In the first post in this series we explored the powerful effects goals have on the human brain. Goals are an effective motivator, but they should be used with caution. Many of us have experienced the psychological pain of missing a goal, the stress of being tasked with hitting an impossible-to-achieve goal, or the frustration that comes when goals are frequently changing.

In this post we’re going to look at seven common ways goal-setting goes wrong and offer solutions on how to avoid them.

#1: You adopt the “just-do-your-best” approach

What you did
Your website consistently converts customers at about 3.5%. Not bad, but you think you can do better. You gather the marketing team together and say: “This quarter, our goal is to improve website conversions! Get out there and do your best!”

What happened
Nothing. At the end of the quarter your conversion rate is exactly the same.

How to fix it
Setting a goal has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves. Our brain absorbs the desired outcome into our self-image, immediately establishing it as an essential part of who we are. If we haven’t yet achieved the goal, then our newly attained self-image no longer matches our reality. This sets up a state of constant tension around our self-image that our brain starts trying to resolve by working to achieve the goal.

When you chose the “just-do-your-best” approach, no one’s self image changed, so no one had the intrinsic motivation to find new solutions to improving site conversion. “Do your best” is not motivating because we all feel that we are already doing “our best”. Setting an achievable, measurable goal shakes us out of this status quo mentality. Next time, instead of “improve website conversions”, make the goal “Increase website conversions by 2%”.

#2: You declare a “hit-the-goal-or-else” mandate

What Ford did
Remember the exploding Ford Pinto? Desperate to regain market share, Ford’s CEO implemented a goal to produce a new car weighing less than 2,000 pounds, costing less than $2,000, and completed by 1970.

What happened
Ford hit the goal, but the obsessive focus on meeting the goal led to people at all levels signing off on questionable safety checks. These choices resulted in multiple deaths and serious injuries. It’s unlikely that your goals will ever lead to such tragic results, but you should be aware of the potential for negative behavior that can occur in the “hit-your-goals-or-else” environment.

How to fix it
Set goals under the umbrella of who your company is and what you stand for. Hubspot’s document Culture Code: Creating a Lovable Company is a great example of how to do this really well. It’s unlikely that an employee would ever create a spammy lead-gen campaign at a company who is out to achieve the status of “lovable”.

#3: You communicate goals but your team seems unmotivated

What you did
After your executive team set your overall revenue goal for this quarter, you break it down into specific marketing goals. You then gather your team for a quick meeting to announce the new goals and timelines for PPC campaigns, content creation and promotion, email drip campaigns, events, etc.

What happened
After a week, you notice that members of your team are starting to casually miss deadlines. They are still working hard, but don’t seem especially driven to meet the specific goals.

How to fix it
A lack of motivation is often due to a simple lack of clarity. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that people naturally understand how their work fits in with the company’s top-level goals. Every goal should be put in context to make sure that all members of your team understands the “whys” behind their day-to-day.

One great way to do this is break your quarterly goals down into daily and weekly goals. This makes the goal appear more achievable while clearly linking specific tasks to high-level outcomes.

What happens when you assume people understand how their work fits in with top-level goals? http://ow.ly/Hja2l

#4: You set goals based on assumptions, not data

What you did
You set a goal of reaching a total of 40,000 twitter followers, and had your team spend a month carefully crafting tweets, following influencers, and starting conversations, assuming it would have an overall positive effect on lead generation.

What happened
You met your goal! But when you checked to see how big a lift your 40,000 twitter followers were giving your quarterly lead generation numbers, you were surprised to see almost no difference.

How to fix it
As humans, we tend to have an inaccurate view of cause and effect relationships. Keeping your process is data-informed will prevent you from wasting time fiddling with different approaches based on misattribution, or the tendency to blame surface-level technique problems while ignoring root causes.

Next time, do your homework. Before you set a goal, know what’s actually driving the KPI you’re trying to move. If your data indicates that twitter engagement drives web traffic, and web traffic in turn drives leads, then setting a goal around increasing twitter followers is a great idea. Otherwise, be sure to check your goal versus actual numbers frequently to see if your actions are having the outcomes you expected.

