How to avoid setting unrealistic goals for your team

Nothing is worse than getting assigned a goal at work that has completely unrealistic expectations. Whether the time frame is too short or the quota too high, contending with an unrealistic goal is a recipe for burnout, elevated stress levels, and a never-ending fear of failure.

It’s a manager’s duty to set realistic and achievable goals for their teams, but that’s often easier said than done.

After all, the line between dreaming big and being unrealistic is extremely fine, which means setting attainable goals for your team is a tricky balancing act.

On the one hand, you want to continue to improve your operations by setting challenging goals that push your team to meet their true potential. On the other hand, you don’t want to overwhelm your team, pushing them past the breaking point and leading to burnout, dissent, and higher turnover rates.

Striking the right balance here is definitely worth it, as research from the Psychological Bulletin shows that setting goals that are challenging yet achievable leads to a 90% increase in performance.

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So if you’re able to set realistic goals for your team, it’ll pay off in a big way. That’s why it’s worth learning how to set better goals for your staff to not only boost performance but also maintain their well-being.

Read on to learn how you can avoid setting unrealistic goals for your team.

Defining unrealistic goals

What makes a goal unrealistic in the first place?

A goal is considered unrealistic when it’s clearly not practical, doable, or achievable. It could be that the goal has impossible milestones, exceeds your team’s skill level, or has a time frame that’s too short to work. In other words, an unrealistic goal is a goal that’s likely destined to fail.

These types of goals only focus on the desired outcomes and fail to include what can actually be achieved.

Besides not achieving what you want, an unrealistic goal will also wreak havoc on the lives of your employees. Dealing with these types of goals can cause feelings of frustration, anger, and hopelessness. Even if an employee commits to an unachievable goal and puts in a ton of hard work, their inevitable failure will probably leave them feeling deflated.

Unrealistic goals are also extremely unhealthy for managers, as consistently failing to meet your goals won’t bode well for your reputation — and can be detrimental to your mental health.

Here are a few examples of unrealistic goals to give you a better idea of what they look like:

  • Expecting your team to work 60+ hours a week to meet their goals without providing extra compensation or time off.

  • Implementing new software programs and expecting employees to instantly adapt to them without providing proper training or learning experiences.

  • Setting stringent and unrealistic deadlines without allowing enough time for planning, training, and execution.

  • Setting unrealistic sales quotas for your team without considering the need for additional training or planning.

The difference between challenging and unrealistic goals

It’s important to dream big when setting goals, right?

True, but there’s a noticeable difference between goals that are challenging yet attainable and goals that are entirely unrealistic. While a challenging goal has a tenacious and optimistic outcome, it’s still achievable due to a solid understanding of your team’s competencies and working environment.

unrealistic-team-goals-450x350pxFor example, setting a rigorous sales goal for your top performer can effectively motivate them, help them step outside their comfort zone, and put their skills to the test. However, setting a goal of the same magnitude for a brand-new sales associate suddenly becomes unrealistic.

If you’re familiar with what your team excels at, you’ll have an easier time setting challenging yet realistic goals.

Besides understanding your team’s strengths, you also need a realistic view of your working environment. For instance, expecting your team to double sales revenue in three months amidst a steep economic downturn isn’t a realistic view of your working conditions.

Likewise, asking your team to quickly complete a project without factoring in time for QA, internal review, edits, and the like, is setting your team up for failure. That’s why you should always examine your surroundings and current situation to set goals that are challenging yet still achievable.

On the other hand, unrealistic goals don’t take into account anything besides the desired outcome, which is why they so often fail.

What causes managers to set unrealistic goals?

Whenever leaders set unrealistic expectations for their team, nobody wins. The pressure of an impossible goal eats away at the team, and the leader becomes upset whenever they realize their team can’t meet their expectations.

If unrealistic goals are so harmful, why do managers and leaders continue to keep setting them?

There are many reasons why, including too much ambition and being too optimistic — so let’s look at the top reasons managers set unrealistic goals and expectations.

They’re too ambitious

An overabundance of ambition can cause a manager to reach for the moon when setting goals, which can lead to unrealistic expectations. That’s especially true if the manager doesn’t have a solid grasp of their resources, know-how related to the goals they set (i.e., not understanding how to realistically perform certain tasks), or the core competencies of their personnel.

While the manager may feel their unrealistic goals will elevate their team to new heights, they often only lead to burnout and higher turnover levels.

Their team doesn’t speak up

Let’s say you tell an employee that you want one of their tasks to be ready tomorrow without realizing that they won’t have enough time to complete it. If your employee knows that it’s an unrealistic goal but stays quiet out of fear of repercussion, you’ll have no way of knowing that the goal isn’t attainable.

That doesn’t do you or your employee any favors, as they’re stressed out in silence — knowing full well that they can’t achieve the goal you set for them. As a result, they won’t be able to complete the work, disappointing you and stressing them out even more.

Situations like these can lead to managers setting unrealistic goals without even realizing it, effectively sabotaging themselves. That’s not to say that it’s fully your team’s fault if they aren’t speaking up about unrealistic expectations.

Instead, there are some simple steps you can take to encourage your team to speak up whenever they feel a goal you set isn’t possible.

Sit down with your team and let them know that you value their feedback and that there won’t be any repercussions if they tell you a goal doesn’t feel attainable.

