Why Sandbagging Your Goals Kills Your Productivity

6 Steps to Lead Your Team to Peak Performance

I’m a fairly conservative person but not when it comes to setting new goals for myself or for my business. We may think setting conservative goals is wise, but it actually makes us and our teams less productive.

Too many leaders believe they’ll accomplish more if they lower the bar and set goals they can easily hit. We call that sandbagging. It might seem smart, but it’s a recipe for underperformance.

Here’s what sandbagging sounds like:

  • “We’re shooting for 4 percent growth. We can blow that out of the water.”
  • “Let’s only acquire three new clients this quarter. We’re already close to closing two.”
  • “I’m just committing us to two new initiatives this year. We can definitely make that happen with what we’ve already got in place.”

These are goals in what I call the Comfort Zone. They don’t demand much in the way of performance because we already know exactly how we’re going to accomplish them.

Why Sandbagging Is Tempting

There might be good reasons to slow walk your businesses growth—but ease probably shouldn’t be one. Still, setting goals inside your Comfort Zone is a real temptation for us.

Why? First, we all want to crush our goals, and it’s exciting to surpass expectations, even our own. Second, none of us wants to fail, even if it’s a game we set up. Finally, we don’t want to demoralize our teams with impossible demands.

So we’re hesitant to set risky goals. The best bet seems like a comfortable goal we’re sure we can reach. But that strategy has risks of its own.

Why Sandbagging Lets Us Down

When we sandbag our goals, we tell ourselves it will lead to greater productivity. After all, big crazy goals can sometimes provoke discouragement and disengagement. But that’s not the full picture.

According to Steve Kerr and Douglas LePelley of Chancellor University when goals are fixed “too low, people often achieve them, but subsequent motivation and energy levels typically flag, and the goals are usually not exceeded by very much.”

Sandbagged goals actually do what they’re formulated to avoid: They undercut productivity because we ultimately find them boring and demotivating. They require little and inspire even less.

6 Steps to a Better Strategy

If we want our organizations to succeed, we have to set goals outside the Comfort Zone. But we also have to avoid what I call the Delusional Zone. Those are truly unreachable targets where nobody wins.

Instead, we have to set goals in the Discomfort Zone. These are challenging enough to inspire breakthrough thinking, but not so challenging they break our morale.

Leaders can use daring goals to inspire peak productivity without demoralizing their teams using these six steps:

  1. Solicit input. Let’s say you have a goal in mind. The best way to stay outside the Delusional Zone is to get more than one perspective on it. Who better than your team?

    Take the temperature of your key leaders or primary stakeholders. But don’t go first. You don’t want your statement to skew the results. At the most, offer a suggested range or a few options to start a conversation going.

  2. Set the goal. Now, factoring what you learned from the team, finalize the goal. You can do this together with the key leaders or by yourself. Either way, it should feel risky enough to spark your thinking as you imagine ways to make it a reality. You won’t be entirely certain how you’re going to pull it off.

  3. Cast the vision. Once you’ve set the goal, it’s your job as the leader to go back and sell it—first to the key stakeholders, then to the wider organization.

    The key is to connect the accomplishment to the interests of the team. What will it mean for them to reach the goal? What’s at stake for the business, for them personally?

  4. Ask for alignment. You can’t coerce alignment, especially around a challenging goal. Instead, you must ask for it and enroll people.

    For example, I cast the vision and then ask the stakeholders, “Can you align with this decision?” It is important that the stakeholders feel they have a choice and voluntarily align. Buy-in is critical.

  5. Resource the team. If the goal is outside your Comfort Zone, you probably won’t have all the resources you need at the moment you set the goal. Those will show up as you work toward the target.

    But you’ll want to equip your team with the resources you do have: dollars, time, technology, training, and whatever else you can leverage. The more momentum you build, the more resources will come into view.

  6. Measure the gains. I learned this from Dan Sullivan, and it’s a core discipline of high-achievers. When we set goals in the Discomfort Zone, it’s easy to measure the gap—how far off the target still is. But if that’s too daunting, it can take the wind out of our sails.

    It’s important to also measure the gains. Jack Welch created a high achievement culture at GE. Here’s how he described measuring the gain: “[E]ven when we don't quite make it, we inevitably wind up doing much better than we would have done [without a challenging goal].”

Sandbagging our goals seems sensible, but it actually cheats ourselves and our teams of our best performance. But when we set goals in our Discomfort Zone, we can reach new levels of productivity, both as individuals and as organizations.

What’s the most inspiring organizational goal you’ve ever pursued?

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