Are SMART Goals Dumb?

Leadership IQ studied more than 16,000 people and discovered that SMART goal setting is actually leading to lower performance, less inspiration and may even impede career success...

Nearly everyone has set SMART goals (SMART criteria is most commonly defined as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). But the data shows that people who set SMART Goals are less likely to love their jobs. And people who focus on setting a SMART objective are less likely to achieve great things or maximize their full potential. Building on the research published in our founder's bestselling book HARD Goals, we've made more discoveries about SMART goal setting (and goal setting in general) in 2021. Here are some of the key findings...

  • Only 14% people say that their goals for this year will help them achieve great things
  • Only 43% of people set difficult or audacious goals
  • People who set difficult goals are 34% more likely to love their jobs.
  • Top executives are 64% more likely to set difficult or audacious goals
  • Top executives are 91% more likely to enjoy leaving their comfort zone in pursuit of their goals
  • Setting a goal that requires learning new skills is nearly 10 times more powerful at inspiring employees
  • 70% of people indicate varying forms of procrastination (or a general lack of urgency for their goals)
  • People who use visuals to describe their goals are 52% more likely to love their job
  • People who set SMART Goals are far less likely to love their jobs

STUDY METHODOLOGY
This report was developed using two different studies from 2020. In STUDY #1, 12,801 people took an online test called "Do You Set SMART Goals Or HARD Goals?" from January-September of 2020. In STUDY #2, Leadership IQ surveyed 3,995 employees throughout 2020 to assess what kind of goal setting process helps employees achieve great things. STUDY #1 respondents represented the following demographics. GENDER: Female (54%), Male (46%)-- COMPANY SIZE [EMPLOYEES]: 1-9 (5%), 10-50 (9%), 51-100 (13%), 101-500 (21%), 501-2,000 (17%), 2,001-5,000 (9%), 5,001-10,000 (7%), 10,000+ (19%). STUDY #2 respondents represented the following demographics. GENDER: Female (51%), Male (49%)-- COMPANY SIZE [EMPLOYEES]: 1-9 (3%), 10-50 (10%), 51-100 (12%), 101-500 (21%), 501-2,000 (15%), 2,001-5,000 (12%), 5,001-10,000 (10%), 10,000+ (17%)

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND ON SMART GOALS

SMART goals were originally designed for the slow-moving command-and-control era of the 1950's. While parts of the SMART Goals model remain useful (i.e., setting a specific goal, a measurable goal, and a long term goal that's time-limited), the achievable goal and realistic goal aspects are problematic (as the data below makes clear). In fact, the demand to only set a "realistic goal" and "achievable goal" is counterproductive in today's fast-moving world of constant innovation, a pandemic, constant stress, and more.

FINDING #1: MOST PEOPLE DON’T FEEL LIKE THEIR GOALS WILL HELP THEM ACHIEVE GREAT THINGS

A good goal is supposed to help us achieve extraordinary results. For example, great leaders and entrepreneurs don't talk about setting an achievable goal that yields incremental improvement. Rather, when they set a performance goal or financial goals they describe them like the late Steve Jobs, who famously said that the people at Apple are there to "make a little dent in the universe." However, when we surveyed 3,995 goal setter employees, we discovered that only 14% Strongly Agree that their goals for this year will help them achieve great things. If only 14% of people believe their overall goal will help them be great, what's the point of the goal?

Given how much time and energy companies spend on goal setting, especially as part of their performance management process, it's deeply troubling that most employees don't feel that they've got effective goals that will lead to great achievements. And not only will this directly lead to small and less significant progress, but as we'll see further on in the study, people are happier when they're pursuing effective goals that will lead to big and significant achievements (this is very related to the concept of a stretch goal). It's fair to wonder if employees' goals are weaker simply because we've been operating amidst a pandemic and management's goals are becoming less intense. But that's not the case.

We conducted the first version of this study in 2010 (reported in our book HARD Goals) and you can see below that employees' responses are nearly identical to those in 2020. The typical strategic plan for companies has not gotten less aggressive in terms of financial goals, marketing, KPI, or customer satisfaction; in fact, if anything, a company's big goal is even more intense than it was in years past.

FINDING #2: ONLY 43% OF PEOPLE SET DIFFICULT GOALS

The 12,801 people who took the goal-setting test were asked to choose between the statements, "I set goals that are achievable and realistic," OR, "I pursue goals that others describe as difficult or audacious." As can be seen in the chart below, only 43% indicated that they set difficult or audacious goals.

This question is especially important because SMART Goal Setting emphasizes the achievable and realistic component of goal-setting. And yet, as we'll see further in the report, top executives are far less likely to set achievable and realistic goals. And one of the key reasons is that deep personal growth only comes from difficult goals that require a step outside of our personal comfort zones.

