Are you tearing your hair out over unrealistic goals at work? Humans have a need for fairness and autonomy (control). As one of the top workplace stressors, unrealistic objectives and demands make us feel overwhelmed, but also angry and powerless. But what can you do about it?
Before you just accept an impossible deadline, push back. If a deadline is simply not doable, assess what is required to meet the objective. Think about resource restrictions and estimate what resource is required above and beyond what you have at your disposal. Resources may include skills, tools, people, dollars or even time. Discuss it in a factual way with your manager. Proactively propose trade-offs and alternatives. Document facts which support your assessment. With some luck, you can negotiate your way to a modified objective.
Share a proactive view of the issues with meeting the deadline, possible trade-offs and realistic timelines. Sometimes you will be in a position to say no. When there is no way to accommodate the request, no alternative to propose, you should say no. Don’t say no as a matter of course. Take the steps to assess what is possible and propose alternatives before falling back on a solid no.
A comment here about words like unrealistic and unachievable. Obviously, these are very subjective words. Do your best to set aside pessimism and optimism to come to a realistic view. Unfortunately, setting unattainable revenue objectives is something some companies do seemingly as a matter of course. At times, it is done in the spirit of motivation. It’s not a great calculation as people become demotivated when they are repeatedly faced with unachievable objectives. Other times crazy objectives can be due to lack of understanding of the process or data. Some things about target setting are subjective and some are straightforward logic and math. It’s important to know the difference and not to declare targets and deadlines as undoable as a matter of course.
When you can’t, when management insists on leaving unachievable objectives in place, consider the strategic importance of the goals. Is the objective systematically set high and never reached? Is there actual penalization for not meeting the objective or is the excessively high standard intended to motivate? Make sure you are assessing the feasibility of the objective with creativity and ambition. If there is no penalization, stop worrying about it. Shoot for better than your best and maintain your own high standards. When you are questioned about not achieving the unachievable, don’t stay stuck on explaining why it wasn’t possible. Document the barriers to success but focus primarily on the actions taken to achieve the objective.
If, on the other hand, objectives are systematically unachievable, and you are penalized for not reaching them, it’s time to start planning for a change. In the meantime, again, do your best and maintain your personal standards. When you walk away, you will walk away knowing you gave it everything you had.
As a manager, there’s more to consider. Because you have such a good handle on your team’s workload, you are in a good position to avoid delivering unrealistic demands. You know what they already have on their plate. You know how long it takes to do things. Or do you?
An important part of effective management is having realistic but ambitious expectations of your team. But how do you set those expectations? Pace-setters beware. People have wildly varying paces of work and it’s very possible that your personal pace is not a realistic one for the team. Don’t set the bar solely based on how long it takes YOU to get things done. If you get things done a lot faster than others, you’ll need to find pace that is both realistic and ambitious. Don’t set the pace based on the slower performers on your team, it’s not about catering to the weakest link. Finding the right pace which helps drive performance and results will ensure you don’t choose to impose unrealistic demands.
But when you don’t have a choice in handing down the demands, you can work with your team to figure out the best way to move forward. Acknowledge the difficulty, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Once you have acknowledged the difficulty, focus on how to deliver the best outcome based on all the possible trade-offs and compromises. Don’t forget to teach your team that trick about focusing on the actions taken when questioned about not attaining results.
If you’re struggling with this and other workplace stressors, check out more blogs on dealing with stress.