THE BLOG
12/11/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

How to Make Team Goals That Work

Think back to your early experiences as a manager - your "Management 101 class." You were probably given some training or direction on goal setting. It was likely a variation on the SMART acronym, and you would have been told that goals are good because having targets motivates people. All good and useful stuff. However, goals can also be unhelpful or even destructive. Here's why.

There is a story I heard once about goal setting. The story concerned an airline that was having problems with baggage handling. There were a number of customer complaints about the amount of time that elapsed between the moment the passengers arrived at the luggage carousel and the time the bags eventually arrived. It wasn't a good picture.

So the airline reviewed the baggage handling process and decided that setting performance targets for the baggage handlers would speed things up. They set a target - the time it took from when the cargo door opened until the first bag arrived on the carousel. What do you think happened? Apparently the first bag arrived very quickly. Then there was a long gap before the rest arrived! The behaviour the goal created was not what was expected.

Another example is something Sears experiences in the early 90's. When the company set specific sales targets of $147 per hour, the auto repair staff began overcharging customers and completing unnecessary repairs on a company-wide basis.

As you can see, setting goals and targets doesn't always reap benefits in the most productive ways, and when dealing with customers and clients, the ends don't always justify the means. So as you approach your annual planning meets and strategy sessions for a new year, keep the following tips in mind for more effective results:

Lesson 1: When you set a goal - think about the behaviour that goal will drive. Is it what you want?

Reflecting back to the aforementioned example of what Sears experienced, consider whether the goals you set for your team is driving behaviour that you want your company to be known for. Do the goals compel your team members to work harder...but at the cost of treating your customers with the utmost care and attention? Are your workers having to sacrifice company values in order to meet set standards?

Lesson 2: Set goals only for things that people can impact, influence or control.

There is a well-known study on inattentional blindness. A video is shown of 2 basketball teams playing and the observer is asked to count the number of passes between the team players wearing white shirts. Because the observers are focussing on the white shirts and not the black ones, almost everyone misses that a guy in a gorilla suit walks onto the court.

With narrow specific goals, people lose focus on the big picture. Another study showed that when asked to proofread a document, participants found more errors than when asked to spell check it. The group asked to spell check did exactly that - focused on only the spelling - and missed obvious grammatical mistakes.

Learning 3. Set goals that are focused on the bigger picture.

When working with teams on goal setting, I often see goals being set based on "what is easy to measure". There is a story about why it's so difficult to get a cab in New York City when it's raining. We assume it is because the cabs are busy - because it's raining and therefore everyone is taking a cab. Not so. The cabbies have daily earnings targets and once the quota is filled they knock off for the day. On rainy days more people catch cabs and the cabbies meet their targets quicker. By using something that is easy to measure, the cab drivers have lost sight of the big picture - they could actually earn a lot more on a rainy day if they kept working even though they have met their targets.

Learning 4. Set goals that are important to success.

Years ago in a program I was running (on goal setting), one of the team leaders in the program told the group that he had performance targets for the overall employee engagement result of the division he worked for. He was annoyed and demotivated because it was something he had very little control over. As he rightly pointed out, even if his team members were extremely engaged (because that's something he did have great influence over), he had no control over how other team leaders managed their teams, no control over the impact of more senior leaders, or over the whole of business engagement drivers. So holding him to account for a mere division score didn't really make sense to him.

As you set your company goals, ask yourself what are the success factors you genuinely are striving for. What does success look like for your company? Is one aspect of success more important than another? Or, are all the factors at play equally important? If so, then exercise caution when esteeming certain goals over another and be sure that no two goals conflict.

Goals can certainly be useful to companies but sometimes when following those goals, companies unintentionally miss the very target they were aiming for. Follow the tips above and you'll start setting goals that actually work and make for more effective team work.

Rosalind Cardinal is The Leadership Alchemist and Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, an Australian consultancy specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations. You can interact with Ros, learn more about leadership and management, and download a complimentary copy of her e-guide on leading change at her website.

Ros also convenes the Shaping Change Inner Circle, an exclusive membership network for driven leaders around the world who are passionate about making a difference, building successful businesses and leveraging the talents and skills of their people. If you want to learn new strategies and game-changing ideas to become a better leader as you lead your organisation to bigger and better things, then the Shaping Change Inner Circle is for you!