Goals and targets – carrots or sticks?

This time of year people are talking about goals for the coming year and what they want to achieve. Plus many businesses are reviewing goals, targets and performance since they too work by the calendar year.

And of course there’s lots of chatter in the personal and business development community about goals and targets and whether they are necessary –I can see both sides of the discussions but my current thinking is that a goal/target is simply an outcome and the important thing is the strategy and plan that underpins the goal including support for those expected to deliver.

And here’s the thing, we all see goals and targets in different ways and are motivated by different things. And mostly when we get caught up in our internal chatter we fail or fall short… with lots of excuses as to why… finger pointing at external factors… and so try not to have true accountability but conversely there has to be some responsibility from the people who set the goals/targets.


Something I’ve been considering recently is whether the goal have to be meaningful to the person as well as the business? If the person isn’t achieving the goal… say a sales target then by adding the pressure and using the goal/target as a stick is it going to be motivational or create a disconnection and potentially goal dysfunction?

Say someone knows their role is at risk if they don’t meet their targets (goals) and they get caught up in the what if, what if, and then what if… and they aren’t succeeding… then what’s likely to happen is a downward spiral and self fulfilling prophesy. All that’s occupying their mind is the stick and not the carrot… that may well be because the stick is something that’s real to them, and they even perhaps fear, whereas the carrot isn’t the thing that motivates them.

So what support is being given to those people? If its not happening then how can they be supported so that they can see easier ways of doing something and change the focus of their thinking? Its very difficult to point people, when they are in this thinking, to not being attached to the outcome but to take action which maybe having conversations, or the footwork needed to be able to have those conversations and so on. But it’s only when they aren’t attached to the outcome that a shift happens sometime…

I can remember Michael Neill telling the story some years ago about a father telling his son, who was struggling to get ‘straight As’ at college, to just enjoy his studies and get average grades. As soon as his son changed his perspective to getting an average grade it took the pressure off and he then the unexpected happened… he started to get the high grades because he wasn’t so attached to the outcome.

Someone I was talking to recently said that they weren’t meeting their targets which meant they were probably going to be out of a job in the not too distant future – and what’s more the targets that they hadn’t met to date had been added to the future targets… and if they hadn’t been achieving the lower valued targets then why would they achieve the higher level targets? And so they felt totally disenfranchised. When we spoke about it they were drafting plan B but we talked about Plan A+… what could change that would make the difference? How could they frame conversations and services so they were more appealing? What services and or products were people more likely to buy that would then given an obvious cross sell or upsell to the main product and service he was trying to sell? How would people engage better and more readily?

Yes, there were some external factors that had an impact and they were operating with a zero budget in perhaps not a crowded market but certainly a busy one… But changing the perspective and thinking meant that whilst the targets were still in place and goals to be achieved the approach and considerations were different… And so there was a shift…

There’s always going to be that tension between the business wanting to make money and sell their goods and services and the way people are remunerated and rewarded and their personal motivators, and how they react to both success and failure or at least partial success.

I can remember not being paid a full bonus because I hadn’t achieved one the targets in full; at the time I was pretty hacked off because the target was, and always would have been, impacted by outside factors but now on reflection I’m wondering what I could have done differently to mitigate those external factors? The fact that something was external didn’t fully preclude it from being something I had no accountability for or even any level of control over. Would I have welcomed a conversation which pointed that out… probably not but it was one that would have been far more useful to both me and the business as opposed to the one about your didn’t deliver on that therefore you didn’t get paid that portion of the bonus payment. It may not have made a difference to the business immediately but may well have pointed me in a slightly different direction for the future. And changed the carrot and stick balance or even imbalance.

, , , ,