Leadership Articles: TALKING LEADERSHIP


A Feature Article from Gaynor Consulting Inc.
September 2013   |   By Dan Gaynor

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The Problem With Goals

Just last week I found myself with a client who wanted some advice about how to respond to her team's frustrating tendency to fall short of many of the goals they set at weekly meetings – a great question about a common problem. Good goals are essential to team and individual success but as was the case with this situation, they can also unveil significant problems. When teams or individuals consistently fall short of weekly goals and their leader does not intervene to break this habit, a culture of failure can take root and they lose their ability to understand how much work they are capable of, both are significant problems.

A culture of failure is one in which failure becomes an organizational norm. Now you may think it absurd that any leader would allow this and yet it happens all the time when failure does not elicit an appropriate response. This is not to say that you should not respond to occasional failures with grace, you should, everyone experiences these and they are part of learning. This said, it should still be clear that failure attracts your attention. When failure starts to become more than occasional the response should get stronger. Good leaders establish a sense of urgency around the goals team members set - that this work has to be done; these are commitments that must be met. A culture of achievement cannot be established alongside a culture of failure.

When someone falls short of a goal it should give rise to a substantial conversation. Why was the goal not met? Is the individual taking on more than he or she can handle? Were there circumstances that impeded success? These are the types of pointed questions good leaders should ask at these times, sending the message that when someone sets a goal it will be taken seriously. Treat these missed goals too casually and you send the message that failure is OK. The remedy then is to ensure people set goals that are both challenging and within reach and when someone misses a goal it draws the leader's attention with strong questions.

When teams or individuals make missing goals a habit it also becomes much more difficult to gauge how much work they are actually capable of. The leader gets into a kind of false economy of goal setting in which she takes the weekly goals everyone sets and then factors these by her best guess on how much will be missed to arrive at an approximation of how much will actually be done. The problem with this is of course that the leader does not know which specific goals will be missed, and these may be the more important ones. The most important work is often the hardest and so people tend to put it off when they can. Much better to establish a culture in which people only commit to goals they intend to deliver. Knowing what everyone will get done each week enables leaders to build business plans they can have confidence in, knowing that with only occasional exceptions milestones will be accomplished.

People are people and they will most certainly miss goals from time to time for any number of reasons. These are the occasions when the leader's response determines if failure becomes the norm. Ensure team members set goals that are challenging and yet still within reach, then make it clear that delivering on commitments matters and you set them up to enjoy the well earned and satisfying feeling of achievement. This is the orientation of great teams.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do the members of your team regularly deliver on the goals they set?
  2. What has been your response to team members who don't deliver?
  3. What do you believe are acceptable reasons to miss a goal?

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A Feature Article from Gaynor Consulting Inc.
September 2013   |   By Dan Gaynor


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