Are SMART Goals Dumb?

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.

SMART goals were originally designed for the slow-moving command-and-control era of the 1950’s. So their demand that goals remain “realistic” and “achievable” is counterproductive in today’s fast-moving world of constant innovation. And that’s why you need to actually test your goals.

SMART Goals: Research Shows They Might Actually Be Dumb

A Leadership IQ study (reported in the book HARD Goals) found that only 15% of people strongly agreed that their goals for this year will help them achieve great things while only 13% said that their current goals will help them maximize their full potential. Setting SMART goals is not the same as smart goal setting. Obviously, a better goal-setting methodology is needed.

Before you keep reading, we’d suggest you take this quiz to assess whether your current goal setting method is getting you the best results.

Whether setting long-term goals or short-term goals, achieving your goals requires seeking HARD goals—targets that are Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult. People who set HARD Goals feel up to 75% more fulfilled then people with weaker goals. With HARD Goals, you visualize your goal, build a strong emotional connection to your goal, create a goal that’s difficult enough to awaken peak performance, and imbue your goal with such a sense of urgency that you have no other choice but to start acting on it right away.

Next Steps

It's time to really understand HARD Goals and how to adapt your goals to meet the HARD Goal criteria. We’re going to dig deep into what it takes to create goals that are Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult, but feel free to jump to any section that interests you:

 

SMART Goals Video: The Biggest Flaws In This Goal-Setting Process

 

Are SMART Goals Dumb? The Research Says 'Yes'

Research suggests that the answer is “Yes.” Most commonly defined as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound, it turns out that SMART goals actually act as impediments to, not enablers 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.

Leadership IQ conducted a study to learn what goal setting processes actually help employees achieve great things. Study participants completed a 35-question assessment about many aspects of their organization’s processes for setting goals.

Here’s what we found…

First, we discovered that people’s goals are not particularly helpful. In fact, our survey found that only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things. And only 13% of employees strongly agree that their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential.

smart goals

Second, we wanted to know what aspects of goal setting really predict whether an employee will achieve great things. After all, the purpose of goals isn’t to help us achieve mediocre results.

Goals are supposed to help us achieve extraordinary results. We wanted to know, for example, does setting goals that are achievable and realistic drive people to great achievements, or does greatness come from setting goals that are really difficult and that push us out of our comfort zone?

To answer these questions, we conducted a stepwise multiple regression analysis to discover what kinds of goals were most likely to drive people to achieve great things.

Stepwise Multiple Regression is a statistical technique that predicts values of one variable (e.g. achieving greatness) on the basis of two or more other variables (e.g. whether goals are achievable, or difficult, etc.). 

This analysis revealed the Top 8 predictors of whether somebody’s goals (e.g. career goals, business goals, etc.) were going to help them.

Here are the Top 8 factors, in order of statistical importance:

  1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers, the community, etc.).
  8. My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year.

    smart goals data

    A few things should jump out at you about what this analysis tells us. First, issues related to SMART objectives do not appear on this list. Whether goals were achievable, measurable, realistic, etc. had no unique predictive power in this analysis. In fact, when we conducted a separate correlation analysis, we found that the question about SMART objectives (i.e. “We use SMART Goals as our goal setting process.”) had no meaningful correlation with employees achieving great things.

    The second thing is that 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 goal-setting theory would recommend that we do.

    And once again, using a correlation analysis, we found that the question about achievable goals (i.e. “My goals are achievable with my current skills and/or knowledge.”) had no meaningful correlation with achieving great things.

    If we pause here for a minute, we’ve just learned that the typical processes for setting goals that companies have been using for decades are NOT helping employees achieve great things. And, in fact, the type of goal setting we SHOULD be doing (assuming we actually want our employees to achieve great things) is pretty much the OPPOSITE of what organizations have been doing for the past few decades.

