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goal setting mistakes to avoid

When Goal Setting Demotivates Your Team and Kills Their Spirit

by | Aug 22, 2022 | By David Dye, Courageous Cultures |

Goal Setting Will Energize People When You Avoid These Common Mistakes

Effective goal setting brings out the best in people. But if people can’t “win”, don’t feel their work matters, don’t understand why a goal exists, and feel tossed around without a strong foundation, those goals quickly become demoralizing. There are three common goal setting mistakes that erode motivation. Each of them has a straight-forward solution.

  1. Moving Too Fast
  2. Setting Goals in Isolation
  3. Rapidly Throwing Your Team from One Change to the Next

False Summits are the Worst

If you’ve never encountered a false summit, trust me, they stink.

You hike up the side of a mountain for hours, eyeing that final ridge. You push your body a little harder, fighting the missing oxygen because you’re almost there… And then you peak over the ridge you were climbing—only to find that it wasn’t the summit at all, and you still have far to go.

If you’re not prepared for them, false summits can quickly demoralize you. You’ve worked hard, but suddenly the goal seems to have shifted.

When you don’t set goals skillfully, you can easily create false summits for your team that demoralize people, kills their spirit, and leave them asking, “Why bother?”

If your people respond to your latest goals with a collective shrug and shake of their heads, it’s time to revisit how you’re setting goals and avoid the soul-crushing false summits.

alse summits goal setting

A recent false summit I encountered

Three Ways to Ensure Goal Setting that Energizes Your Team

There are several common mistakes leaders make when setting goals—often with positive intent (for example: “I thought I was encouraging everyone to do their best.”) Fortunately, these mistakes are easy to correct.

1. Moving Too Fast

Kathy was a team leader whose team had done such a good job with their financial goals that they had not just met their goal—the team had single-handedly achieved the financial outcomes for the entire organization.

She was justifiably proud of her team’s work.

But she felt sad and discouraged. Rather than acknowledge the team’s significant achievement, the senior leadership team immediately reset the goals to be significantly higher than what the team had already achieved.

“I understand stretch goals and that there’s more work we can, but there was no acknowledgment of the creativity and problem-solving that allowed us to be so successful.”

She shook her head and sighed as she summarized her team’s concern: “They’re asking one another if they wouldn’t have been better off taking it easy and not working so hard the first time. If no one cares and they’re going to say ‘just kidding, you didn’t actually do well,’ then why bother?”

This is a common mistake leaders make as they rush on to the next goal: failure to acknowledge people’s work and achievement.

It’s deceptively easy to let yourself move on, try to solve the next problem, and skip what your people have achieved.

This creates a demoralizing false summit. They worked hard, thought they’d done well and arrived, only to be told they weren’t as good as they thought. Their work didn’t matter the way they thought it did. You moved the goalposts, and that feels incredibly unfair. It undermines their confidence for what comes next.

Solution: Celebrate

Most people need to feel a sense of accomplishment. Endless work with no sense of movement or achievement is torturous.

Energize your team by celebrating success. Take a moment to high-five, ring the bell, throw confetti, say thank you, and let people know the results of their work. Why did their work matter? What positive impact did it have? How are people (not just spreadsheets) better because of the work they did?

Tomorrow, you can still set new goals. Today, celebrate.

When you celebrate people’s work, it gives them momentum and confidence for what comes next.

goal setting view from summit

Time to Celebrate! The view from the ACTUAL summit.

2. Setting Goals in Isolation

This is still a common mistake. A thoughtful, well-intentioned leader thinks and thinks and decides.

Then they share that goal with their people—only to have their people immediately object, list reasons it won’t work, question the leader’s intelligence, and generally work hard to avoid doing what makes little sense to them.

The leader gets frustrated and makes more stringent demands. People get more frustrated and some leave.

And it’s all unnecessary. You may be smart enough to solve many of the challenges and come up with ideal plans yourself (unlikely, but you might be), but no matter how smart you are, if you can’t bring people with you, you won’t succeed.

Solution: Set Goals with People

Start by giving people the context, criteria, and problems that need to be solved. Then invite them to contribute their ideas.

True, this takes a little longer than just telling everyone what you think is the best solution. But you gain three significant benefits. First, people understand the problem or opportunity. Now they are with you emotionally and understand the need to change.

The second benefit is that you’ve got parallel processing power. As smart as you are, including other people opens the door to more and better solutions. Those solutions are more likely to work for more people because you’ve included more perspectives in the decision-making.

Finally, the third benefit is that the team now owns the ultimate solution. And people are much more likely to implement, lean into, and creatively problem-solve what they own. They understand why it’s needed, what it’s trying to accomplish, and can communicate that information to others.

3. Thrown Around by Changing Circumstances

Rapidly changing priorities can frustrate people and sap motivation. As with the lack of celebration, the rapidly appearing and disappearing “summits” can quickly exhaust your team.

Even so, changing circumstances are an inescapable part of business. Technology changes, policies shift, and competitors do new things. You learn, grow, and consequently need to change your mind. These changes can buffet your team and throw them around like a ship caught in a storm.

Solution: Prepare for Change Before It Happens

Prepare your teams for changing priorities by creating structures to help them shift. Advocate for your team to ensure their work matters (and insist on celebration when they’ve done well).

To maintain your team’s energy and morale when goals change frequently, start by setting expectations that it’s going to happen. Ensure you have a reliable communication strategy in place—and that everyone knows how it works. As you navigate shifting priorities, take time to celebrate and “tie a bow” on the priorities you must retire. What did the team achieve? What did they learn?

Your Turn

Sound goal setting motivates and energizes. The goals are challenging but achievable. They bring out the best in people. To make the most of your goals, take time to celebrate success, set goals collaboratively, and prepare for rapid change before it happens.

I’d love to hear from you: How do you help your team stay connected to what matters most, maintain their energy, and meaningfully engage with your organization’s goals?


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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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7 Practical Ways to be a Bit More Daring

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