While there are ways to stop setting unrealistic goals from the start (more on this below), encouraging this type of open communication with your staff is always healthy — and will help you set goals that are even more realistic and effective in the future.

They’re overoptimistic

Believing in your team is a great trait to have as a leader, so long as it doesn’t go too far. Being over-optimistic is a very real thing, and it can cause you to inadvertently set unrealistic goals for your employees.

It’s essential to remain realistic about the capabilities of your team, for their sake and for yours. While you may stringently believe that your staff can triple your sales goals in a single quarter, actually holding them to that will have detrimental effects.

There’s nothing wrong with having faith in your team as long as you back it up with measurable metrics and time frames.

Performance reviews are another secret weapon you can use when setting realistic goals for your team.

Instead of going by your faith in your employees, check their most recent performance reviews instead. That way, you’ll be able to gauge how much they can realistically achieve based on their past performance.

Also, your team won’t develop into the superstars you want them to be overnight. It takes a lot of training, hard work, and short-term milestones for employees to grow and learn new skills.

What happens to your team when you set unrealistic goals?

Setting unachievable goals for your team will sap every remaining ounce of positivity from them and can also contribute to employee turnover. As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to look after the well-being of your personnel, and setting unrealistic expectations is the #1 way to stress your team out.

Here’s a look at the adverse consequences of setting unattainable goals.

Elevated stress levels and burnout

stress-leave-450x350px-1Whenever your team has an unrealistic goal to achieve, it won’t take long before they get burned out and come crashing down. Not only that, but they may blame themselves for their failure, especially if they didn’t realize that the goal wasn’t achievable.

That can cause them to experience elevated stress and may lead to them quitting.

Burnout is very real and wreaks havoc on organizations when left unchecked, so you need to do your best to prevent it at all costs.91% of workers report that burnout negatively affects their productivity and work quality, and 57% of employers believe that burnout negatively impacts their turnover and retention rates.

A demotivated workforce

Employee engagement has already been in dire shape recently, with engagement levels consistently dropping year-over-year. Bearing that in mind, the last thing you need is another reason for your team to disengage and lose morale — and it’ll be hard for them to stay motivated when all their work goals are entirely unrealistic.

Besides demotivating your team, unrealistic goals can also destroy your motivation and confidence as a manager. After all, it won’t take long for your superiors to notice that your team consistently fails to achieve its goals, which will reflect poorly on your performance as a leader.

Higher employee turnover rates

Employees won’t stick around forever if they have to keep contending with unrealistic expectations. Even if they do stick around, you’ll likely deal with a quiet quitting epidemic at your organization.

How to stop setting unrealistic goals at work

There’s only one way to avoid all the pitfalls associated with unrealistic goals, and that’s to break the bad habit and learn to set better goals.

How do you do that?

You can by doing the following:

  • Identify skill gaps.

  • Understand your team’s strengths and workload.

  • Ask for feedback.

  • Use the SMART system.

These are all great ways to set realistic goals for your team, so let’s take a closer look at each one.

Identify skill gaps

We’re in the middle of a global skills shortage in 2023, as 87% of companies worldwide are either aware they have an existing skills gap or know they’ll have one in a few years. Identifying skill gaps in your organization is critical for setting realistic expectations and goals.

For instance, if you know that a task should only take 20 minutes due to past experience, an employee likely has a skill gap if it takes them 2+ hours. Once you identify skill gaps in your team, provide the necessary training to get their skills up to par.

Know your team’s strengths and workload

How well do you know your team?

To effectively set goals for your employees, you need to have a clear understanding of their current workload and capabilities. If an employee is extremely overworked, setting a tenacious goal for them within a short timeframe isn’t your best bet.

Conversely, knowing your team’s strengths will make it far easier to set realistic goals that achieve real results.

There are quite a few ways to uncover your employee’s strongest areas, such as checking their social media profiles, sitting down and asking them, and listening and observing their performance during the workday.

Periodically ask for feedback

As stated before, you won’t know if your goals are unrealistic if your team doesn’t speak up and tell you. That’s why you need to periodically ask your team for feedback on your goals.

Ask them if they feel your goals are attainable and if not, ask them why they feel that way. Doing so will provide invaluable insights for your future goal-setting sessions.

Use the S.M.A.R.T. system for setting goals

Last but not least, the S.M.A.R.T. system was devised specifically to avoid unrealistic goal-setting.

Here’s what the acronym stands for:

  • Specific. The more clearly defined your goals are, the easier it will be for your team to achieve them.

  • Measurable. You shouldn’t set a goal unless you have a reliable way to measure your employee’s success along the way.

  • Attainable. Before setting a goal in stone, you need to make sure that it’s realistic for the employee you’re assigning it to.

  • Relevant. Every goal you set must align with your overall values and business objectives.

  • Time-Bound. Each goal needs a realistic deadline to elicit a sense of urgency.

If you follow each step of the acronym before creating your goals, you shouldn’t struggle with setting unrealistic expectations any longer.

Final thoughts: Setting unrealistic goals at work

Setting unrealistic goals can be incredibly destructive for an organization, leading to burnout, quiet quitting, and higher turnover rates.

However, it’s entirely possible to improve your goal-setting skills.

By learning how to set realistic yet challenging goals, your team will have boosted morale, adequate levels of motivation, and reduced stress. At the same time, your increased success rate will improve your reputation as a leader, and your organization will enjoy higher efficiency and productivity.