    Another insight from the regression analysis is that goals need to be much more than just words written down on a piece of paper. A goal that will really push us to achieve great things has to leap off the page. It has to be so vividly described that people can feel how great it will be to achieve it. It has to sing to them, to touch the deepest recesses of their brain. When’s the last time your goals did that?

    And statistically, to achieve greatness, a goal also has to be bigger than ourselves. We have to identify whose lives will be enriched by our goals. And those goals had better be absolutely necessary (and also aligned with our organization’s top priorities) or they just aren’t going to help employees achieve great things.

    This study identifies a need for an entirely new process (something beyond SMART objectives). That process is HARD Goals.

    HARD Goals are:

    • Heartfelt — My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me— customers, the community, etc.
    • Animated — I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
    • Required — My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
    • Difficult — I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

    Another surprising finding that emerged from this study is that people who have HARD Goals (i.e. goals using those Top 8 factors identified in the regression analysis) are significantly more engaged than those who don’t. We asked respondents to answer the question “I recommend this organization to others as a great place for people to work” (our research indicates that this question is a very good proxy for an overall measure of employee engagement).

    We discovered that people who Strongly Agreed with the goals questions from the regression analysis had significantly higher scores on the “great place for people to work” question than those who Strongly Disagreed.

    For example, we found that 

    • People who answered Strongly Agree to the question “I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals” had 49% higher employee engagement than people who answered Strongly Disagree.
    • People who answered Strongly Agree to the question “I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals” had 57% higher employee engagement than people who answered Strongly Disagree. 
    • People who answered Strongly Agree to the question “My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone” had 29% higher employee engagement than people who answered Strongly Disagree.
    • People who answered Strongly Agree to the question “My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year” had 75% higher employee engagement than people who answered Strongly Disagree.

    Virtually every company sets goals for their employees but given that only 13% of employees believe that their current goals will help them maximize their full potential and that only 15% think that their goals will help them achieve great things, we’ve got a big problem. The goal setting methodologies that we’ve used for decades (like SMART Goals, and others) just don’t lead to achieving great things.

    If you want to set a goal that will inspire yourself or others to achieve great things, that goal has to create an emotional connection, be so vividly described that it’s easy to picture how great it will feel to achieve it, force the doer to learn new skills to achieve the goal, and the goal will push the doer out of their comfort zone, among other factors. If a goal doesn’t do these four things, it’s not a HARD Goal.

    If you’re still not convinced that HARD Goals work, just 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 HARD Goals work. Yet, when setting goals for ourselves and others, we set too-easy goals (achievable and realistic) that discourage greatness.

    People fail to achieve their goals because they don’t care enough about their goals. Whether you use HARD Goals directly or incorporate the elements of HARD Goals into your current goal-setting methodology, make sure that you care about your goals by making them Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult.

    Research Shows Key Differences in How Men and Women Tackle Goals

    When it comes to the differences in how men and women tackle goals, it’s not a question of equality between men and women (our goals can be the same), but rather differences in how the genders approach and carry out their goals.

    A Leadership IQ study of The Gender Gap and Goal Setting looked at factors including emotional connection, visualization, urgency and levels of challenge and found some specific differences in how men and women approach and achieve their goals. The study objective was not to create gender stereotypes, but rather to find the small, but consistent gender differences that may be just the boost both genders need when faced with challenging goals. 

    The study identified the 4 critical differences in how men and women set goals. The following explores the study’s key findings and presents techniques that both genders can apply to increase their goal-setting strengths.

    Gender Study Finding #1: Women care about their goals more than men

    When study participants were asked to rate the question “When I think about this goal, I feel really strong emotions,” women’s scores were significantly higher than men’s. A strong heartfelt connection to our goals helps us to stick to our goals when the going gets tough.

    smart goals gender study

    Having a Heartfelt connection to your goals (feeling strong emotions, taking mental ownership of the goal, etc.) is strongly associated with goal success. It can take you from “I probably should pursue this goal” to “I want to achieve this goal more than anything, and nothing will stop me.” In fact, people with strong Heartfelt connections are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.8 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people with weak connections.

