When Goals Can Hurt Us

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In 2012 Shriya Shah-Klorfine set out to conquer Mt. Everest and satisfy a personal goal she’d had since she was nine. For years she and her husband made many sacrifices including mortgaging their home to afford the $100,000 it would cost to make the assent. In May, after making the summit and beginning her decent Shah-Klorfine and three other climbers were killed in what became one of the deadliest days on the mountain.

An investigation into the accident revealed that Shah-Klorfine had not prepared adequately for the difficulty of the climb and, along with the others, became disoriented and exhausted on the treacherous decent. Despite warnings of her Sherpa guides to turn back, Shah-Klorfine was so focused on the goal that she failed to take the necessary precautions and heed the advice of her guides, which may have saved her life and that of the others. Such is the case in business with equally tragic results sometimes.

Make no mistake, I believe goals are essential to the growth and success of companies and individuals. Human beings are goal oriented by nature. I have written often about the need to set goals in ways that drive energy and creativity and I’ve described the need for leaders to inspire groups to new heights with challenging goals. Without goals we will certainly underperform our potential. However, goals set with insufficient preparation, inadequate consideration or the wrong incentives can get off track, sometimes with dire consequences. There are a number of problems that can arise when pressure or incentive puts goal attainment ahead of everything else.

  • Killing the golden goose – Over-emphasis and pressure for short term goals risks sabotaging sound long-term strategy. Under the gun for positive quarterly gains, many publicly traded companies give up decisions that may in the long-run produce better returns and sustainability. When this happens the long-term potential of the organization is sacrificed at the altar of short-term results.
  • Skipping important steps – As the Mt. Everest tragedy points out, the singular pursuit of a goal can cause individuals to take shortcuts or chances that could result in loss or worse. In 2007 Microsoft rushed the launch of Windows Vista. Pushed to meet a marketing deadline, the product was fraught with incompatibilities and problems. The shortcuts taken in the development and testing phases threatened to alienate even its most loyal customers.
  • Suboptimization – Suboptimization can occur when one goal is placed ahead of the good of the whole. Win/lose internal competitions often leave companies worse off. An organization can begin to cannibalize itself in the pursuit of competing goals. Resources will go to the fittest instead of where they’re needed the most. We tend to get what we expect and by focusing too hard on the goal, teams and individuals will win, even at the expense of the company.
  • Unethical behavior – We don’t have to look far to find examples of how overly ambitious goals fueled by the potential for large financial gain resulted in the financial ruin of companies and nearly our entire economy. Becoming so singularly focused on a goal can cause individuals and organizations to ignore fundamental principles and act in ways they would never have thought they would. The infractions can range from cheating on a sales report to fabricating financial statements and lying to investors as was the case with Enron. We often see it as a failure of character. While that may be a part, those involved often see it as the necessary actions to achieve a greater outcome. In other words, the end justify the means.

Humans are very adaptable and capable of accomplishing what’s important to them. Despite rhetoric and words, we’re good at figuring out what’s really important and responding to that. Therefore, goal setting should be undertaken carefully with an eye for potential unintended consequences. Properly placed goals with the right coaching and leadership can result in tremendous energy, creativity and positive outcomes.

Not surprisingly though, if you set goals and use pressure to get results, you’re likely to get the results you’re looking for. Likewise, when you heavily incent goals, they too will likely get accomplished. But don’t be surprised in either case to find that major corners were cut or employees bent or even broke the rules to get them done. They’re smart and the right amount of pressure or incentive can get good people to do just about anything.

If you’d like to discuss this further you can reach me through the “Contact Us” tab on the top of this page.

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The Dangerous Comfort Zone

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I like it when things go well, especially in business. Sales are steady and at a level we’re all comfortable with. Certainly they could be better but my employees are content especially after all we’ve been through. We all appreciate getting a break from the full court press for sales we’d been on for the last several years. Quality is satisfactory and productivity good enough to produce positive returns each month.

Maybe you feel the same way I do. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stay where we are indefinitely. Business would be easy and we’d finally be able to reap the rewards we’ve worked so hard for. Leadership would certainly become easier. My business friends have warned me not to become too comfortable with my routine. But then they don’t really know my company. We’re different and the relative ease of the pattern we’ve grooved into is certain to keep the returns positive. After all, getting here wasn’t luck. Everyone in the company can point to the hard work and smart decisions that got us to where we are. What I hadn’t realized though, is that in my success, like the opening scene of a Rod Serling movie, we had innocently wandered into the “Comfort Zone”.

