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The Art of Being Unreasonable
Are you pushing or punishing your team?
Building something new requires you to constantly overcome unreasonable problems. You have few resources, little time and an infinite list of tasks to complete. In pursuing your goals, you are asking both yourself and your team to do unreasonable things.
However, there is a fine line between being unreasonable and being unrealistic. If you lose sight of that line, you will fail.
Learned Helplessness vs Self Confidence
One of the most depressing psychological principles that you will ever encounter is called learned helplessness. It is a mental state where the subject is trapped and subjected to adverse stimuli (pain, abuse) from which they cannot escape. Eventually, the subject learns that there is no escape from the adverse stimuli and, even when given the chance to escape, fails to even try. They have learned to be helpless.
While I am sure you will never abuse your team, subjecting them to unrealistic goals which they can never achieve can have a similar effect. Eventually, after being subjected continuously to nothing but unattainable goals, people begin to disassociate from such goals and will fail to treat them seriously. People will give up before they even start.
On the other hand, there is a clear tie between motivation and setting ambitious goals. Self efficacy is a psychological term for the confidence a person has in their ability to achieve a goal. Research has shown that optimal performance is reached when a person’s self efficacy is slightly above their actual ability, meaning that they are a little over their heads.
So, how do you set goals that are just beyond reach (unreasonable) but not so far as to make the goal meaningless (unrealistic)?
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Unreasonable vs. Unrealistic
All teams are different, and what is unrealistic to one team might be impossible for another. As a result, setting goals depends on a deep knowledge of your team, their capabilities and their capacity for stress. However, there are some general rules for deciding whether a goal is unreasonable or unrealistic.
Your goal is probably unrealistic if:
You are asking your team to do something entirely new on a very short deadline with no preparation.
You ask one person to do the work of more than 2 people.
You ask someone to fix problems that go well beyond their area of responsibility.
Your goal requires doing two opposing things at the same time.
Your goal demotivates the team.
Your goal is probably unreasonable if:
You are asking the team to do something they have done before, but much faster.
You ask the team to do something entirely new, but with time to prepare.
Your goal is similar to a prior goal, but higher.
Your goal motivates your team.
For example, if I ask my team to double revenue while cutting costs by 50% in the next 3 months it’s likely unrealistic. But, if I ask them to reduce our sales cycle by 30% in the next 3 months it’s likely unreasonable.
Sometimes, you might not know if a goal is impossible! That’s okay, and being transparent with your team about that is also okay. Difficult goals should be acknowledged as wins when they are achieved, and acknowledging that they are difficult upfront helps the team feel like they are winning when they get there.
Pursuing the Impossible
If you are going to build something great, at some point you will ask the impossible of your team. As a leader, you want to make sure this is the exception and not the rule. If your team is constantly subjected to impossible goals, they will simply learn to ignore them as they are helpless to achieve them.
If you build a culture of aggressive goals that builds confidence, when you bring them a rare impossible goal they will do their best to rise to the occasion.
And if they do, that is where magic happens.