Why setting goals based on assumptions is a slippery slope. http://ow.ly/Hja2l

#5: You chase across-the-board improvement

What you did
You used the the SMART criteria to create a shared spreadsheet with a comprehensive list of goals for every area of the marketing team: 27 total. This is the year that you improve across the board, you can feel it! You roll it out to the team and get cracking.

What happened

After an enthusiastic start, you and your team stopped tracking all but a handful of your goals. There just weren’t enough hours in the day.

How to fix it
If you’re not ready to change something, or simply don’t have the time or energy to dedicate to it right now, leave it alone. Setting too many goals and hoping they’ll motivate change is a pattern that researchers have labeled “false hope syndrome” — it just doesn’t work. It’s far more effective to narrow your focus to the “One Metric That Matters” for your team.

But don’t ditch the spreadsheet just yet! Setting up a shared spreadsheet to use for tracking progress is a great move. Signs of progress, even small signs, are huge psychological motivators.

Does your goal-setting process suffer from “false hope syndrome”? http://ow.ly/Hja2l

#6: You set the bar too high

What you did
You and your team of overachievers want to produce an educational course that will teach registrants everything they need to know about the space you’re in. Everyone is excited. It’s going to have 15 lessons, each one with a short video recap and a well-known guest speaker. And, it’s going to be live in two weeks.

What happened
When you check in with your team the next week, you learn that very little progress has been made. Two lessons are nearly completed, but the others haven’t even been started. What happened? When it became glaringly obvious that the two week deadline was unrealistic (given other outstanding projects), everyone felt discouraged about the failure, and progress started slowing.

How to fix it
It’s great to be ambitious, but our high-achiever instincts can work against us. Not only is an ambitious goal hard to accomplish, but the mere fact of it being ambitious gives us an easy out for not reaching it. The solution is to trick the brain by setting goals so simple that they are laughable. Next time, break the project down into a list of tiny, simple steps.

Why your high-achiever instincts screw up your ability to achieve goals. http://ow.ly/Hja2l

#7: You try to brush failure under the rug

What you did
Customer retention is an ongoing problem and everyone agrees that the root cause is faulty UX design within the product. Your product and design teams undertake an exciting new initiative to think through how to make interactions with the product as seamless as possible.

What happened
A month after completion, there was no noticeable increase in retention. The failure wasn’t acknowledged or discussed, and months passed before anyone mentioned the flagging retention rates again.

How to fix it
Decide how you’re going to measure success at the time you set your goal, and stick to that criteria. If you fail, make time to talk it out with your team. Not only will this transparency help alleviate the negative emotions around failing to reach a goal, but it will help you quickly identify the root of the problem.

The “5 Whys” is a great way to learn from a failure without pointing any fingers. Start by stating the problem (“our solution didn’t get the expected result”) and then ask “why” iteratively five times to help you zero in on the root cause. Once you have that answer, you’ll have a good sense of how to re-approach solving the problem.

Start getting it right

So far, this series has largely dealt with psychological and organizational factors that make goal-setting work…or not work. In the next post we’re going to explain how to put all of this to work in the real world. From identifying your KPI and setting your goal, to tracking and sharing progress — we’ll show you how you can drive growth with goals.

Goal Setting Whitepaper Blog CTA-01

  • Brian North

    I fully agree with you that before you set a goal and start to succeed in the tasks set, you need to do your homework, so that nothing distracts you. When in college, my friends and I were engaged in creating a start-up, the deadlines were pressing us, and we needed to end the sprint on time. We did not know what to do because we had to finish one of the stages of the startup in time and prepare a homework for our college. Then we decided to ask the guys from https://homeworkneeded.com/ for help. Thanks to them, we finished the preparation for the startup in time and our homework was done on time. But next time we will do our best and take into account our mistakes before starting to achieve a next goals. But honestly, I think that homework is a waste of time. Nowadays, all you need to know, you can get from books or using the Internet, and homework only takes away free time that could be spent with advantage. Thank you for this interesting article!