The comfort zone is a deceptively dangerous place to be. Wikipedia defines the comfort zone is “a behavioral state within which a person (or organization) operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, and usually without a sense of risk.” It is the container in which we allow our imaginations to wander. Unfortunately for some people and organizations, they live with very small containers.

On the surface it has all the characteristics of what we’ve been in pursuit of for so long. But once inside, it takes over our thinking and we become mired in complacency. That complacency results in stagnation leaving the company vulnerable to a competitive threat or market shift.

Confronting the Problem
Comfort zones are closely tied to a company’s self-image. That could be its perception of how big it can be, how good it is at what it does, what the real threats are or any other aspect of its performance. It’s an image in the mind of the leaders or the employees about the way things are supposed to be. The problem is comfort zones have a strong influence on keeping us the way we are and if you don’t escape the comfort zone you’ve limited your chance of growing out of or beyond your present conditions. If you don’t change that image you’ll just keep reproducing what you have stagnating growth and value in the organization.

Many companies have enormous potential but they have comfort zones of familiarity that have them frozen in time. It’s because part of our human nature is that we won’t let ourselves want something we don’t believe we can create. In order to expand the business, employees will need to stretch and broaden long standing beliefs about what’s possible. Good leadership recognizes that comfort zones are real and take steps to manage them.

Changing the Picture
If we’re going to grow individually and organizationally beyond where we’re presently at we’re going to have to grow our comfort zone. The key to that is changing the internal picture of how far our imagination can stretch and still be relatively anxiety-neutral. It means we’ll have to develop a new set of beliefs about what we’re capable of accomplishing. There are a few steps to help your company grow its comfort zone.

  1. The first step involves visionary goal setting. If you’ve been a local company but have aspirations of being regional, national or even international you have to see it happening before it happens. I’ve seen too many businesses set aspirational goals truly doubtful of their ability to achieve them and prove themselves right. Deliberately decide the next level or comfort zone you want to move into and make it familiar. The degree to which you can visualize yourself at the next level, making the unfamiliar familiar, the greater your chance of success.
  2. Imprint your vision and goals on the organization. You can’t impose change. You can try it but it won’t last. You have to help others change first from the inside. You’ll need employees to visualize themselves into the next level or change that’s coming or they’ll eventually slide back to the old comfort zone. Not everyone may come along. Don’t stop the growth of your company because of the restrictive comfort zones of people who don’t want to grow.
  3. Hire people who believe in the possibility of your vision. Often individuals from organizations who have already accomplished what you want to do will have the efficacy to believe that what you want can be achieved. They speak about it as a forgone conclusion. Their self-confidence can also give rise to confidence in others.

Your comfort zone is a place that feels good but is also a powerful force of resistance to growth and change in any organization. So, take that earned rest and recovery when you need it but keep asking yourself, “What’s next? What more do I want to do?” It is important to keep growing in all aspects of your personal and corporate performance. Continuously setting and affirming clear goals and expanding the size of the comfort zone are the best ways to do it.

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Making Good Decisions

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What makes a good decision?  How would I know one if I saw it?  In the last several weeks I have had a number of conversations with clients about decision making.  Each conversation started out focusing on a different issue yet each came back to “making good decisions.”  One conversation began by discussing “initiative”, several were based around “procrastination”, another was focused on “paralysis by analysis” and the most recent dealt with the fear of making a mistake.  The common root of all of these conversations was the ability, or inability, of individuals to make good business decisions.

Not all good business decisions will turn out, in hindsight, to be the best decisions.  Perfection is not a quality I am familiar with and fortunately it is not a requirement for good decisions.  The goal then is to maximize the likelihood that the decisions made turn out to be the right ones.  How does one do that?

I believe that there are four elements to making good decisions.  My experience is that if these four elements are incorporated into any decision-making process, the final choice will prove to be the best choice much more often than not.

Gather all of the information that is available.  There are two considerations that enter into this element, data and time.   Rarely in any decision making process will 100% of the data be available to you, or at least be available to you in the time frame within which the decision must be made.   The information gathering process is foundational to making good decisions.  Taking short cuts here will skew the results of the subsequent elements in the process.

