You Can’t Set Goals For Others

Ball getting past a soccer goalie

I’m at a conference right now and shared with some colleagues that we had considerable growth in the initiative I lead at the university. Someone asked me what my goal for this had been this year and I said I didn’t really have one and I think that’s because I had no idea how much growth we’d see. In the past I had a number in my head and I and others worked hard to move toward that number, but the reality is that we could only do so much to get there.

While this particular initiative actually has to do with providing students a better learning experience while reducing the number of textbooks they need to buy, businesses frequently set goals for yearly sales, but there’s a problem with this. You can create a great product or idea, but you can’t make somebody buy it from you. It’s like the horse at the trough – you can lead her there, but you can’t make her drink.

I can raise awareness and talk up the good that comes from instructors doing what I’m advocating for,  but I have absolutely no authority to make them do it. I can set goals for growth in the number of instructors making this change or the number of students effected by it, but it’s still up to the instructor to buy in, just as it’s up to the customer to buy your product.

I’m thinking a lot about this right now. We should all be careful to avoid setting goals that are dependent on the actions of others. I can set a goal for the week that I’m going to play a game with my daughter twice, but what if she only wants to play once? 

When we set goals that rely, even in a small way, on someone else  doing something, we’re removing some of our control over achieving that goal. I think it sets us up for failure, or at least disappointment. 

If you’re setting goals for your team then you have to share those goals with your team. If you’re partners then you need to come to some agreement about the goals for the team. If your team works for you then you need to at least make sure they’re fully informed, and hopefully ask them about what potential barriers they see in the team reaching that goal (and if achieving it relays on the actions of your customers, then you need to reconsider your goal).

We should only set goals for us as individuals that don’t rely on anyone else. This is a great reason for sharing your goals with those closest to you. If you set a goal to go to the gym Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings and your spouse wants to have a date night on Friday, you have conflicting goals that you need to work out, and not on Friday at 4 PM.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t set goals that may require you to get some support from others, but you need to fill those people in on your goal and their role at the start. If they’re someone you haven’t worked with before, you may want to think of a back up plan if they can’t follow through.

This might seem like a hard thing to do, setting goals that only rely on your actions, because of the pressure it may put you under, but you’ll likely see more success. It’s not fair to set goals for others, which is exactly what you’re doing when you set goals for yourself that are dependent on them. 

Featured image courtesy of Meihe Chen under a CC-BY-SA license.

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