Date: May 2019 | Autho(s): Dorette Lochner, FLAG Consulting & Training
When smart goals turn toxic
When it comes to good practice sharing on goal setting, an evergreen among the guidelines recommended is the SMART formula. You know why: with goals that are specific and measurable, individuals gain focus and mobilize more energy than with goals that are vague and unspecified.
But did you realize that smart goals have a severe negative effect when they are not properly aligned with other goals, with strategic priorities and with capacities within the organizational system. In this case highly motivated individuals strive to achieve their goals but are undermined in their efforts by the system around them. So before you finalize a goal agreement you should definitely check your portfolio of goals for compatibility with the system. We have called this process the “eco-check” (Lochner, D. & B. Preuß-Scheuerle, managerSeminare, Oct. 2018).
When goals are aligned within the organizational system regarding direction and capacities and if they are at the same time defined according to SMART, individuals are likely to strive for those goals with a maximum of effort and with high focus. At the same time they will collaborate closely with their peers and support each other. As a result performance is likely to be at a maximum of what’s possible.
When goals are SMART-ly defined but not compatible with other goals in the system and with capacities allocated for them, we will observe again a high level of motivation in the pursuit of individual goals. But the organization risks an individual’s motivation turning quickly into severe frustration when that person sees that either the full load of goals is too big or that they are not supported by their peers or are even undermined in their attempt to reach their goals. And we all know: this is not theory; it is real life in many organizations that operate with formal goal setting. When goals are linked to a performance bonus the toxic effect of those goals gets even worse.
For the other squares in the matrix we can say that a successful eco-check of goals without precise and smart definition leads to average performance: in spite of backing within the organization, individuals perform to their usual average standard, not particularly stretching themselves.
When goals are neither smart nor properly eco-checked we can hope that the members of the organization choose to ignore formal goal setting. This, by the way, is not a rare phenomenon. Very often formal goal setting has little relevance to what people actually pursue in their day-to-day business.
Our general observation is that many organizations do not put enough effort and time into the communication process that is needed to set priorities consistently and align goals between functional units.
In all organizations that do invest in that process, individuals experience such a process as extremely valuable and helpful for the overall level of cooperation and satisfaction in the organization. And this eventually pays off in the form of better results.
For more on best practice on goal setting, check out the Smart CODE (Lochner, D. & B. Preuß-Scheuerle (2018): Agiler Zielen, managerSeminare, Oct. 2018)
For more reviews of the SMART formula check out the critical analyses of Dick Grote (e.g. D. Grote (2011): SMART Goals: Bad Idea.)