Know the choices that are available to you.  Too often decision-making processes fall into the “verdict in search of evidence” category.  When we lock onto one option, we automatically lock out all other options, perhaps even the best option.  Let the data identify the options, not the other way around.  Take care to ensure that the choices you identify are feasible and implementable.

Understand the consequences of each choice.  Every decision has consequences, both intended and unintended.  Unfortunately for decision makers, the consequences are usually determined by other parties such as bosses, customers or competitors.  Evaluating the risk associated with each choice is central to good decision making.

Make the best call.  For some, this is the most difficult part of the process and frequently indicates that a less-than-thorough effort was put into the first three elements of the process.  This is where data combined with intuition can be a decision maker’s greatest asset.  Trust your data.  Trust your intuition.  Make the call.

We must also understand that not making a decision is in fact a decision to do nothing.  If the information, choices and consequences support “doing nothing”, then that would be the best call.  However, a non-decision based upon fear of consequences or failure to fully engage the process is an abdication of responsibility and will likely have consequences as well.

Each decision brings with it a unique set of challenges.  Employing a systematic approach to decision making can help ensure that no matter what type of decision you need to make, you can make it unemotionally and with confidence that you have maximized your opportunity to make a good decision.

If your organization is having difficulty with making good decisions, we can help.  Get in touch with us by using the Contact Us tab on the left side of the page or by using the information found on the Contact Info tab.

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A Little Planning Is Better Than None

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One of my pet peeves about business planning is the mystique and marvel we’ve created around the process. As consultants we’ve elevated the task to such an intellectual level that many small businesses are either scared away by the process or can’t see the benefit of their effort. Many small companies drift rudderless from year-to-year, sometimes into friendly water and sometimes into turbulent seas, often the result of not having a simple plan. Planning isn’t hard, doesn’t have to take a great deal of time and certainly doesn’t have to be complicated.

Planning is one of the most important processes a business can engage in and yet many operate without one. The same leaders who manage every day without a plan or goals for their business wouldn’t leave home for a vacation without a destination and a map. Perhaps it’s because they can’t see the simplicity of mapping a route to their business future. Many owners have thought about what they want and even a little about how to get it. Unfortunately for most, it’s just in their head and unknown to others who could help complete it.

There’s no question that business plans can be complex for larger organizations. But for the small company it doesn’t have to be intimidating and shouldn’t be avoided. Any planning is better than none at all.

In Lewis Carol’s Alice In Wonderland, a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat illustrates the point.

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where . . . ,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Unfortunately, this is the way many small businesses run. Here are three simple tips to get your planning started.

1. Start with something you want to accomplish or change.

Maybe it’s boosting sales, improving operating efficiency or fending off a potential threat to the business. A plan has to start with the question – “What do you want to change or accomplish?” Write your big ideas down and with the help of others prioritize them. Before a business can build a set of strategies or the “how”, they must first establish some measurable goals or objectives which will be the target, or the “what”. Later, these goals will provide the basis from which to evaluate your performance. Without them, leaders won’t know where the business is going or how well it’s performing.

2. Develop simple ideas to accomplish the goal.

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. Ask your employees for help. They also want to see the business flourish and often have great ideas. They’re frequently closer to the process or the customer and have great insight that you might not otherwise have considered.

Focus is the key to successful planning and execution. With a little thought you’ll be able to generate a list of ideas for your organization. Pick the top two and focus on them. Ask yourself – “What would it look like if we were accomplishing the goal or didn’t have the problem”?

In order for a plan to be successful it’s important that the people who are going to carry it out understand where the business is going and what it wants to accomplish. Commitment to the process is significantly improved if those working on the action plans are involved in the planning process. Help your employees see the benefit to achieving the goals.

3. Take Action

The plan won’t produce results until it’s put into action. The business manager must translate the big ideas into tasks with a budget so they can be performed. Break down the plan into pieces that can be assigned and completed. Review progress periodically and provide regular feedback on how you’re doing relative to the goal. No battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy and neither will your business plan. It’s important that as you work the plan you remain flexible and adjust it as needed based on new information and feedback. A business plan sitting on a shelf collecting dust makes the planning process an unfortunate waste of time.

Planning for a better future is generally more successful than hoping for it. Wishful thinking is not a strategy. With a little planning you may be able to create your own luck. Planning is not just an annual effort. It can be performed at any time. It’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming. Like so many other tasks a small amount of effort can achieve a great deal of benefit.

