Recent cases highlighted in the media suggest that executives, in a desperate quest to quench the market’s unquenchable thirst for growth, are ignoring reason and dictating growth targets so insurmountable that their employees are turning to unethical and perhaps illegal means to achieve their goals (e.g., Wells Fargo, Enron, VA). Are you worried about something like this happening in your organization? You might believe that you’re an innocent pawn in this game, but as a manager, you have a responsibility to ensure that unreasonable targets don’t unleash harmful behaviors on your team.
Harmful behaviors come in many forms. At the relatively mild end of the spectrum, unrealistically high targets can motivate employees to game the system using short-term tactics that can be destructive in the long run. Common examples of such trade-offs include upselling products or services that are of little value to the customer or selling at unprofitable prices. Less-common but more-dire consequences of unrealistic targets include immoral actions such as charging customers for services they didn’t want or invoicing for work that never happened.
It’s easy to lay the blame for inappropriate targets at the feet of those well above you in the hierarchy. It’s tempting to exonerate yourself and attribute any negative behavior to the mistakes made at the top. But that would be an abdication of your responsibility as a manager. When those above you fail in their leadership obligations, the responsibility falls to you. For the people on your team, you are the leadership. They are counting on you to guide them through the precarious choices they face.
The first thing your team is counting on you to do is to question unreasonable targets before accepting them. Too few managers have the courage or the wherewithal to do anything but roll over when their boss hands them an astronomically high number. If you receive a target for your team that you believe is unattainable, it’s your responsibility to share your concerns. The point is not to reject the goals, which might have negative repercussions on your career. Instead, you must calmly and rationally share the facts and highlight your concerns.
For example, you could say, “I saw the $2 million target for our team. That would represent a 23% increase over last year at a time when our staffing has been cut. To reach these targets, each team member would have to improve their year-over-year performance by 38%, when the best improvement we’ve ever achieved is 11%. I’m concerned that attempting to achieve those targets will encourage short-term thinking that will affect our customer satisfaction and ultimately constrain our growth. Are there opportunities to revisit this target?”
Although it would be nice to think that advocating for a more reasonable target would work, my experience has been that it seldom does. The pressures to perform and to grow are simply too high. In that case, you’re saddled with unachievable goals and your role is to mitigate the negative consequences. There are a variety of techniques you can try.
You do have one other recourse if your boss won’t change your target: You can ask for the resources you’ll need to be successful. In the example above, you might ask for additional staffing to reduce the burden on each employee. Alternatively, you might ask for additional marketing or advertising support, or for tools to reduce the administrative burden.
Once you’re clear on the hand you’ve been dealt, engage your team in some creative thinking about how to be successful. A team member is most likely to turn to counterproductive or unethical behaviors only after exhausting the more appropriate options. Your job is to make sure that there is always a constructive option for what to try next. Continually engage the team in generating ideas. Ask questions such as, “Where do we get the most traction?” and “What approaches are working best this month?” Where possible, provide data and help the team glean insight that inspires new approaches.
As important as it is to provide good options, it’s equally as important to define the off-limits options. Be explicit in asking, “What would we not be willing to do to hit our target?” or “What would give us short-term gain but create long-term pain?” Having an open discussion about the types of behaviors that aren’t acceptable will create strong social pressure to stay within the lines.
Setting up clear boundaries for good and bad behavior will be helpful, but it won’t necessarily be sufficient to curtail counterproductive or unethical behavior. You need to be vigilant about how your team members are working toward their goals. In both group and one-on-one conversations, ask specifically about the techniques people are finding effective. Probe for detail to increase your confidence that they are using appropriate strategies. Make it clear that you’re paying attention to what they achieve and how they achieve it. The right amount of scrutiny will discourage bad behavior.
You also need to reduce the likelihood that employees will resort to unsavory approaches if they feel personally exposed or vulnerable. Be extremely careful not to embarrass or belittle a team member or cause shame for not reaching targets. Be quick to discourage competition within the team that might exacerbate the temptation for rogue behavior. Don’t compare team members to one another; instead of calling out individuals who are having success, focus on strategies that are working.
Finally, in the face of unreasonably high targets, question any extraordinary results. Dig into the numbers and understand what is making the outlier abnormally successful. This will serve two purposes. First, it will allow you to test for any untoward approaches and manage any unethical behavior. Second, in the cases where you find that everything was on the up and up, it will give you an opportunity to share the successful approaches with the whole team. A little skepticism is important when there’s a risk of bad behavior.
It’s a terrible position to find yourself in when you’re forced to manage a team toward unrealistic targets. Unfortunately, many of the management techniques you use to drive performance in normal circumstances can drive unproductive or unethical behavior in this case. Make sure you’re focusing the team on positive and constructive approaches and keep an eye out for bad behavior.
[IMAGE: JUAN DÍAZ-FAES FOR HBR]