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Goals that Motivate

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I recently talked about goal setting with the CEO of a successful, 3-year-old, 150-employee, start up.  

He’s great at setting high-level goals and cascading them down through the organization.  It’s a critical competency that many companies lack. 

The problem is that he was setting unrealistically high goals that his team consistently failed to reach.   His thought was that aiming high pays off even if your teams don’t hit the mark because you’ll get extra effort and do better than you would otherwise  – especially if you don’t punish people for missing the mark. 

It’s a great theory, up to a point.  But … over time his approach actually had the opposite effect.  It demoralized his team and they began to put in less effort, because they figured they wouldn’t achieve the goal anyway.  

What he hadn’t considered is how much we need achievement.  We crave progress.  Like a drug, it’s a big source of endorphin hits.     And continued failure to achieve goals leads to a condition called learned helplessness: when an individual believes that they’ll never achieve and stops trying.

On the other hand, if we succeed regularly from real effort, we feel more capable and more in control. And we achieve more.  Hence the term “success creates success”.

So after thinking it through, this CEO allowed his team to set stretch goals that challenged them but that they thought they had a decent chance of hitting. They were what some call “out of reach but not out of sight”.  And the CEO spent more time congratulating them on their accomplishments, small and large. 

The results were a win/win. Everyone felt better and they all did better.  And so did the company.  

So think about your goal system. Do you have them, are they cascaded, and are they both challenging and doable?  If not, consider changing your approach. 

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