    Fortunately, both men and women can increase their heartfelt connection to their goals.

    What men can do: You must be able to answer the question: “Why do I really care about achieving this goal?” Develop more emotional attachment to your goals by generating more social accountability for your goals. This doesn’t mean you have to go on social media or Tweet or Facebook post about your goals, but do identify a family member, friend or colleague who will engage and help you stay on track of your goals.

    What women can do: Increasing your awareness of the factors and situations that both add to and detract from the heartfelt connection you feel to your goals will help you better understand your intrinsic goal drivers. (For example, if you’re always looking for that next adrenaline rush, you might not get as emotionally attached to goals that aren’t exciting or unique enough.)

    Gender Study Finding #2: Men visualize their goals better than women

    Much like how elite athletes employ visualization exercises to help achieve their goals, men tend to approach their goals with a more clearly formed picture of what it will be like to achieve that goal than do women. Increased visualization of goal success can help with gaining and maintaining greater direction and goal-achievement focus. 

    smart goals gender study finding 2

    Being able to Animate your goals (vividly describe in written form, vividly picture in your mind, etc.) is strongly associated with goal success. In fact, people who very vividly describe or picture their goals are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people with weak connections.

    By using visualization and imagery techniques, both men and women can create goals that are so vividly alive in your mind that to not reach them would leave you wanting.

    What men can do: Take advantage of your ability to visualize your goals and thus sear your goals even deeper into your brain. Grow your visualization by considering factors such as perspective, size, color, shape, distinct parts, setting, background, lighting, emotions and movement.

    What women can do: Our study showed that men were as much as 5 percent more likely than women to say they visualize their goals “so clearly they could literally draw a picture of it for someone else.” Try getting out the art supplies and draw pictures, create collages or vision boards that animate your goals and what it will look like when you achieve those goals.

    Gender Study Finding #3: Women are more likely to procrastinate than men

    Women feel less urgency to achieve their goals than men. This lack of urgency can result in procrastination and even goal failure.

    smart goals vs hard goals

    Feeling that your goals are Required (feeling an intense sense of urgency, getting benefits right now even while pursuit of the goal is still ‘in process,’ etc.) is strongly associated with goal success. In fact, people who feel a strong sense of urgency to achieve their goals are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people who don’t feel that urgency.

    Procrastination is the number one killer of truly significant goals. But that doesn’t mean your goals have to be its next victim. The most efficient way to rally the inner strength needed to start and stick to a goal is to infuse the goal with a feeling of urgency; so required and so urgent that you have to start right here, right now. 

    Both men and women can alter how they view and value their future payoffs to become more attractive than what the status quo is offering today.

    What men can do: Making your goals feel so required that you have no choice but to get started on them right this very second will help you plow through any sense of panic, doubt, or whatever internal or external triggers threaten to hold you back. Try adjusting the way you value your time both present and future. If you heavily discount the future (you value the present a lot more than the future), which is what most people do, you’re a lot less likely to be moved by the prospect of achieving great results in the future. 

    What women can do: Attach a greater sense of urgency to your goals by setting more urgent deadlines, establishing immediate rewards, and limiting choices to override any tendencies towards procrastination. Ask yourself “What must I have accomplished today in order to keep on track to achieve my goals,” to reach higher levels of focus and urgency. Accomplish at least one thing each day that pushes you closer to your goals and try setting deadlines at the same time you set your goals to help fight the temptation to put off taking action.

    Gender Study Finding #4: Women set tougher goals than men

    Women are more likely than men to leave their comfort zones and set challenging (and even scary) goals. Tough goals generally lead to both greater goal achievement and increased sense of fulfillment. 

    smarts goals goal setting

    Difficult goals (that push you outside of your comfort zone, require learning new skills, etc.) are strongly associated with goal success. In fact, people who feel a strong sense of urgency to achieve their goals are anywhere from 1.1 to 1.2 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people who don’t feel that urgency.