It’s up to you what you want to accomplish. Take the opportunity to put some control for success back in your corner with a simple plan designed to fit your specific needs.

If you’d like to talk more about how to make planning simple and useful, respond to my post or use the “contact us” tab on this page to reach me.

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Motivating Beyond Money

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I’ve often had the opportunity to meet with individuals who are out of work and networking for their next opportunity. It’s usually not long into our conversation that we’ve covered the basics and they reveal something deeper. They begin to talk with more passion about work and the significance it plays in their life beyond the money. Certainly, everyone needs income to meet their obligations, but it’s clear through my conversations that there’s much more to the job than money. Work has enormous intrinsic value and leaders who recognize that can strategically leverage this to impact the culture of their organization and thereby its performance.

Conventional wisdom makes the assumption that time spent outside of work gives us pleasure and that we work only out of necessity to earn money, which we use in order to achieve the happiness we seek outside of work. To the contrary, studies have shown that the happiest people are not those who don’t have to work, but rather those who enjoy satisfying work. The unhappy among us tend to be those with little sense of contribution to something larger than themselves or those who have nothing to look forward to on Monday morning.

Victor Frankl, an Austrian trained psychiatrist and Nazi concentration-camp survivor, wrote in his 1946 memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning of the role work played in determining who would or wouldn’t survive the concentration camp experience. He maintained that a search for purpose motivates our entire life and has a profound impact on our mental health and even our will to live.

As Frankl illustrated, workers need to labor for something meaningful. Belief in the value of their job is foundational to job satisfaction. Extrinsic rewards must also not crowd out the intrinsic reward of the work itself; that is, pay and benefits must not replace the satisfaction out of a job well done.

Alfie Kohn in his 1993 book, Punished By Rewards, shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Many financial rewards produce short-term boosts of performance and behavioral change which can have unintended conditioning consequences. Motivation strategies that favor pay and benefits, the “extrinsic rewards” for working, can also have a negative effect on job satisfaction by devaluing the “intrinsic rewards” that people care so much about. The reason for this is that people stop seeing a task for its intrinsic value and instead see it as a Pavlovian reward for the task performed.

Companies throughout Wisconsin have had to cut back on their financial compensation and incentive programs in response to tough economic conditions. This has created a great opportunity for leadership to reevaluate their financial and non-financial incentive programs to determine the best combination to lead their company into the future. But not everyone has taken advantage of the opportunity. For some, the old notion that money is what motivates is still a strong influence. For others, developing and implementing systems based on intrinsic job satisfaction requires more time and commitment from senior leaders than they’re willing or able to commit. It’s a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

There are however several simple things companies can do to have a positive impact on intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction. They involve matching the employee to the job, providing leadership attention, and creating opportunities for employees to engage in a way that allows them to have an impact on their environment and the way their work is performed. These simple tasks can help make employees feel that their companies value them and take their well-being seriously.

1. For an employee to feel satisfaction in their work they have to be challenged but the challenge of the work must be matched with her ability. A job with little challenge generates minimal energy or meaningful satisfaction. On the other hand, one that’s seen as beyond their ability to master will result in avoidant behavior and poor results. The consequence to both these situations is low job satisfaction and little intrinsic value in the work itself. The right balance of challenging opportunity and individual efficacy will depend on the individual.

2. One-on-one meetings or other regular conversations focused on the growth and wellbeing of employees can be highly motivational. It says to the employee, “I care about you and am invested in your success.” This makes people feel valued. While large-scale events such as department or company meetings are an important part of a organization’s communication system, they are much less effective and should never be substituted for dedicated one-on-one conversation.

3. A significant contributor to motivation and job satisfaction is a sense of control or influence over the work itself. A chance to lead or be a part of projects is a particularly powerful way of engaging employees in their work. These opportunities also develop leadership skills, which in the long-run, can have positive benefits for the company as well. It makes people feel like they’re part of the solution and part of the company’s future.

Many companies facing high employee turnover have come to accept “leaving for a better opportunity” as a statement reflecting on pay and benefits. Indeed, this can have something to do with it, but people who are not satisfied with their jobs, who lack a sense of purpose, are much more likely to leave even when pay and benefits are satisfactory. Companies who recognize this and intentionality seek ways to build purpose and meaning into their culture will reap the benefit of a more engaged and motivated workforce.

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