Setting a Goal: That All-Important First Step

Actor Hispanic GirlActor in White Coat

The players depicted in the clip you just watched were faced with a variety of challenges that required different solutions and different first steps. They all, however, have one thing in common: Each will be most successful if he or she sets a goal for what they want to accomplish. Goal setting, you see, dictates what our first action will be and, ultimately, where each subsequent action will take us.

Let’s take a look at each of these scenarios to see what goals – productive or unproductive – might have been set.

Scenario – Difficulty understanding a colleague’s accent:

Unproductive Goal: To avoid hurting the colleague’s feelings by pretending to understand what he is saying. You can tell from the player’s comment “I don’t want to hurt his feelings” that he is very tempted to go in this direction. The problem here is that that goal does nothing to solve the central problem; namely, lack of communication between colleagues.

Productive Goal: To improve two-way communication and, thereby, enhance the working relationship. Once our subject sets this goal, he becomes compelled to find ways to reach it. The specifics of what he does next are not the point here; what matters is that setting that productive goal gives him a direction that will motivate him to action.

Scenario – Disrespectful comment about a friend:

Unproductive Goal: To embarrass the offender or make him feel guilty for having uttered the comment. In other words, exact revenge (“Let him have it” as the young woman says). Achieving this goal might be satisfying in the moment, but, not only might it cost the woman her job, it would do little for improving inter-cultural relations in her workplace.

Productive Goal: Educate the offender about the inappropriateness and impact of the comment. A calm, honest, and respectful conversation just might change an attitude — it doesn’t get better than that!

Scenario – Joke about an accent:

Unproductive Goal: The goal that needs to be set here is in response to the offender’s comment, “He wasn’t even in the room.” In light of this defensive statement, we are tempted to set a goal that goes something like this: Make her understand that someone from the target background might have overheard the joke while walking by the door. Of course, this is possible and unfortunate, but it isn’t the main point and, therefore, is not the most productive goal.

Productive Goal: Educate the speaker that disrespectful jokes are inappropriate in the workplace regardless of who does or does not hear them. Of course it matters if the joke is overheard, but that problem would be completely avoided if it weren’t told I the first place.

Scenario – Accusation of homophobia:

Unproductive Goal: To avoid any social discomfort by going along with the woman’s accusation even though it might not be accurate. A colleague of his has accused someone of making a homophobic comment, but he suspects she misunderstood what was said. The problem with this goal is that it misses an opportunity to get at the truth of a situation.

Productive Goals: To communicate respect for both parties – the person who made the comment and the accuser – by making the effort to ascertain what really happened.  This goal leads directly to the first step of respectfully engaging both parties in conversation and really listening to what each has to say.

Without goals, we are at risk of remaining paralyzed in the face of diversity-related tension.  Goals provide us, not only with the impetus to take a first step, but with an increased chance of reaching a productive conclusion.


The training video, “Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations,” contains four skills for achieving successful dialogue in your diverse workplace.  Click here to learn more and preview the entire video.


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