    Both men and women can achieve remarkably difficult goals.

    What Men Can Do: Intensify the difficulty levels of your goals by asking yourself questions like these: 

    • “What will I have to learn to achieve this goal?”
    • “How will I grow as a person as a result of this goal?”
    • “What new skills will I have acquired by virtue of pursuing this goal?”

     If your goal isn’t stretching your mind, forcing you to learn new things and pushing you outside your comfort zone, try increasing the goal difficulty by 20%.

    What Women Can Do: Keep tackling those big challenges with even bigger thinking, courage, ambition and resolve. It’s important to learn to assess your individual sweet spot of goal difficulty. You don’t want to risk making your goals so difficult that you give up any more than you want to feel so unchallenged that you stop trying.

    People Who Set SMART Goals Are Less Likely To Love Their Job

    If you’ve had a job for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly set a SMART Goal (most commonly defined as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). But while everyone knows how to set a SMART Goal, what most people don’t know is that SMART Goals could really be hurting how they feel about their job

    In the online test “Do you set SMART Goals or HARD Goals?” respondents answer 9 questions about their goal setting processes, rating such factors as their emotional commitment, urgency, anxiety, number of goals and goal difficulty.

    One such question asks respondents to choose between these 2 statements:

    • I pursue goals that are achievable and realistic.
    • I pursue goals that others describe as difficult or audacious.

     When we look at the very definition of SMART Goals (especially the achievable and realistic parts) the first of those choices is a pretty good proxy for whether someone sets SMART Goals.

    Currently, around two-thirds of people say they pursue goals that are achievable and realistic. But while that choice wins the popularity contest, it loses on a much more important issue.

    After test-takers answer questions about their goals, they’re asked to complete a few research questions, including “How do you feel about your current job?” And when we combine those responses with the aforementioned goal question, a disturbing finding emerges.

    smart goals employee engagement

    Only 29% of people who pursue achievable and realistic goals love their job. But a far greater 40% of difficult and audacious goal setters love their job.

    Now, can we say with certainty that setting SMART Goals directly causes unhappiness? No, of course not. I’m pretty sure that someone like Jeff Bezos could transform one of his hard and audacious goals into something easy and achievable and it wouldn’t immediately eradicate his passion for Amazon.

    Similarly, it’s entirely possible that the late Steve Jobs set an achievable goal here or there without instantly suffering ill effects. But are those the types of people who make a habit of setting achievable and realistic goals? Of course not, and that’s part of the reason why they’re in the pantheon of great business leaders.

    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.

    Unfortunately, the reality is that most people are not setting big or audacious goals. Nor are the goals that people set helping them achieve great success in their jobs. 

    My study, Are SMART Goals Dumb? found that only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things. And only 13% of employees strongly agree that their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential. 

    So, what can you do about this? For starters, stop worrying about whether your goals are achievable and realistic and instead set some goals that will force you out of your comfort zone.

    You can do this by asking yourself what skills you’ll need to learn to achieve your goal. If you won’t have to learn something to achieve your goal, that means you’ve already got all the necessary tools, and thus your goal is far too easy. You want a goal to stretch and activate your brain, and the best way to accomplish that is forcing yourself to learn something new. And frankly, people who are constantly learning are generally more successful and happier than those that stagnate.

    Also, ask yourself whether your goal is a fait accompli (or slam dunk or whatever). In other words, is the achievement of your goal guaranteed? Ironically, if your goal is guaranteed to succeed, you won’t feel particularly proud or accomplished when it does.

    Goals that give you 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; that will just be a different kind of demotivating. But setting a goal with a fifty-fifty chance of success is difficult and audacious enough to give you a huge sense of accomplishment when you succeed.

     

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