Barriers to Change

Barriers to Change: Unrealistic Goals

While setting overly ambitious goals may seem fairly innocuous, it can actually demotivate teams and compromise other standards

It’s a classic leadership challenge: you want to set goals that push the limits, and inspire people to achieve things they didn’t think were possible. But now as a result, they don’t think your goals are possible. When sharing your vision, you see raised eyebrows, or hear rumblings like “Do leaders even know what change will require?” or “why can’t we just do something simple?” Before you know it, your change initiative is missing deadlines, the work that is produced isn’t up to its usual standard, or you experience turnover as teams give up and drop out.

Research indicates that teams are actually better motivated through incremental goals, rather than dramatic, “pie in the sky” goals.

Leaders often set unrealistic expectations because: 

  • They’re confident (or perhaps overconfident) in the team’s abilities. Leaders are often in their roles because they’re optimists: they believe in their people; they have high expectations for themselves and others; and they genuinely believe the goal can be achieved.
  • They don’t know what a realistic goal is. Sometimes it’s hard to know if a vision is achievable or delusional until after the fact. And especially when data or history is limited, it can be difficult to determine exactly what a team should be able to achieve. In these scenarios, setting ambitious goals feels like a safe bet because even if the team fails, they’ll probably achieve some positive result. 
  • They’re driven by outside pressures. Realistically, many goals are set because the board or shareholders want to see a certain outcome. These are often driven by fiscal concerns (“we need to hit X revenue goals to keep shareholders happy”) or resource instability. 
  • They’re engaging in “false hope syndrome.” Failure to reach a goal can be explained away by a variety of factors, rather than simply acknowledging that the original goal was unrealistic. As a result, leaders keep the same goal, believing “this time, things will be different.”

While setting overly ambitious goals may seem fairly innocuous, it can actually lead to some deleterious effects:

  • Discouragement. If people constantly fail to meet goals, they’ll doubt their own competence, and either give up or move on. In fact, stretch goals tend to fare worse in high-performing organizations: teams feel that they’re already at their limit, and are being squeezed for more.
  • Cutting corners. In an attempt to achieve the goal, teams will make compromises, either in regards to safety or ethics. This is especially prevalent when goals are connected to incentives like bonuses.
  • Cost overruns. Alternatively, teams will go over budget in an effort to achieve the goal at all costs.
  • Normalizing failure. If it’s impossible to succeed, teams won’t try in the first place. You’ll also struggle to assess whether teams are over- or underperforming.

Organizational Change

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Research indicates that teams are actually better motivated through incremental goals, rather than dramatic, “pie in the sky” goals. Of course, we’re not suggesting that leaders never set ambitious goals or aim for a “moonshot,” but rather make sure your goals are aspirational and attainable: 

  • Test your goals for clarity and feasibility. Your team should never be confused, surprised, or alarmed by goals—instead, collect feedback and data from every level of the organization on a regular basis. If you do get negative feedback, instead of doubling down, get curious: What about the goal is hard to achieve? How will it impact other aspects of the organization? Is the language clear to the team, or is it vague, like ‘We aspire to be the best’?
  • Explain your rationale for the goal. Sometimes goals seem impossible because teams don’t have access to the same information. When sharing, give them additional context: Why did you set these goals? What evidence did you use to come to these conclusions? Remember to be open-minded: can the team achieve a similar goal in a different way?
  • Examine the trade-offs required to make your goals possible. Your goals might be considered possible if teams had more resources, or if other work were deprioritized, for instance. Find out what teams need in order to achieve these goals and assess what’s reasonable for the organization in its current state. If you’re not providing teams adequate support, you can’t blame them when they fail. In the same vein, goals must be in line with company values, not an “extra” or a “nice to have”—if they conflict, your goals will be deprioritized.
  • Distinguish between long-term aspirations and short-term goals. You don’t have to achieve everything at once. Make it clear what you’re expecting from teams, and at what rates. If you can reassure your teams that they don’t have to completely reinvent their work, they may be easier to convince. 
  • Track progress with regular check-ins. These allow you to course-correct and readjust as needed. In fact, just knowing that goals can be modified can alleviate some concerns, so be willing to modify given new information. And if teams do fail to achieve the goal, turn it into a learning opportunity, not a blame game. 
Published April 16, 2023

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