Good leaders and managers may have high expectations of their team members, but how high should your expectations be in order to maintain a motivated team?

Setting goals which push staff to achieve their best can lead to very positive results. High performing people like to be challenged and welcome the opportunity to take on interesting projects. My favourite story on setting high expectations is from President Franklin Roosevelt, in his first 100 days in office address, in 1933 the time of the great depression, he said,


“Yes, we have set high goals, even in the face of what seems to be overwhelming adversity, and we will stick to them. Or else why should anyone strive to achieve anything?

Without these goals we might as well all go and sit together in the dust and watch our people slowly die. Our ‘New Deal’ programme is a goal for a new America.”

Inspired? The hairs on the back of my neck stand up even though I have read this many times.

However, setting unrealistic goals can have a negative impact on employees and the wider business. Employees get a buzz from hitting their targets and achieving their objectives. If their goals are unrealistic, your team members can feel like they aren’t succeeding in their roles which can impact their self-esteem, motivation and productivity. More widely, if your team regularly misses targets, this could lead to questions being raised about you, your management skills and your ability to help your staff to achieve their goals.

Setting unrealistic expectations can even affect the quality of your team’s outputs. For example, team members may be tempted to try to rush work, cut corners and not take proper care. This can lead to mistakes and poor quality outcomes. If you set unrealistic expectations around deadlines, your staff may need to spend longer on projects which could result in cost overruns.

In order to avoid setting unrealistic expectations, managers need to think before setting objectives. Wanting something to be completed quickly, doesn’t necessarily mean it can be completed in that timeframe.

Take a step back and consider the amount of work required and what resources you have available, before setting a deadline. You may also need to manage the expectations of your own manager or CEO.

As a manager, it is important to support your team as much as possible. Instead of setting expectations and putting increased pressure on staff to perform, try mentoring them in order to help them achieve the best possible outcome. And then stretch or improve this going forward. Working with your team in this way is more satisfying and productive.

As leaders we can tap into the natural tendency to focus on goals in Dec / Jan each year or at your year end. You could make this a more formal process and potentially link in with your performance appraisals.
Informal aspirations are often quickly overtaken by events, crowded out by everyday stuff
Business research by Prof’s Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, two leading researchers on goal-setting, reviewed and summarised 35 years of research on goal setting and concluded that:

  • Setting specific, stretching goals consistently leads to higher performance, compared to just hoping or even managers urging people to do their best,
  • Stretching goals generate greater effort than low goals, and the highest or most difficult goals produce the greatest levels of effort and performance,
  • Tight deadlines lead to a more rapid work pace than loose deadlines,
  • Making a public commitment to a goal enhances personal commitment and results,
  • Whether the goal is set by mutual agreement or by the boss alone doesn’t make a big difference in goal achievement.

(American Psychologist. 2002)

Setting high expectations can support the development of a high performing team.

We must, as leaders, balance autonomy with support, ambition with wellbeing. It is critical to celebrate successes, no matter how small and to ensure the focus is on learning from and changing the future, after poor results.

So goals are good for us!?!
What are your goals? And on track are you right now? Get in touch here