


Sarah Jackson, M.S. is an IO & DEI consulting assistant at Mattingly Solutions and also a PhD candidate at Florida International University. Learn more about and connect with her here.


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