Goal setting: to stretch or not to stretch

Most of us set goals at work, whether because we’re asked to or because we find it motivating. But one question that always seems to be up for debate is, where do we set the targets? While some managers believe in setting realistic and attainable goals, others favor “stretch” goals that may be difficult or even impossible to achieve. How far is too far to stretch? And are stretch goals going to help or hurt in the long run?

This is an important question and one that has been given a lot of attention in recent years. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of stretch goals and what research says about setting the most optimal goals for your employees, teams, and organization. 

Stretch goals versus SMART goal framework

SMART goal frameworks have been used for decades for project managers, team-leads, and organizational heads to set very targeted goals with clear objectives. S and M refer to specific and measurable, A and R refer to attainable (achievable) and relevant, and the T stands for time-bound. If you use this framework, you purposely set targets that you believe will be achievable by the deadline you’ve selected. 

Alternatively, stretch goals might push in favor of higher expectations and performance. In general, this means that achieving part of the goal (70%) will be considered successful rather than demanding a 100% completion for success. 

Is stretching going to undermine performance?

Moon shots or stretch goals are often viewed as important tools for motivating individuals and organizations. However, if your employees are constantly feeling like their goals are unreachable, they may give up too soon. It could also turn motivation quickly into frustration if no one ever meets goals, achieves success, or is recognized for their work. Research in the INFORMS Journal Organization Science shows that stretch goals can undermine performance. If an employee always fails to meet their goals, they will burn out and begin underperforming, having the exact opposite effect on your teams.  

Benefits of combining stretch goals and attainable goals

Stretch goals are usually distinguished from challenging goals in that they are especially difficult and extremely novel. This means that they will inherently require some risk and innovation. While the use of stretch goals is common among organizations, their success is not as well documented. Research also shows that organizations have experienced significant failures with their stretch goals. However, in some cases stretch goals can inspire positivity and push companies further forward than they might have gone otherwise. 

Whether or not you should consider stretch goals depends on the situation. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, moderately difficult goals have the best chance of success, but there is a way to establish attainable goals, while also coming up with some stretch goals that will inspire motivation. Here are some additional tips when using this combined strategy to set goals with your teams:

  • Consider recent performance. If your company has just had a recent success or a significant loss, that’s a good indicator of whether you are in a position to set stretch goals. If the team generally has a winning attitude, they will be more willing to take risks. Take bold action when your company is in a strong position, or use more attainable goals to lower expectations and restore that sense of success. 
  • You don’t want goals to be too hard or too easy. Everyone should not be meeting their targets every month. No one should be able to consistently hit 100% of their goals. It is important that everyone always feels there is something to strive for. On the other hand, if your team members are consistently failing to meet goals, it might be that your “attainable goals” are actually stretch goals.
  • Goals should always have the potential to be reached. When goals are set so high that they are obviously unattainable, no one is going to bother. Set goals that require a “stretch” but not so far that they cannot be reached. You want your team to be motivated by recent and continued success. 
  • Set goals by organization, team, and individuals. Goals should be set on the macro and micro levels so that your team can feel a sense of group accomplishment as well as individual success. Creating team goals also gives the feeling of camaraderie and inspires collaboration. Be careful of stretch goals for smaller groups that could create too much pressure and undermine results.   
  • Understand resource availability. If your company has slack resources including a surplus of money, experience, knowledge, or time, this is a good time to start setting stretch goals. Your organization will also be in a better position to absorb failure and have the stamina for resilience. 

Creating a culture of “safe failing”

A larger consideration is how your company and teams are addressing failure at the individual and organizational levels. In the best-case scenario, your team will be thriving in a challenging, yet psychologically safe environment, where all employees feel safe to fail. In situations where team members feel inadequate, judged, threatened, or are at risk of losing their jobs, stretch goals can be intimidating and even reduce work quality and performance. 

When in doubt, don’t aim for the moon

Even if your company is in a good position, it is always better to take small, productive steps forward rather than to set goals that end up as failures. Stretch goals, by their definition, require innovative approaches, uncharted territory, and inevitably taking some risks. You want to focus on a roadmap that gives you a clear sense of where you have been and where you are headed. When focused on small goals, you can build momentum, energy, and foster an environment of success.