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What is a Goal Hierarchy?

We all know that we have goals. What we don’t usually think about is the range of goals we have and how they are connected. This is what goal hierarchy helps us to examine.

A goal is something we are trying to achieve. We tend to think about goals as being things on our to-do list or our five-year plans. But goals can be both more smaller and larger than these. A goal hierarchy puts some order into our goals by arranging them in ranks.

Example goal hierarchy
Example Goal Hierarchy of a Maintenance Tradesman from Unsworth et al., 2011

At the top of the goal hierarchy are our values. These are very abstract, usually life-long goals. How do you want to live your life? What do you want to be known for when you’re on your death-bed?

At the next level are our identities. These are a bit less abstract but still long-lasting. You can get at your identities by thinking about how you would end this statement “I am…”. And not just ending it once. Trying writing twenty “I am…” statements and see what you end up with (this is called, prosaically, the Twenty Statements Test).

Then we have our project goals. This is where your one-year plan or five-year plan would go. And this is also where your ongoing goals, like being healthy or maintaining work/life balance, go.

Finally, we have the task goals – your to-do list. What are you trying to accomplish during the day? What are you doing? This is where our goal hierarchy finishes, but if you’re interested in more cognitive psychological aspects, goals can be as fleeting as subconscious primes (and if you are interested in using these, it is customary to be stroking a white cat on your lap and laughing villainously). 

We now have the content for our goals. But the interesting part about goal hierarchy is that it enables us to see the connections between the goals. Goals can help each other – working towards work/life balance helps my identities as a wife and mother. Goals can conflict with each other – the tasks of Head of Department made work/life balance very difficult to achieve. Or goals might be unrelated to each other – eating healthy food doesn’t help nor hinder my value of being helpful.

What we end up with after putting all of this on paper is a big spaghetti map of goals. Over the many years I’ve been doing this, mine has become more and more refined but even now it’s a bit of a mess. But that’s fine. There is no wrong goal hierarchy. It is what it is.

Using Your Goal Hierarchy

Now that you have got your goal hierarchy you can see your life on a page. You can see any areas where you might be feeling stressed because of conflicts or a lack of motivation because there aren’t enough connections.

We have used goal hierarchies to help improve motivation to do boring, data collecting tasks; and we have used them to increase the likelihood of people engaging in low-priority but highly-important tasks such as pro-environmental behaviour. We have used them to show why some organisational interventions work and why others don’t. We have used them in countless executive education classes to help participants understand themselves and their leadership better.

I don’t mind admitting that I am addicted to goal hierarchies. As a person in love with complexity, I find the ability to map the connections amongst all the different areas in my life invaluable. If you’re interested in doing more with goal hierarchy, and as a shameless plug, you can visit our website.