Last week I had a conversation with a manager who was feeling disconnected from her work. Why? As she was reviewing the organizational goals handed down by her supervisor, she realized that they were totally unrealistic. It was clear that whoever penned these goals did not understand what would be required to achieve them. She felt demoralized and helpless.
In their excellent book, Connection Culture, Michael Stallard and his colleagues report that one of the common refrains of employees working in a disconnected culture is the sentiment: "There were unrealistic goals and expectations.” I’ve heard some form of this from so many managers that I’ve lost count. Unrealistic goals have a negative effect on employees' engagement and the overall culture of the organization.
How do unrealistic goals do this? Through the feelings they create. Feelings are a form of implicit knowledge; they carry information within them.
Consider this statement from the American poet Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
There is a deep truth here that holds for relationships within organizations as well. Employees will remember, above all, how their leaders and organizations made them feel. Unrealistic expectations create negative feelings, and thereby decrease engagement, productivity, and connection. When goals/expectations are unrealistic, people generally feel:
- Unimportant, because leaders haven’t listened
- Not valued as a person, because they’re valued only as a means to goals that make the leadership look good
- Demoralized, because those steering the ship don’t seem to have a clear picture of what lies ahead
- Helpless, because there is nothing in their control that can make these goals happen
Is this how you want your employees to feel? Unimportant + Devalued + Demoralized + Helpless? Probably not. Most leaders don’t knowingly create unrealistic goals. That’s why it’s so important to reflect on your goals and go through a structured process to arrive at them.
Goals that represent the right degree of challenge are a reflection of a connection culture. They also help create a connection culture. Balanced goals—those that stretch you and your team to grow, but are still within reach—strengthen the three aspects of a connection culture as articulated by Stallard and colleagues:
A positive stretch goal creates a vision that unifies the team. Everyone is pursuing the same thing, and this creates a shared identity.
Positive stretch goals require that leaders know their team’s strengths. What does your team deeply care about and what are they really good at doing within your space? You’ve got to really know people well to understand this and develop the right goals for the team, and when you do this people feel known, appreciated, and above all, valued as human beings.
Finally, balanced goals require genuine input from all levels of the organization and true dialogue, which leads to fluid information flow. This means you have to hold your goals loosely in the early stages. And you have to have the humility to realize that you do not have all the answers or information. When these elements occur, people have voice.
These factors combine to create a culture of connection, which leads to sustained high performance.
Here’s 3 practices to help you create balanced goals for you and/or your team.
- Reflect on the personal meaning of the goals to you. The goals we set for ourselves and others reflect our own deep psychology. You owe it to yourself and your co-workers and employees to do some soul searching here and understand what’s driving your goals. The need for power? Prestige? Recognition? These are all understandable, but when they are left unchecked, they start to hinder you from serving your people.
- Seek input from a broad range of stakeholders when setting goals and expectations. This includes seeking feedback from people actually doing the work in the trenches, so to speak, which is valuable information that often does not flow to the people who need it. Set up structures to get this information.
- Once you set goals, empower your people to achieve them. Find out what the barriers are and help to remove them. Do what you can to provide the resources necessary to accomplish the goals. Part of empowering your people also involves showing your people that you are committed to do your part. If you drop a bunch of large goals on people and then disengage, people will sense that you aren’t committed or supportive. They need to know that you believe the team can do this, so show them that you believe and they will too.
I hope this helps you reflect more deeply on the goals you set for yourself and your team, and to use this process to create a connection culture.
More From Dr. Todd Hall
Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at drtoddhall.com.