Are you stressed or overwhelmed because unrealistic goals have been set for you and your team? Do you review your goals and feel a deep sense of dread because it feels like it is impossible to meet them? Are you anxious about going to work because your coworkers are willing to undermine you to achieve their goals?

Whether you are in a mature market or not, your decision makers can provide you with goals that are seemingly impossible to achieve. Your employer does this because they expect you to go beyond your best performance levels and even though you are expected to do more, you have the same, or less resources available to you. This sometimes happens because you and your team were previously able to achieve the more difficult goals with great sacrifice, so because you have proven it can be done, the goals for the following years are even more difficult. Unfortunately, as you are expected to do more and more, you may sacrifice your family life and sometimes your health to meet or exceed expectations set for you and your team.

Unrealistic goals are usually linked to profitability. More often they emerge in the form of stretch goals. Stretch goals are goals that take you beyond your past performance levels but if they are unrealistic they can become demoralizing, when they are just right, they can contribute to positive engagement levels.  Stretch goals can be used to develop coworkers, but often times they are used to maximize profitability. When profit is the primary driver, and there is insufficient thought given to the dynamics created by difficult goals, organizations can create a competitive culture where coworkers take ruthless or dishonest action because they are in scarcity mode.

In some organizations, unrealistic goals are accompanied by low or zero tolerance for mistakes. Even though errors are phenomenal teaching tools, in organizations where errors are feared, learning from mistakes does not happen. Instead, the threat of punishment of some type is used to address errors and over time, low tolerance for mistakes leads to cover up by front line staff and surprises for decision-makers when the cover ups fail.

Realistic goal setting is important because if team members are consistently overwhelmed by goals that are perceived as impossible to achieve, any of the following outcomes can occur: morale can be negatively affected, causing a sense of hopelessness, or fear among members of the team. Once morale is affected, the quality of interaction of employees with each other and customers can decline. Unhappy employees tend to provide demoralized, even apathetic customer service.

Sustained stress over a period of time causes illnesses to occur and it can lead to the resignation of high potential employees. As I already mentioned, when there are unethical practices, leaders can be blindsided with unwanted information at the worst time.  As a result, organizations can experience unexpected losses because of costly delays.

So here are seven tips you can use to ensure the goals you set for yourself and your team are both challenging and realistic:

  1. Set a reasonable number of goals so there can be enough time to achieve them;
  2. Establish timelines that will not overwhelm you and your team. Unrealistic deadlines are sometimes established because of external pressures, or when there are too many unknowns during the planning process. As a result, the deadlines create pressure due to conflicting or unrealistic priorities and need attention. On behalf of the team, leaders should take advantage of opportunities to negotiate competing priorities with the purpose of reducing stress related to over commitment.
  3. As a leader, it is important to be approachable and non-judgmental so employees will be authentic with you about their goals.
  4. Sometimes team members feel overwhelmed when they are not trained to perform certain duties. As a leader, it is important for you to know the inherent skills of your team and take action to close knowledge and skill gaps.
  5. Conducting a scoping exercise at the outset can help leaders establish goals based on research. Ideally, data collected can help decision makers create realistic goals when based on reliable data.
  6. Oftentimes employers will establish goals for change initiatives, but additional employees or other resources are needed in order to meet or exceed those goals without burning out the team. As a leader, you know if your organization is open to providing the resources you need. However, whether there is perceived openness to investing in additional resources or not, leaders should attempt to obtain the resources they need that can help make goals less overwhelming.
  7. The people closest to the work can provide you with the best understanding about whether goals are unrealistic or not. Listening to them without bias is essential because it can help you determine if members of your team are overwhelmed so you can take corrective action if necessary.

Finding Balance

The point of this article is not to say that goals should be easier. The objective here is to set goals that are tough enough to help employees step outside their comfort zones and grow. The stretch can be difficult to achieve but it should be perceived as doable. When stretch goals are assigned to high performers who are eager to grow, they tend to accept the challenge gracefully.  Additionally, if decision-makers are open to acknowledging the stretch goals were unrealistic, and the culture is characterized by trust, employees would be more willing to take on unrealistic goals.

Coaching and mentoring can also help leaders overcome anxiety when goals seem unrealistic. Deploying coaching and mentoring in circumstances where growth is critical to attaining goals can help employees overcome a sense of being overwhelmed because they feel supported.

Setting unrealistic goals can happen in any organization and if it does, it is important for decision-makers to be capable of course correcting when there is compelling evidence that the goals are doing more harm than good.

Sometimes unrealistic goals are non-negotiable but if you are responsible for setting or contributing to goals, setting realistic stretch goals is possible when organizations conduct adequate research at the beginning of a change process.  It is also possible when there is a high performing, motivated team that is involved in their own goal setting. While setting goals, it is important to keep in mind the fact that planning can be an inexact science so when decision makers possess the ability to accept a mistake in goal setting, and the skill to distinguish between chronic complaining and actual unrealistic goals they can become proficient at setting fair stretch goals.

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.  If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.