How to Avoid the Most Common Error Leaders Make When Setting Goals

Leadership, Teamwork

It all starts with a goal. Either you are handed a goal by your manager, or you are asked to set one for your team. Set properly, the goal will establish a GAP between where you are and where you would like the team to be. In fact if there is no GAP there is no need for a leader. And that’s what you are – so how SHOULD leaders set goals?

It turns out that conventional wisdom flies in the face of recent brain science research.

What does the research say?

Modern brain research indicates that we evaluate a ‘status quo goal’ as more difficult to achieve than a ‘modest increase goal’. Yup. Thats right. Respondents were MORE negative about how hard it would be to keep things the same versus a modest increase. (Harvard Business Review  Nov 2018 – ‘Why You Should Stop Setting Easy Goals’)

But it gets even worse…

Not only did lower goals cause more negativity in respondents, when they were asked whether they would rather pursue the status quo goal – or the modest increase goal – they again chose the modest increase goal. And that finding held true across all different kinds of areas we set goals in.

So maybe we need to rethink HOW we set goals with our team. Lower goals are not actually more desirable or easier to get people to rally around. In fact, research has found that lower goals are less likely to be achieved. Now, before you fire off setting super stretch goals, know that those stretch goals rated the lowest of all three types of goals in terms of engagement and commitment.

So that brings us to Deadly Sin #1.

Deadly Sin #1: Set a goal you know how to achieve.

Now, I realize that to many of you that statement looks like a typo, however I can assure you that it is not. I also realize that volumes have been written on setting goals. The problem is that most of the articles and books on this subject are written by people who have never had the responsibility of making payroll, or having to figure out how to make a profit or a budget month after month. So, however well intentioned they may be, they often are only repeating the same tired old mantra about how to reach and achieve objectives that has been taught for years.

But let me start at the beginning with the difference between a goal and an ideal. What differentiates the two of them? Consultants (present company excluded of course) have earned vast fortunes working with leadership teams assisting them in writing their mission and vision. I realized some years back, when challenged by a client on the definitions of these terms, that even the consulting industry does not agree on what they mean. Well heck, that’s a problem in my books. So, rather than seeking the consensus definitions, I started to look at the clients that we had worked with, specifically the ones that had experienced the most rapid change in results and what they had in common.

Here is what we found: The most profound, rapid measurable change came when clients set goals that were completely illogical but that they were completely passionate about achieving.

But wait, aren’t goals supposed to be S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timed)? (Hmmm … I think I remember teaching that somewhere!) Well, yes they are, but our experience shows us that the time frame within which you set the goal is the key. For example, if you set a time frame that is quite short, say a week or even a month, you had better adhere to the S.M.A.R.T. criteria. However, as the time line stretches toward 3 months, or a year or two; you can afford to be a little less stringent on the ‘realistic’ criteria. This is because the more time you have, the more possibilities exist for learning to occur.

Now, obviously we do not want to be delusional. Your goal should be big enough to excite you and your team. The entire team should be passionate about it’s achievement. That means that it should mean something. Many teams wonder why they are pursuing numbers that mean nothing to them. After a while they stop engaging in the ‘game’ even if they give lip service to the goals that are handed down to them. If we are just going to push people to work harder and harder, then there is very likely not much in it for them.

While you should be passionate about your goal – it should also scare you a little… but it should not panic you. If it does not scare then you probably already know how to do it, or can see how you could achieve by working harder.

Do not fall into the delusional goal setting mode though. Though it may be exciting to dream of achieving these types of goals, if it is too unrealistic then your team they will not expend the marginal effort to pursue it.

So it seems there is sweet spot in goal setting. The goal has to be big enough that there is a win in it for you and the team, however it has to be reasonable enough (within the time frame allowed) where they believe it is possible to achieve it – even if they cannot see how to do it right now.

Next we will look at what to do now you have goal you are passionate about, but do not know how to achieve. Click here to go directly to this post…


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October 2, 2019 / By