FINDING #3: PEOPLE WHO SET DIFFICULT AND AUDACIOUS GOALS ARE 34% MORE LIKELY TO LOVE THEIR JOBS

When we analyzed the previous finding according to how people felt about their jobs, we discovered that only 32% of people who pursue achievable and realistic goals love their job. But a far greater 43% of difficult and audacious goal setters love their job. In other words, people who set difficult goals are 34% more likely to love their jobs.

Can we say with certainty that setting achievable and realistic goals (e.g., SMART Goals) directly causes unhappiness? Of course not. It's probable that someone like Jeff Bezos or the late Steve Jobs could pursue an achievable goal and it wouldn't destroy their passion for driving success at Amazon and Apple. But are those the types of people who make a habit of setting achievable goals and realistic goals?

Of course not, and that's part of the reason why they're in the pantheon of great business leaders. You generally won't find a legendary executive who sets an achievable or easy business goal (even when they set a personal goal it still tends to be difficult or a stretch goal). The kind of person who is likely to set difficult or audacious goals is also the kind of person who is more likely to love their job. This may be partly due to the workplace reality that people who go after big goals are more likely to be successful. And your level of success is typically a big factor in determining how much you'll love your job.

FINDING #4: TOP EXECUTIVES ARE 64% MORE LIKELY TO SET DIFFICULT GOALS

What differentiates top executives from all the people who never make it to the c-suite? Is it brains? Ambition? Luck? The answer will vary from company to company, but one characteristic becomes clear from this study, and it's the extent to which they set difficult goals vs. SMART Goals.

As you can see in the chart below, when we dissevered the results by a person's level in the organization, we unearthed that 54% of top executives set goal that is difficult or audacious, while that was true for only 33% of frontline employees. In other words, top executives are about 64% more likely to set difficult or audacious goals.

We might surmise from this data that perhaps one way to increase your odds of becoming a top executive is to undertake more difficult and audacious change. It's no guarantee of career success, of course. And obviously, if 54% of top executives pursue difficult goals, that means 46% either embrace a more achievable goal (e.g. with the SMART acronym) or avoid goals altogether. But the linear relationship between one's rung on the career ladder and difficult goals is striking. And for anyone interested in discovering the secrets to becoming a top executive, this is important data to absorb.

FINDING #5: TOP EXECUTIVES ARE 91% MORE LIKELY TO ENJOY LEAVING THEIR COMFORT ZONE

For people to achieve great things, their goals and objectives must require them to learn new skills and leave their comfort zone. This is quite the opposite of what SMART Goals tell us (i.e., goals should be achievable and realistic, etc.). And this is exactly what forty years of goal-setting theory would recommend that we do. [Note the research from the pioneers of goal-setting theory, psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, whose scientific studies involving more than 40,000 subjects provided conclusive validation that people who set or are given difficult specific goals achieve much great performance levels].

The 12,801 people who took the goal-setting test were asked to choose between the statements, "I don't like to leave my comfort zone," OR, "I will leave my comfort zone on occasion," OR, "I like to leave my comfort zone." And as you can see in the chart below, top executives are 91% more likely to enjoy leaving their comfort zone in pursuit of their goals.

You can see from the chart that there is a very strong linear relationship between how high a person ranks in the company and how much they are willing to leave their comfort zone in pursuit of their goals. Frontline employees and junior managers are more likely to enjoy the traditional status quo. By contrast, top executives are far more likely to enjoy leaving their comfort zone. While we, again, cannot definitively say that this is the entire reason why someone moves from a frontline employee to becoming a top executive, there is an undeniably strong linear relationship between the two variables. And, in fact, we might surmise from this data that perhaps one way to increase your odds of becoming a top executive is to undertake more difficult and audacious goals.

FINDING #6: HAVING TO LEARN NEW SKILLS TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS IS A KEY STATISTICAL DRIVER OF WHETHER YOUR GOAL WILL HELP YOU ACHIEVE GREAT THINGS

Not only are most people not setting difficult goals, they're also not setting goals that require learning new skills (ala a stretch goal). Only 35% of employees say that they're Always learning something new at work. Meanwhile, 52% of employees are Never, Occasionally or Rarely learning new things.

And as bad as it is that most employees aren't actually learning new skills at work each year, the situation is even worse: Employees whose goals require them to learn new skills are far more likely to be inspired than those who are not.

As you can see in the regression analyses below, when someone sets a goal that is achievable with their current skills and/or knowledge, that accounts for only 2% of their inspiration at work. But when someone sets a goal that requires them to learn new skills, that accounts for 19% of their inspiration at work. In other words, setting goals that require learning new skills is nearly 10 times more powerful at inspiring employees.

FINDING #7: 70% OF PEOPLE DON’T FEEL ENOUGH URGENCY TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS

Even though SMART Goals emphasize setting goals that are time-limited, out of 12,801 people, only 30% indicate that they feel a strong sense of urgency to achieve their goals. Meanwhile around 70% of people indicate varying forms of procrastination (or a general lack of urgency for their goals).

