There are many reasons why an employee might want to set developmental goals at work. A new employee may be lacking certain abilities to perform their job well. An employee who has been there a while may be interested in improving efficiency or be looking at ways to expand their capabilities to rekindle interest or in preparation to move laterally within the company.

Setting Developmental Goals for Work

Whatever your reasons, there are some dos and don’ts which are worth keeping in mind when setting developmental goals.

Know why you are doing it.

A vague sense of wanting things to be different is not a good basis to go about setting developmental goals for work, or anything else for that matter. It may start with a sense of dissatisfaction or wanting more without knowing what, but we must identify our motivation to help ensure that the steps we take will actually satisfy the desire we are feeling.

During the initial phase, it is helpful to ask yourself leading questions like, “What do I want?” or “What do I feel is missing?” “How would my work be improved if I gained that knowledge or skill?” The answers to these questions will help you move to the next step.

Personal or professional?

If the answer to the question “What am I missing?” is social support or companionship, this may seem to be a personal goal, but don’t be too quick to dismiss it. If your current work situation is sitting alone in a cubicle for eight hours a day, that can be lonely work. If there are groups in your company that might be a good fit, you could ask to be reassigned to one of them.

This would provide more interaction and collaboration. If the answer to the question is a specific skill that would help me do my job better, that will always be a good developmental goal, depending on the cost and time required to complete it. Put as fine a point on it as you can when you ask, “how will this satisfy the desire I am feeling?” Is this the “right tool for the job?” and “how will this benefit the company?”

Is it within the scope of my job?

You may have always wanted to learn Spanish, but if it has no application to your work, then it belongs on the personal development list. Some companies may offer considerable latitude for personal development, in which case go for it. If learning a programming language will help you in your job, you need to evaluate the impact – how much will it help? What will you be able to do that you can’t do now? How important is it? Are there other development goals that belong ahead of this one?

Cost versus benefit

As part of the evaluation of this being the “right tool for the job” you need to identify what benefit the training, knowledge, or tool will provide. It may be difficult or impossible to monetize the benefit, for example, by saying “I will be 30% more productive with this training”, but you will have some idea of the kind of help the training will provide. It’s okay if all you can say is “I’m trying to increase efficiency in my process.”

But you can often tell if something is going to be overkill. If you need to design a logo, you don’t need engineering design software and training costing tens of thousands of dollars. We always must ask how badly we need this new capability to discover whether the cost is worth it. Often budgetary constraints will prevent some of our more ambitious ideas, but you can always ask. If the boss says they can’t afford it, you accept that and move on.

You may identify an opportunity to make an investment that will save the company money. If consultants come in and perform a service, you may watch what they do and be able to say to your boss, “I think I can do that in-house for about half what we just spent on those consultants.” This is a great way to develop your capabilities at work will providing an added benefit by lowering costs.

Should I do it anyway?

After doing all your evaluation and analysis of a potential developmental goal, you find that it isn’t the right tool for the job, or that the cost is too high for the likely benefit, or the company has decided to pass on it. Then it is time to ask if you should do it anyway. How long have I wanted this? Do I think my interest will carry me all the way through the learning process?

Do I think I will use this skill, knowledge, or tool once I have trained for it? Our feelings about these kinds of questions are important they may be strong: “Absolutely. I find this fascinating and have always wanted to know how to do it.” The feelings can also be pretty fuzzy: “Really not sure. I’ve always been curious about it, but my follow-through in similar endeavors has been hit-or-miss.”

If we can afford it and have the time, hit-or-miss is a fine way to proceed. It will work or it won’t. It will help or it won’t. It will be fulfilling, or it won’t. But if we are interested now, and can afford it and have the time, why not pursue it?

Read the room

Usually, professional development is a result of time away + money. This will impact the company you work for, so it is important to have some awareness of the state of things. If the boss has just announced austerity measures because they are struggling to make payroll, this is probably not the best time to request several hundred dollars for a training course, unless the course is about how to save lots of money doing your particular job.

Also, unless your boss has suggested it, right after a poor review is not the best time to be asking for non-essential training or tools. Conversely, if things are humming along nicely at your company and they are happy with your work, you can always ask.

Final Thoughts

Several platitudes seem appropriate at this juncture: “you do not have because you do not ask”, “ships are safe in harbor but that’s not what ships are built for”, “take a job for the money and you’ll earn every cent.” There is no reason not to pursue a sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, or satisfaction in the work we choose to do.

We may have had to take a job we hate because it was all that was available, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on finding ways to enjoy it. A balance must be struck between doing the work in front of us to the best of our ability, and aggressively pursuing other options, whether that is another job or something to improve our current situation.

We do better when we govern our mood – better to be grateful for what a crummy job provides than to nurse feelings of resentment that poison other parts of my life. An eye to the future can help us not feel like we are stuck. Developmental goals are worth setting, even if you don’t pursue them. If you have a good relationship with your boss, involve them in the conversation. Goals are best developed collaboratively if we have the opportunity.

Having someone to bounce ideas off is an important tool in the process, even if it’s a friend or significant other. Satisfaction in our work is an important piece of our enjoyment of life as a whole. Beginning to ask the “what could I be doing differently” questions can begin a process that will lead to professional development choices that will support our sense of job satisfaction for years, even decades to come.

“Line Chart”, Courtesy of Isaac Smith,, CC0 License; “Goals”, Courtesy of Markus Winkler,, CC0 License; “Monthly Goals”, Courtesy of Estee Janssens,, CC0 License; “Weekly Planner”, Courtesy of Jess Bailey,, CC0 License


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