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Exceeding Targets....Really?

Rethinking Goal Setting: The Pitfalls of "Exceeding Targets" and the Benefits of Realistic and Balanced Goal Setting


I have seen it happen, heads go down, managers become “cross” and employees lose their motivation. There is a big difference between setting realistic goals and mapping out the journey for your end vision for a business. It is easy to overload on expectation and demoralise a team or individual before you have even taken your first steps forward.

Failure to take a step back and separate ambition from capability ultimately leads to disappointment. But there is one phrase I often see on job descriptions and adverts that I think people really should consider assigning to the dungeons of HR terminology.

In the ever-evolving landscape of business and productivity, the practice of goal setting is an integral component. Goals act as guiding stars, helping individuals and organizations navigate the complexities of their ambitions. Yet, amid the terminology used in goal setting, the phrase "exceeding targets" has risen to prominence, symbolizing a commitment (or more like an ambition)  to pushing boundaries. However, I would argue that this very phrase, "exceeding targets," is misleading and counterproductive. Instead, weight should be given to the importance of setting goals that are realistic, balanced, and aligned with an organization's needs and objectives.


The Problem with "Exceeding Targets"


At first glance, the notion of exceeding targets might seem like an ambitious pursuit, driving individuals and organizations to higher levels of performance. However, this approach comes with a set of inherent drawbacks that often undermine productivity, employee morale, and the overall success of an organization.


One of the key issues with the phrase "exceeding targets" is the ambiguity and uncertainty it introduces into the realm of goal setting. When organizations prioritize exceeding targets, they inadvertently create an environment where expectations become hazy and open to interpretation. Employees may find themselves puzzled, uncertain of the specific objectives they are expected to achieve. This lack of clarity can lead to inefficiency and misaligned efforts.


The relentless pursuit of exceeding targets often exerts excessive pressure on employees. The consistent elevation of expectations can lead to feelings of burnout and anxiety, ultimately impacting the mental and physical health of the workforce.

In such an environment, employees may feel compelled to work longer hours, sacrificing their well-being to meet impractical goals. The negative effects of this pressure can permeate throughout the organization, undermining overall performance.


To achieve the elusive goal of exceeding targets, individuals and organizations may also resort to gaming the system. In their pursuit of short-term success, they may adopt questionable or unethical practices, such as inflating numbers or bending the rules. This behaviour not only jeopardizes the integrity of the organization but also sacrifices long-term sustainability for short-term gains.


Another pitfall of focusing on “exceeding targets” is the risk of inconsistent performance. When employees are pressured to continually reach higher, they may experience occasional bursts of exceptional achievement, only to struggle to maintain that level of performance consistently. This inconsistency can create instability in the workplace, making it difficult for organizations to sustain growth and productivity. It also makes balancing a healthy P/L sheet a nightmare!

I have seen it happen in multiple organisations, the end results are very often not a pretty sight.

Perhaps the most insidious consequence of the relentless pursuit of exceeding targets is its impact on employee morale. When employees perpetually feel that their efforts are falling short of expectations, it can lead to demoralization. This sense of inadequacy can translate into decreased job satisfaction, lowered morale, and, ultimately, high turnover rates as employees seek environments where they feel valued and supported.


The S.M.A.R.T Approach to Goal Setting


Hopefully the bulk of people reading this are more than familiar with S.M.A.R.T principles and if I am teaching you to suck eggs I apologise. But I would recommend reading on. Even in just writing this article and going back over the S.M.A.R.T method it helped to focus my own pursuits.

To overcome the drawbacks of "exceeding targets," it is essential to adopt a more structured and rational approach to goal setting. The S.M.A.R.T criteria offer a practical framework for establishing goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Each aspect of the S.M.A.R.T criteria serves as a building block to reshape the way we set goals.


First and foremost, the concept of Specific goals ensures clarity and precision. Specific goals leave no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. Employees should have a crystal-clear understanding of what is expected of them, eliminating any potential confusion.