Putting off until tomorrow what you should be doing today keeps a lot of people from achieving their goals. In other studies, three-quarters of college students consider themselves procrastinators, and some estimates figure that 20% of the adult population could be classified as "chronic procrastinators." But as bad as these figures are, they understate the problem.

For instance, in a Leadership IQ study, 77% of people admitted to having put off starting a diet. And, compared to non-procrastinators (the people who actually started their diets), the people who postponed their diets were eight times more likely to be unhappy with their current weight. Piers Steel at the University of Calgary, one of the leading procrastination researchers, in reviewing hundreds of studies, overwhelmingly found that putting things off doesn't create happiness. In fact, a whopping 94% of people said procrastination hurt their happiness.

Without urgency for your goals, even setting a smart goal with its specific deadlines and action plan won't motivate employees if they don't have a deep feeling of urgency for this objective.

FINDING #8: PEOPLE WHO USE VISUALS TO DESCRIBE THEIR GOALS ARE 52% MORE LIKELY TO LOVE THEIR JOB

We humans are visual creatures and we respond to imagery. In fact, we're so visually-oriented that even our language is filled with visual words (e.g. seeing, picture, etc.). It doesn't matter if those images are on paper in front of us or just in our mind. If we can imagine it, see it, picture it, etc. we're a lot more likely to process, understand and embrace it. The technical term is "pictorial superiority effect." It expresses the idea that concepts are much more likely to be remembered if presented as pictures rather than as words. To what extent do we remember more? Well, when we hear only information, our total recall is about 10% when tested 72 hours later. But, add a picture, and that number shoots up to 65%. It's a substantial difference.

And as we learned from testing 12,801 people, those who use visuals to describe their goals are approximately 52% more likely to love their job than people who describe their goal with one word or number.

Visualizing your goal is an effective way to avoid setting a vague goal. For example, let's say you've set a general goal to "grow your skills." Even if you used the SMART framework for your goal setting process and you have deadlines, a specific action plan of trainings to attend, etc., what does the key result actually look like for this goal? Can you paint a picture of how your life or career will be better because you achieved this goal? How will your daily life be different? How will your tasks and projects change? Until you can answer those questions, your goal setting process isn't fully accessing your brain. And what you thought were clear goals may turn out to be less captivating and well-considered than you thought.

It's an oversimplification to offer a cliché like "if you can picture it, you can do it." Instead, let's say that the more you can visualize a goal, the more intensely it will be encoded in your brain and the more it will insinuate itself into your life and consciousness, thus making the achievement of that personal goal (or career goals) a virtual necessity.

FINDING #9: PEOPLE WHO DON’T SET SMART GOALS ARE 53% MORE LIKELY TO LOVE THEIR JOBS

The 12,801 people who took the goal setting test were given a final score: either they set SMART Goals or they set HARD Goals. [Note: HARD Goals are defined as Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult. In other words, these are goals for which there is an emotional connection, strong visualization, great urgency and difficulty].

As you can see in the chart below, the people who set SMART Goals were far less likely to love their jobs than those who set goals requiring them to leave their comfort zone, employ visuals to describe their goals, felt deep urgency to start the goal, and more.

DO YOU SET SMART GOALS OR HARD GOALS?

A FINAL VERDICT ON SMART GOALS

As we noted at the beginning of this study, there are laudable aspects of SMART Goals; namely the Specific, Measurable and Time-limited aspects. [Remember that SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited]. However, what this study makes clear is that there are serious problems that must be addressed regarding the Achievable and Realistic aspects of SMART Goal setting.

Goal setting methodologies that put more emphasis on creating difficult goals that challenge people to leave their comfort zones are far more likely to have success (and generate higher employee engagement) than SMART Goals. Goals that give people a deep sense of accomplishment and pride must be hard enough that their outcome is uncertain. This doesn't mean you should set goals with zero chance of success or that you should ignore the need to set a relevant goal; that will just be a different kind of demotivating. But setting a goal with a fifty-fifty chance of success, for example, is a difficult and audacious enough objective to give people a great sense of accomplishment when they succeed.

Finally, we would ask every reader to think of your own great past achievements and ask yourself: Was it easy or hard? Was I inside or outside my comfort zone? Did it take a little or a lot of effort? Did I go in with all the skills and knowledge needed or did I have to learn new things? Was I totally relaxed or amped up and on pins and needles? Personal experience proves that more difficult goals work. Yet, when setting goals for ourselves and others, we revert to setting achievable and realistic SMART Goals that discourage greatness.

Much of the time, SMART Goal-setting actually acts as an impediment to, not an enabler of, bold action. "Don't push beyond your resources or bite off more than you can chew," SMART Goals strongly suggest with their achievable and realistic guidelines. SMART goals push us to play it safe and stay within our limitations. And encouraging mediocre and poor performance isn't smart, it's dumb.

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