Dangers of the Unreachable Goal: 4 Leadership Remedies

By Lee Ellis

Here we go again. Another unrealistic goal handed down from leadership where I didn’t have any input. Accept it and figure out how to make it happen. Now I’m trapped in a corner, so I’ll have to “lie, cheat, and steal” (as the saying goes) or possibly lose my job.

Does this scenario really happen anymore in small or large organizations? And, how effective is this “motivation”?

A New UGA Study

Sadly, we hear a lot about cheating in the workplace these days, and it can come from some very lofty and successful people and organizations. A recent article from the University of Georgia (UGA) Terry College of Business highlighted research that concluded –

“It’s the desire for self-protection that primarily causes employees to cheat.” [Tweet This]

In recent years, we’ve seen the Volkswagen emissions and the Wells Fargo scandals. In Atlanta Public Schools, we continue to hear about the administrators and teachers who cheated on testing to ensure that their students’ scores met the standards to get their pay raises. Even today, there are denials left and right of wrongdoing for lawbreaking and abuses. All too often, though, the push for meeting unrealistic, unethical, or illegal goals come from leaders at the top.

A Personal Example

I can remember back in the late 70’s when some key military units didn’t have the resources to reach fully mission capable status. Yet out of fear, some commanders fudged the numbers rather than admit they could not measure up. The pressure to look good (or to get what they want) can take out dedicated people.

The Pulse of People

At the same time, let’s not ignore the significant value of stretch goals in organizational success and personal human growth, too. Without them, we have no progress. Yet, when taken to the point of unreachable goals, or when the goal is one that is beyond our control, the stage is set for the ethical problems noted above.

“It’s so critical for the honorable leader to have a keen understanding of the human domain. We must face the dangerous reality that people desperately want to succeed at all costs.” [Tweet This]

Unfortunately, when they’re backed into a corner and cannot withstand the light of truth, these qualities become at risk by rationalizing and cutting corners to cover up their actions and performance.

So, what’s the solution?

Honorable leadership must prevail to get the maximum performance out of your team. Your goal is to wisely manage tactical goals and results while avoiding pressure to meet unrealistic expectations. Follow these four steps* to meet your goals and help your team succeed the right way –

  1. Recognize the realities of the human domain.
  • People want to succeed.
  • People want to be valued
  • People want to look good to others.
  • Peer pressure is powerful.
  • Management pressure can be even more powerful.
  1. Clarify and create an atmosphere that feels safe. Build trust.
  • Clarify expectations. Dialogue and gain agreement with the understanding that at any time the project gets off course, they will let you know.
  • Engage in discussions about what is achievable and what is not.
    • Listen to their ideas.
    • Set the example by being authentic and vulnerable. Let them know you know that you’re not perfect and you don’t expect them to be either.
  1. Connect with your people.
  • Connect based on your and their unique talents.
  • Connect with their hearts by letting them know they are valued and appreciated.
  1. Collaborate with the mindset that your goal is to help them be successful.
  • Communicate via an ongoing dialogue of realistic discussions about goals and challenges. Allow them to debate the issues with you and listen to their words and pay attention to their energy/emotions.
  • Solicit status reports and give them feedback.
  • Provide coaching, training, and support as needed to help them succeed.

When you have been diligent with this process, you can almost guarantee success for your people and you have helped them stay honorable as well. And when the goal is met, pause to celebrate together!

The Right Balance

Honorable leaders recognize that they are working with humans who operate in the human domain. Healthy relationships matter. Dictating unrealistic goals puts them in a corner, and that’s dangerous for everyone. Getting results should also be the goal, and this model will you get there.

Accept the challenge of achieving the mission and taking care of your people. There will be tension—but finding that balance pays big dividends and insures that you lead with honor. What has been your experience? Please comment below.


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*These four steps are covered in-depth using the Courageous Accountability Model in Lee’s latest book, Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability. Purchase your copy from the favorite book retailer or

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