Measurable goals offer a means of quantifying progress and success. By defining key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurement metrics, organizations gain the ability to gauge whether a goal has been met or not. This approach to measuring success adds objectivity to the evaluation process. However, it is important not to get too tied up in the metrics, focus on what the important ones are for the person who you are setting the task for.


One of the critical elements of the S.M.A.R.T criteria is the notion of Achievable goals. These are realistic objectives that are within reach. While they challenge employees, they are not set at an unattainable level, promoting motivation and a sense of accomplishment rather than demoralization. If someone can achieve their goal then praise them, reward them and if you need to raise the bar the next time round. DO NOT move the goal posts or worse still remove them entirely “just get as many sales as possible and make sure they are always more that your previous results” is not a phrase that drives good tactics or sustainability.


The concept of Relevant goals underscores the importance of alignment with an organization's mission and long-term objectives. By ensuring that employees' efforts contribute to the overall success of the business, organizations can guarantee that their goals are not mere busywork but meaningful endeavours. Also remember that if a task you set requires other people’s contributions make sure their tasks align in a timely manner with the ones you are setting for the person you are working with. If increased sales to a specific market requires new marketing material, it is highly unlikely their goals can be fairly administered if the marketing department do not have a target to reach to provide this before a salesperson picks up the phone.


Time-bound goals, perhaps the most critical element of the S.M.A.R.T criteria, introduce deadlines and urgency into the goal-setting process. They provide structure and accountability, fostering a more organized and efficient approach to achieving objectives. Just like the other criteria don’t move goal posts, don’t extend something because it hasn’t been achieved. You will learn far more from closing a task and reviewing how and why something was not successful than if you try to continue to chase something making ad hoc choices just to hit a number.


Measuring Desired Outcomes and Creating Balanced Targets


Once the S.M.A.R.T criteria have been embraced, the next step is to effectively measure desired outcomes and create balanced targets within a workflow. Achieving these objectives necessitates a systematic approach.


First, it is essential to define clear and quantifiable metrics that align with specific goals. These metrics serve as objective indicators of success and help ensure that employees are aware of what is expected of them. By having a shared understanding of these metrics, employees can work cohesively towards the same objectives, contributing to a more harmonious and efficient work environment.


Regularly monitoring progress towards established goals is an indispensable practice. Leveraging software tools, dashboards, and routine check-ins enables organizations to stay on top of performance metrics and identify any potential issues early on. In doing so, organizations can respond promptly to deviations from the intended path, making necessary adjustments to keep goals within reach.


Feedback loops are a vital component of any successful goal-setting process. These mechanisms gather insights from employees and stakeholders, providing a wealth of information for refining and adjusting targets as needed. This feedback-driven approach not only enhances the quality of goal setting but also fosters a culture of continuous improvement.


For organizations seeking a holistic perspective on performance, the implementation of balanced scorecards can be invaluable. This approach evaluates performance from multiple angles, including financial, customer, internal processes, and learning and growth. By considering these diverse factors, organizations gain a more comprehensive view of their success and can make informed adjustments to their goals and strategies.


Realistic but Ambitious Target Setting and its Impact on Morale


In the pursuit of reimagined goal setting, the concept of setting "realistic but ambitious" targets emerges as a beacon of hope. It encourages employees to strive for excellence while maintaining their well-being, offering a path towards sustained growth and achievement.


Realistic yet ambitious targets have a unique capacity to motivate employees. When individuals believe that their goals are achievable with hard work and dedication, they become more engaged and enthusiastic about their work. This renewed sense of purpose can invigorate the workplace, fostering a more dynamic and productive atmosphere.


Achieving realistic but ambitious targets leads to a sense of accomplishment and job satisfaction. These positive emotions, born from reaching challenging yet attainable objectives, elevate morale and enhance overall job happiness. Employees who derive a sense of fulfilment from their work are more likely to stay committed and dedicated to their organization's goals.


In the process of pursuing realistic but ambitious targets, employees have the opportunity for personal and professional growth. These goals foster skill development and a sense of progress, motivating individuals to expand their horizons and reach new levels of excellence.


