Managing Expectations: Should Leaders Aim High or Aim Low

by | May 13, 2015

Setting strategic goals is the job of a leader. And not just any goal will do. We are implored to set stretch goals or a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). But is that really a good idea? Neuroscience shows that falling short of expectations launches a downward spiral of self-doubt that negatively impacts other tasks. If you as a leader set a stretch goal that is difficult and, perhaps, even unlikely to be met, have you set your staff up for disappointed and disillusionment? Or can stretch goals be managed in a way that creates an upward spiral of confidence?

Before we go father, let’s examine the research on expectations. When a compelling expectation (or goal) is set your brain releases dopamine – the feel-good neurotransmitter. That’s why a well-crafted stretch goal creates strong positive feelings and motivation. Similarly, when an expectation is met, dopamine is also released and it makes you feel confident and productive. That confidence rubs off on other activities so that you feel that you can take on new challenges.

Conversely, if an expectation is not met or a goal is not achieved, the dopamine is reduced and you experience stress. Your brain doubts its abilities, performance drops, confidence lags and a downward spiral starts. If a stretch goal is too much of a stretch, are you setting yourself and your staff up for a downward spiral? Is the big goal worth the risk?
Thankfully, neuroscience also holds the key to creating an environment where a stretch goal can be managed to ensure positive impact and avoid the downward spiral. Here are three ways to convert that stretch goal into an upward spiral.

  1. Establish clear interim goals. A stretch goal, while exciting, can feel over-whelming and create stress. But break the stretch goal into manageable, achievable chunks and stress is reduced. Plus, each interim goal creates its own release of dopamine. You need a periodic influx of the feel-good neurotransmitter to sustain you along the way.
  2. Reward each small step. Rewards for interim goals also helps the brain feel good. Accomplishing each interim step and reaping its reward, creates confidence and momentum. Each rewarded step makes the next step more likely to be achieved.
  3. Reward extra effort. A stretch goal inherently takes extra effort. Even if the stretch goal isn’t met, trying hard is a good practice worth cultivating in staff. Reward the extra effort and that, too, creates a positive experience for your brain.

A stretch goal that is not carefully planned and managed can lead to detrimental impacts for you and staff. However, a well-managed stretch goal is motivating and galvanizing. Break the goal in to small steps and reward each step. Even if the goal isn’t reached recognize the extra effort. These steps will create positive momentum for the next time. And, your brain will be happy.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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