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Setting Stretch Goals… and Avoiding SNAP Goals
By James Grinnell

Take a quick gander at some popular leadership books and you’ll come across exhortations to set sky-high goals and then step back and watch your direct reports move heaven and earth to attain them. There has been ample research at both the individual and organizational levels demonstrating the positive correlation between goal difficulty and performance. Having said such, setting stretch goals is more complicated than ratcheting up expectations past the point of plausibility.

The underlying rationale of stretch goals is that people have an innate desire to be challenged and that they will redouble their efforts when they are presented with a seemingly unattainable target. Such goals jolt the status quo mindset and cause people to rethink how they get things done (i.e., they promote creative problem solving). Relatedly, stretch goals can generate passion and enthusiasm to the extent that that give individuals a glimpse into a desired future state. Lastly, stretch goals can galvanize collective efforts as the challenge provides a unifying focal point for folks to rally around.

Motivation expert Steve Kerr says the following of stretch goals: “… if done right, a stretch target… gets your people to perform in ways they never imagined possible. It’s a goal that, by definition, you don’t know how to reach… Stretch targets are an artificial stimulant for finding ways to work more efficiently. They force you to think out of the box.”

But, as with any managerial technique, care must be taken. For one thing, setting the proper degree of stretch is more art than science and getting it wrong can cause immense damage. As Kerr elaborates: “Generally speaking, I think it’s necessary that the stretch target be seen as achievable. But you’re walking a thin line… if you set a goal that’s way out of line, you become an object of ridicule or fear. You can offer people any amount of money to fly around the room, but they still won’t be able to do it.”

When the expectations are set too high, stretch goals can become what I call SNAP (Simply Not Attainable Period!) goals. Consider this balancing act as analogous to stretching a rubber band between your hand and a fixed object (such as a hook). The more you stretch the band, the more the tension pulls your hand back toward the fixed object. But, stretch the rubber band too far and… SNAP! In the workplace, SNAP goals produce the following negative consequences:

  • Employees may throw their hands in the air without even trying
  • Short-cuts and unethical actions may be undertaken to achieve the goal

  • Increased risk-taking could lead to a “bet the company” mindset

  • Attention may become narrowly focussed on the goal, to the detriment of other value-added activities

  • Heightened workplace stress associated with the goal might cause higher absenteeism and turnover

  • Relationships amongst co-workers can turn toxic

Finding the tipping point where stretch goals become SNAP goals is imprecise and elusive. Ultimately, the degree to which goals can be constructively stretched is a function of how the goal attainment process is managed. Following are some suggestions for keeping stretch goals from becoming SNAP goals:

  • Offer ample opportunities for employees to take part in setting stretch goals
  • Articulate a compelling vision of what things will be like when the goal is achieved

  • Carefully frame the goal as a challenge to be attained as opposed to a threat to be avoided

  • Engage in on-going coaching so employees feel supported

  • Remove obstacles/barriers that inhibit goal attainment

  • Convey a sense of confidence in your employee or team’s ability to achieve the goal

  • Provide training and development to ensure that employees have the skills and abilities to perform at a higher level

  • Encourage employees to embrace flexibility and new ways of approaching problem-solving

  • Generate excitement by celebrating interim milestones along the way

  • Provide ample constructive feedback and avoid punishing people for falling short of the stretch goal

In no way, means, shape, or form should the preceding be taken as an argument against setting stretch goals. When utilized correctly, stretch goals present a win-win scenario to the individual as well as the organization. But, setting stretch goals must be done with care and the leader must be invested in supporting their direct reports in the goal attainment process. Kerr offers the following caution: “Most organizations don’t have a clue about how to manage stretch goals. It’s popular today for companies to ask their people to double sales or increase speed to market threefold. But then they don’t provide their people with the knowledge, tools, and means to meet such ambitious goals. We all agree that generally you get more output by committing more input, but now corporate America seems to be trying to get more output just by demanding more output.”

James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management. You can read more from James on his blog.

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