Stretch Goals Are Worthless: Why You Need to Stop Asking for More Flair
There’s a famous scene in Office Space where Jennifer Aniston’s character, who works as a waitress at a campy T.G.I. Friday’s knock-off called Chotchkie’s, gets reprimanded by her boss for not wearing enough funny pins on her uniform (which they affectionately call “flair”). But the mandatory minimum is 15 pieces of flair, she protests, and sure enough she’s wearing 15 pieces. But the manager isn’t satisfied. “So, more flair?” she asks. He sighs, disappointed. “If you feel like the bare minimum is enough, then okay.”
What is a Stretch Goal?
If you’ve ever had a job, you’ve most likely been assigned a “push” or “stretch” goal. For those who don’t know, a “stretch goal” is a goal that exceeds your “actual goal”. So if you make widgets, your manager may have set a goal for you to make 100 widgets a month with a stretch goal to make 120. If this sounds stupid to you, that’s because it is.
Stretch goals are ridiculous because many managers actually expect you to hit stretch goals with consistency. So what’s the point of even setting a normal goal? Why tell Jennifer Aniston she only has to wear 15 pieces of flair when you clearly have set an unspoken stretch goal for her to wear more?
Pointless? Yes. Harmless? No.
Stretch goals aren’t just confusing and unrealistic, they also cause all sorts of problems for employees. When the goal is set too high, and an employee doesn’t deliver, they’re likely to be punished. If they feel they can’t meet the goal, it kills their motivation right from the beginning, and then you run the risk of them failing to even meet the actual goal… because what’s the point?
If the employee does meet the stretch goal, they may be recognized or rewarded, but you can bet that part of that reward is a higher stretch goal the next time around. Eventually, even the most talented, hardest working employees are going to fail in a system like that. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Motivating Factor
Managers often have good intentions when setting stretch goals. They think that setting lofty challenges will help motivate employees to push beyond their normal effort. But Tom Searcy from Inc. Magazine notes that, “More than likely, that stretch goal isn’t really a goal at all. It’s just a number that is bigger than what they have a real plan to achieve.” Stretch goals don’t come bundled with extra coaching or a real strategy. They’re the equivalent of telling someone to simply “do better.”
This isn’t the way to motivate people. Our brains are wired to resist change. So any goal that requires us to change in a substantive way will be tough for our brains to handle. Studies show that setting many smaller goals, consistently tracking progress, and reinforcing positive behavior is much more effective in motivating people than setting one large goal. With multiple smaller goals, managers can reinforce behavior more frequently, which in turn, motivates people to work harder to continue to meet their goals and change their behavior.
Long Term Ramifications
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to attend a seminar at Aubrey Daniels International. In his book Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, Aubrey cites a study showing that when individuals repeatedly fail to reach stretch goals, their performance actually declines over the long term. The fact is, most people do not hit their stretch goals. This means that they are not motivated by past performance and achievements the next time around, and the downward performance cycle continues.
If you want to get the most out of your team or yourself, set frequent small goals and reinforce behavior immediately after achievement. In a broader sense, it’s important to view team members as people, not cogs in an assembly line. You can’t just crank the output up to eleven without a plan. If you want better production, you need to figure out what the obstacles are, come up with a realistic strategy for overcoming them, and coach and motivate people consistently along the way. Setting stretch goals and hoping your employees motivate themselves to find a way to meet them just isn’t going to work and could carry serious consequences for you and your team.