Where corporate goal setting went wrong

When it comes to goal-setting in the sporting world, everything is starting to look a bit more corporate. Talk of goals, aspirations, and dreams has been supplanted by detailed discussions on key performance indicators (KPIs), targets, and measurables. The field of play and the boardroom are starting to merge.

Before we blindly take over practices from another field, we need to put them in context. In the case of goal setting that means asking: what is the goal of your goals? On this week’s GAINcast Vern mentioned that goals are about changing behavior. That’s the way it used to be, but the corporate world has started to take goals and use them for different purposes. Goals fulfill many purposes now and it helps to see how some types of goals are used before we start adapting them for other purposes.

Goals in the corporate world

Goal setting is always a product of its environment. Like it or not, modern-day corporations are primarily focused on the bottom line. With results being reported on a quarterly basis and share prices jumping up and down each day, today’s results matter more than tomorrow’s. As a result, corporate goals reflect this, often with short time frames and numerical outcomes.

Once an organization becomes big enough that the boss does not know everyone, it becomes very difficult to answer some key questions: How are profits and bonuses shared amongst employees? Which teams are working well and which are not? If you can’t see how everyone works, you have to generate some numbers that can help with the task. Rather than setting up independent measurables for these points, goal setting has come to the rescue to address the issue. New goals are set in an attempt to objectively quantify business. They are then polished so that they are SMART goals, i.e. goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. The end result is a bunch of KPIs and numbers we can point to in order to say who did and didn’t perform.

There are many things that sports can learn from this approach. For one, it serves an educational purpose to make sure that expectations and priorities are clearly laid out for everyone to see. If a CEO focuses goals around the number of new accounts opened, then employees know they should also focus on that. It also helps create an opportunity for conversation on that topic. Most importantly, it helps companies hone in on what really matters and see if they are making progress towards that.

Where corporate goals go wrong

That’s only part of the story. The whole process leaves a big elephant in the room: are we trying to measure growth or impact it? Like Vern said, it used to be that goals were about changing behavior. Corporate goals, on the other hand, focus on results over development as that is more measurable and more meaningful if you have a short-term mindset.

The concept of coaching is virtually non-existent in most large corporate settings. Bosses might spend days struggling over how a goal is worded, but rarely will they ask themselves if a goal will help motivate the employee. I know this because I am that way too. During the day I am a cog in the wheel of a company with 60,000 employees. When I sit down to set goals for my teams my thoughts are focused on whether the goal will evidence the work I expect to be done, not whether it will motivate the employee to do it better or increase their skillset. Therefore goals are more likely to focus on the number of widgets sold this year than improving negotiation skills, which might actually sell more widgets in the long term.

In many cases, such goal setting can actually negatively impact output. No one wants to be seen as the under-performer, which encourages low goal setting and decreases motivation once goals are already achieved. In extreme cases, top-down goals from management can also backfire. My example above mentioned a CEO setting targets for new accounts. Wells Fargo set their numbers so high that their employees committed massive fraud and opened fake accounts to inflate numbers.

Goals for growth

It’s not that we can’t learn from the corporate world, it’s that we need to ask what we want from our goals. If we simply want measurables, that’s one thing; but there are other ways to measure performance. Usable data for that purpose is all over the place in sports and coaches have the advantage of knowing every athlete they work with. If we want motivation, change, and long-term growth, we need to look elsewhere for guidance.

As Vern wrote about earlier in the month, goals simply need to be as detailed as necessary to do their job. For me, that job is motivation. I think often we focus on being too detailed for the sake of being detailed, but it adds no benefit to the goal. Being detailed might help us better measure the goal at a later point, but I’m not certain it always helps us focus more on actually obtaining a goal.

When my athletes set goals I don’t ask if their goal is specific or measurable or even understandable to me. I don’t care if it is results-oriented or process-oriented. I don’t critically analyze the language used. I simply look at the behaviors it creates. If the goal is motivating them to work hard in the right direction, then it is a good goal.