When is a stretch goal unrealistic?


During a recent speech on executive communications I demonstrated how messages can have unintended consequences. A positive message can be applied in a negative way. At the time my focus was on Wells Fargo and recent findings that employees had illegally signed up customers for new products (read the story).

It’s easy to envision the CEO holding a kick-off event extolling how great his employees are, unveiling a brand new sales program to further recognize their abilities. I’m confident there was nothing unethical in that launch. And yet, more than 2 million unrequested accounts later, Wells Fargo was slapped with a $185m fine for its actions.

Skipper @ TD
At the TD branch where Jeff worked early in his career.

Today we have mounting reports that Canadian banks are no better. Current and former employees of TD, RBC, CIBC tell of unbearable pressure to sell (read the story).

However, there are some problems with the growing vilification of our largest financial institutions. Management theory has taught us a few things over the last 50 years:

  • Smart organizations set SMART targets which include acheivable goals, not easy goals
  • Leaders need to encourage increased results or they may never get any
  • Increasing pressure leads to higher performance (to a point)
  • Every organization should be using ‘big data’ to determine where to focus on potential sales

When reporters ask employees to tell about their experience anonymously, they open the door to any complaint about goals that are perceived as unjust. Social media gets on board and amplifies the horror.

Counterpoint: If I tell you that your sales performance will be reflected on your performance appraisal, is that a threat or role clarity? If I tell you that you are capable of doing 10% better, is that unreasonable pressure or motivational goal-setting? What if those that report terrible pressure are chronic underperformers? How does that change your perspective?

We can’t forget that it takes two to tango. Managers need to treat employees as individuals and assign goals that they can reach. Employees have a responsibility to call out problems. TD does have a confidential line for whistle blowers. HR has due process for management complaints. My first line of inquiry would be to determine whether these were used, and if so, whether the organization acted on it. That being said, there are managers who take performance goals too far. Some portion of recent complaints have merit.

This is a wake up call for every organization (including yours!). Motivating employees the right way means getting to know them and building supporting relationships as well as co-creating stretch targets. Getting the right tone with the right language and the right mix of pressure and support is where I often focus my coaching efforts. It’s the difference between pushing a group of employees from behind and leading a high performing team from the front!

If a reporter asks your employees to ‘tell all’ about pressure to perform, what will they say?

Thoughtfully yours; Ruthlessly focused,