The pursuit of realistic targets also promotes collaborative teamwork. When team members share a common understanding of achievable goals, they are more likely to support and assist one another in reaching those goals. This culture of collaboration is a powerful driver of success, enabling organizations to achieve their objectives more efficiently.


One of the most substantial advantages of realistic yet ambitious targets is their role in reducing stress and burnout.


 Since these targets are not set at an unattainable level, employees experience less pressure, allowing for a healthier work-life balance. The decreased stress levels promote physical and mental well-being, contributing to a more positive and productive work environment.


The Pitfalls of Unachievable Targets


In contrast, setting unattainable targets carries a series of potential pitfalls that can harm both individuals and organizations. Understanding these pitfalls is essential for recognizing the detrimental effects of unrealistic goal setting.


First and foremost, the pursuit of unachievable targets often leads to demoralization. When employees continually fall short of these goals, they may lose confidence in their abilities and experience a decline in morale. The persistent feeling of inadequacy can permeate the organization, contributing to a sense of hopelessness and disillusionment.


Unattainable targets can also result in reduced productivity. As employees face the frustration of consistently unmet goals, they may become disheartened and disengaged. This disengagement can manifest in a decline in performance, a lack of motivation, and, ultimately, reduced productivity levels.


High turnover rates are a common consequence of setting unachievable targets. The constant pressure and failure to meet impractical objectives can lead employees to seek opportunities elsewhere. High turnover rates can be costly for organizations in terms of recruitment and training expenses, disrupting the continuity of work and teamwork.


Furthermore, the relentless pressure to achieve unattainable targets can give rise to ethical concerns. In their pursuit of success, employees and organizations may resort to questionable practices, such as cutting corners or engaging in dishonest behaviour to appear successful. This unethical behaviour can tarnish an organization's reputation and integrity.


So while the phrase "exceeding targets" may appear alluring from the perspective of what you want to achieve as a business, it often leads to counterproductive outcomes. The practice of setting goals must be approached with a keen understanding of its potential drawbacks and a commitment to employing a structured and practical framework, such as the S.M.A.R.T criteria. By embracing the principles of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goal setting, organizations can create a more focused, transparent, and balanced approach to achieving their objectives.


Measuring desired outcomes and creating balanced targets within a workflow can be achieved through a combination of clear metrics, regular progress monitoring, feedback loops, and balanced scorecards. These tools and practices provide organizations with the means to continuously refine and adapt their goals, optimizing performance and efficiency.


The concept of setting realistic yet ambitious targets stand as a testament to the power of motivation, engagement, and personal growth. Organizations that prioritize these types of goals experience improved morale, satisfaction, and teamwork, ultimately fostering a more positive and productive work environment.


Conversely, unattainable targets carry the burden of demoralization, reduced productivity, high turnover rates, and ethical concerns. Recognizing the negative consequences of unrealistic goal setting is crucial for organizations aiming to maximize their performance and sustainability.


In the dynamic world of business and productivity, the evolution of goal setting practices remains an ongoing journey. By reevaluating our approach to setting targets, we can pave the way for a more resilient and prosperous future, where success is defined not by exceeding targets but by consistently meeting and even exceeding well-balanced and attainable objectives.


In short, be realistic. Break the journey to your business goals into manageable chunks and allow your employees the pleasure of self-reward by setting their work so they can achieve what it is that is required. Be a leader and find ways to help them want to do more, don’t be an manager who constantly lowers the tone by pointing out shortcomings of unrealistic ideals.


From the Author

I was inspired to write this article after looking at some potential roles a close friend was considering applying for. After downloading the job descriptions, they sent me, I asked them which they liked the most and which ones they felt were perhaps lower down the list of roles they would enjoy.

Unsurprisingly the roles which included “exceed expectations” also included many other buzz words and abbreviations and overall, they felt less positive about being able to get the role.

Having set goals for others as a consultant and having employed many people within businesses over the years I don’t think I had ever used the phrase “exceed expectations” and it made me think about all the times where I have had to help lead members of staff or clients toward their goals by instilling achievable and realistic expectations.

It made me think, so I wrote about it. Not really brand or product related, but a poignant issue, nonetheless.



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