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Between a rock and a hard goal: How to deal with unrealistic targets at work.

When the line between visionary and unrealistic is crossed, it is usually the ones responsible for executing on the targets that pay the price.

So, how can you push back when your manager sets impossible goals? And why is it important to do so, not just for your own wellbeing but also, for the success of the organization?

But first, let's explore the difference between ambitious vision and unrealistic expectations.

If you're a leader, it is your responsibility to set the North Star and light the way towards reaching it. A vision needs to be equal parts ambitious and inspiring - but not unachievable. After all, nobody would invest resources in climbing mount Everest or landing on the Moon, unless they thought it could actually be done.

In practical terms, here are the main differences between vision and unrealistic goals:

  1. Clarity: An ambitious vision outlines a desired future state that is challenging but feasible with effort, innovation, dedication and, in most cases, team work.

  2. Alignment with resources: A motivating vision should align with the available resources, capabilities, and market conditions. While it may stretch the organization, it should still be realistically achievable with proper planning and utilization of resources.

  3. Reasonable timelines: A vision, regardless of how ambitious, often has a reasonable timeframe for achievement. Within a reasonable visionary framework, accomplishments take time and can be segmented into achievable milestones.

  4. Flexibility: An ambitious vision allows for adaptability in the face of changing circumstances. It acknowledges that the path to success may require adjustments along the way and allows room for reflection, learning and optimization.

  5. Team engagement: An ambitious vision encourages team buy-in by inspiring a sense of purpose and providing a clear direction for collective efforts.

If you're up against a treacherous mountain to climb with a set of goals that push above and beyond what's feasible, here are some steps you can take to deal with the situation:

Step 1: Understand the situation

There might be a multitude of reasons why your goals have been set that high. Perhaps your manager is also unclear on the why and they are simply following instructions. Digging a little deeper you could potentially find out that this is what has been promised to shareholders in order to receive the next funding round or it could be a matter of miscommunication. Understanding the reasons can help you decide not only what your next steps can be but also, how much effort you might be willing to invest in achieving the targets.

Step 2: Build your case

Collect evidence and gather data to support your position: low team capacity, unclear priorities, contradicting deadlines, operational inefficiencies and other reasons could be part of the argument against adjusting those unrealistic goals into more feasible targets.

Step 3: Communicate openly

Start out the conversation with your manager by clearly stating your best intentions, not just for yourself but also, the team and ultimately, the company as well. Furthermore, discuss your concerns through the data you have collected and focus on offering constructive solutions that showcase your dedication to success. Finally, suggest alternative, more realistic goals that align with the overall vision but are achievable within the given resources and timeframe.

Step 4: Keep a record

Keep a record of your conversations, including dates, key points discussed, and any agreements made. This documentation can be valuable if you need to escalate the issue or if there are future disputes.

Step 5: Prioritize your own wellbeing

No matter how dedicated and hard-working you are, risking your health and wellbeing in order to achieve a company goal is a recipe for burnout and other long-term harmful consequences. Make sure that you communicate any stress or challenges you're facing as a result of these goals to your manager or HR, and seek support as needed.

In conclusion:

Setting goals at work is like trying to balance on a tightrope – one side, there's the thrill of dreaming big and shooting for the stars; on the other, the practical reality check of the everyday challenges that all teams face.

In the dynamic realm of the workplace, it's crucial for leaders to tether their aspirations to the ground of practicality. But, employees hold the power to voice concerns, propose alternatives, and steer the organization towards growth and profitability.

Above all, the most important thing to remember is that success is mutually beneficial and the result of shared accomplishments.


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