How to Set Goals for a High Performance Culture

Set Goals for a High Performance Culture so expectations are clear

Some leaders think they must set goals for a high performance culture that are impossible (or almost impossible) to reach in order to motivate their teams to provide maximum effort and peak performance.  Other leaders believe success metrics must be set low enough so that people can consistently exceed expectations without setting themselves up to fail.

We believe that both sets of leaders are wrong.

To set goals for a high performance culture, they must be “just right.”  Our high performance culture research combined with twenty-plus years of helping clients boost their performance tells us that overly ambitious goals discourage rather than encourage greater effort. Ultra-stretch goals may work for some super-charged salespeople but, in the final analysis, they are counter-productive. The same is true when the bar is set too low.

Impossible to Reach Goals
Here is what happens step-by-step when you regularly set goals that are not achievable.

  • First, when the targets are not reached, excuses are made. Whatever the reason for failure—not enough resources, not enough time, stiff competition—there is a lack of accountability where it belongs…on the shoulders of the leaders who set them, the team that agreed to them (or maybe did not disagree strongly enough) and the team that failed to reach them.
  • Second, consistently missing targets sets up a situation where failure becomes the norm. Either the goals are not thoughtfully chosen or the team does not do what it commits to doing. The result is a low performing team where there is no accountability and failure is not simply accepted…it is expected.

Sandbagged Goals
When goals are set too low, our experience is that performance is almost always “left on the table.”  Sure, some may surpass their targets and exceed expectations, but they rarely perform at their peak.  As stated by Michelangelo: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

How can you, instead, build a high performance culture where achievement, not failure, becomes the standard? When you set goals for a high performance culture, you need to be:

  1. Clear
    Both too high and too fuzzy goals are unattainable. Goals should be crystal clear, very specific and easily measured. Only then can you monitor and track progress…both activities are absolutely critical to holding your team accountable and to adjusting the numbers, as needed, to allow for unforeseen changing conditions.
  2. Realistic
    Somewhere between overly easy and overly difficult goals are the reasonable, so-called stretch goals that are challenging and inspiring but also, with extra effort, realistically attainable. You want to encourage greater effort from your team by asking them to “stretch” a little further each goal setting period with fair, accurate, and relevant goals that are “just within reach” if people perform at their peak.
  3. Choosy
    Select goals that, once achieved, will have a real business impact. It is important to choose just a few goals with the highest priority. By focusing workforce efforts on the goals that are most effectively aligned with your strategy, you are setting your team up to succeed.
  4. Prepared
    Don’t let your targets be missed due to lack of resources. Make sure you have the money, the time, the raw materials and the talent to make your numbers. Objectives can’t be met by will and commitment alone.

We know that workplace culture accounts for 40% of the difference between high and low performing companies.  And we believe it is a leader’s job to create the circumstances to consistently get the most out of their people in a way that is consistent with the organization’s core values, behaviors and strategies.

If we push too much (or even too little), we may not meet our goals.  The right balance, a high performance culture, is an environment that stimulates its population to improve their performance. Clearly define and choose goals that will set your team on the performance path to success.

To learn more about the ingredients required to have healthy performance pressure, download Performance Pressure: How Much Should a Leader Push

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