Steps to try if your boss is expecting the seemingly impossible.
(Originally published in HBR. Image: Bernd Vogel/Getty Images)
Summiting Mount Everest. Landing on the moon. Advancing AI technologies beyond our wildest dreams. All seemingly impossible goals, achieved.
Stretch goals such as these are widely celebrated as powerful catalysts for individual and organizational motivation and success. However, while decades of research on goal setting confirms that harder goals elicit greater effort and performance, it has also revealed lesser-known drawbacks. Stretch goals are frequently misunderstood and misused, often leading to unintended consequences. When goals shift from appropriately challenging to exceedingly difficult, they can decrease motivation, encourage excessive risk taking, and exacerbate unethical behavior.
Despite these pitfalls, stretch goals remain a staple in corporate life and sometimes create a stress-inducing discrepancy between the objectives set and what you can realistically achieve. As an executive coach, I have observed numerous examples of these disconnects, ranging from unrealistic revenue targets to accelerated product launch timeframes to radical culture change expectations.
Aiming high is crucial, but what do you do when your boss expects the seemingly impossible? Here’s how to navigate this situation.
Understand the broader context for the goal
There are varying reasons your boss may hand you an unrealistic goal. They may have heady aspirations and subscribe to the popular notion of “big, hairy, audacious goals.” Alternatively, your boss may be removed from the day-to-day operations and not realize the logistical or process-related difficulties of achieving it. Or they may recognize that the goal is unrealistic but face pressure from higher up the food chain or important clients.
Understanding how your boss derived the goal is essential to determining your best path forward. Asking, “Can you walk me through the thought process behind setting this goal?” will help you to understand the underlying assumptions or data that led to the goal and assess its feasibility. You might also ask, “What organizational or external pressures are driving this goal?” to identify whether the goal is internally motivated or influenced by external stakeholders. Finally, inquire about the timeline and how success will be measured to assess urgency and which aspects of the goal are most important to your boss.
Request a follow-up meeting rather than responding immediately. For instance, you might say, “I’d like to give this goal the thoughtful consideration it deserves and then get back to you,” or “I need to gather some data to better understand the scope and impact of this goal. Can we reconvene once I’ve done that?”
Imagine possible solutions
Seemingly insurmountable goals can trigger feelings of unfairness and anger, overwhelm, and anxiety. After all, you might worry failing to achieve the goal will impact your reputation, career opportunities, or compensation. While these feelings are natural, they can impede your ability to think clearly and creatively.
Shift your thinking from “what” to “how” to engage your problem-solving skills and identify potential solutions. Imagine it’s six months or a year from now and you have achieved the goal. Ask yourself: “What did I do to make that possible?” You might also reverse brainstorm and think about all the ways you could fail to meet the goal. This can help you highlight obstacles and inspire solutions to overcome them. Breaking the goal down into more manageable tasks or milestones may also help you see how the puzzle pieces could come together.
Finally, seek different perspectives. Sometimes, we’re too close to a problem to see all the angles. Consult with your team, colleagues, or mentors; their insights might spark a creative solution you hadn’t considered.
Identify and document the challenges
Now that you understand where the goal came from and have considered possible solutions, it’s time to compile some cold, hard facts. When you meet with your manager, it’s essential to back up your thought process with concrete evidence.
Specify the current obstacles and barriers to success. Identify the gaps between the resources you currently have and what you need to achieve this goal. For example, would you require additional people, budget, or time? Quantify these additional requirements. Also consider other data that might validate the extreme difficulty of the goal, such as relevant company or industry benchmarks. For example, Raj, a chief of staff tasked with transforming his organization’s culture within six months, collected data showing that successful culture change initiatives in similar organizations took at least a year.
Also identify the impacts pursuing this goal would have on you and your team. Consider capacity, impact on other workstreams or quality levels, stress and burnout, and potential staffing implications. For instance, Francesca, an SVP of sales who was given an impossible revenue target, specified the likely attrition and recruiting issues the increased target would cause.
Finally, consider the potential solutions you generated and outline what you’d require to make them possible. Do you need more time or resources? Do you need to reprioritize projects and eliminate something else you’re working on?
Keep a detailed record of all identified challenges, relevant data and evidence, potential solutions, and any assumptions you’ve made. This not only serves as a roadmap for tackling the goal, but also as a communication tool when discussing the challenges with your boss.
Manage expectations with your boss
When you follow up with your manager, be transparent and factual. Explain the obstacles to achieving the goal and share the facts that support your assessment. Also, describe the solutions you’ve considered and propose possible tradeoffs and alternatives, such as different ways to meet the end goal, new resource requirements, or reprioritizing or eliminating existing projects and workstreams.
For example, Emily, a head of product development who was asked to accelerate the launch of a new software product, prepared a detailed presentation for her boss which outlined the risks of rushing the product, including potential bugs and customer dissatisfaction. She also presented an alternative timeline that was more aggressive than usual but allowed for adequate testing, successfully negotiating the extension.
If your boss pushes back, maintain a collaborative stance but respectfully stand your ground. For example, you might say, “Like you, I would love for us to achieve this goal, but my analysis indicates it is unrealistic. Can you help me understand how you arrived at a different assessment?”
If your boss is cascading a goal from above down to you, demonstrate empathy for their position; not meeting this goal will also put them in a bad spot.
It can be hard to push back on your manager. However, they’ll likely appreciate your proactivity if you bring important facts to their attention. After all, the potential alternatives — which might include surprise when their team falls short, or the creation of burnout and a tension-filled workplace — are scenarios no good leader aims for.
Navigate unyielding objectives
With any luck, you will negotiate a modified objective. However, if your boss won’t budge, step up to the challenge. Do your best, documenting your actions and keeping your boss updated. If you couldn’t modify the goal initially, you might be able to adjust it later. And should you later need to explain why you didn’t attain the goal, you’ll have a complete record of all that you did to achieve it.
As you strive to meet the objective, surround yourself with social support, which can be instrumental in achieving goals and buffering the adverse effects of stressful demands, and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t meet unreasonable demands. Also, try to ascertain what will happen if you don’t achieve the target. If there’s no penalty, it might help to ease your worries and stress.
However, if the objectives are consistently unreachable and you will bear the consequences, it may be wise to chart a fresh path. Until then, put forth your best work and adhere to your high standards. When the time comes to transition, you can move forward with the confidence that comes from knowing you did everything you could.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina