Be an engaging leader, not a SMART one.

Read Time: 3 minutes

Adam Loong | November 30th, 2021


S-M-A-R-T goals in the workplace encourage mediocrity, stunts growth and innovation and can encourage non-ethical behaviour.

The popular acronym, widely praised and supported across the internet appears harmless on first look however, blindly following this guidance can have disastrous effects to your workplace culture.

The acronym S-M-A-R-T is used to remind us about the attributes that each workplace goal, or objective should have. In detail it stands for:

·        S – Specific

·        M – Measurable

·        A – Achievable

·        R – Realistic

·        T – Time bound

Specific and Realistic are valid and essential attributes of a goal and therefore deserve a place on this list. Time bound is also ok so long as appropriate flexibility can be applied when required. The issue with this acronym lives in the middle – the M & A!

Measurable is miserable

Workplace goals are not the same as goals on a sporting field. In a game of football (no matter what shape the ball is), the aim is to score goals, this is binary in nature, i.e. you either score or you don’t. This concept works as a form of entertainment, but it is detrimental in a workplace.

The expectation to score a goal in the workplace creates a culture that is in complete opposition to one of Continuous Improvement. By placing a measure on your workplace goals, they become binary, they are either achieved, or they are not. If you do achieve them, you are likely to be rewarded (insert flashing warning lights!) however if you do not achieve them, then at best you are pitied, and at worst you are punished.

Binary goals therefore do not encourage continuous improvement, instead they encourage a ‘just enough’ culture or an ‘achieve at any cost’ culture. Either one of these cultures often results in un-ethical behaviours, blind obedience to a potentially flawed plan and a lack of innovation and improvement.

Removing the ‘measurement’ of a goal enables leaders and team members to focus on what is important, continuous improvement of expected behaviours. Without a finish line, individuals can be honest, transparent and vulnerable as they build in habits that are directed by company values and supported by leadership.

Successful High-Performance organisations demonstrate this approach daily. Take the All Blacks rugby team for example – one of the most successful sporting teams in history. Their behaviour is driven by 15 mantras (or behaviour goals), here are the first three for context:

·        Sweep the Sheds – “Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done”

·        Go for the gap – “When you’re on top of your game, change your game”

·        Play with purpose – “Ask Why”

Not one of these behaviour goals mentions scoring tries, making tackles, or even winning a game. They are all ‘non measurable’ goals that the team jointly focus their efforts on. There are a myriad of other examples of high performing organisations that share a similar focus and hence enjoy similar, remarkable success.

Achievable is stunting

There is an inextricable link between the measurement attribute and the achievable attribute of a goal. If you follow the advice of the previous paragraph, then the requirement for the goal to be achievable also disappears.

This is not to say that you should set goals that are impossible to achieve however, you should set goals that challenge team members to be better than what they currently are. The concept of Continuous Improvement is rooted on focussing on improvement vice achievement. Long term, systemic positive cultural outcomes will be achieved when people focus on behaviour improvements rather than ticking an arbitrary box that was always going to be achievable to them.

An additional negative for setting achievable / measurable goals is that you are accepting a level of mediocrity that you know can be achieved. This results in individuals striving only for what they need to achieve, not what they can achieve. Deliberate (or Deep) Practice is a well-studied process for building talent and at its core, is the requirement to set goals that are just outside of your current capability. Not achieving the goal is not a failure, the journey and effort is where the learning occurs, and this is where success lies.

Do we need workplace goals?

Check out the deBa training video on Goal Setting. Let us know what you think!

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