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How to stretch your team without straining them

18 Apr 2018 By Thomas Sullivan

Every manager wants to push their staff to achieve their goals, but it’s hard to know where to draw the line, says Thomas Sullivan

A few years ago, at her annual review, a friend was encouraged to pursue ‘stretch’ goals, and told that she could do more than she ever thought possible. Inspired, she worked hard to achieve these new goals, learning and growing along the way. However, she also sacrificed a lot by working long hours, as well as over weekends. 

At the next review, her boss said: ‘I knew you could do it! Let’s bump up your goals again.’ Still in the glow of success she agreed. This time it was harder to sacrifice but she scraped by. The following year, more fatigued, she was not so welcoming of her boss’s praise and pitch for even higher targets again. The fourth year, overwhelmed and dissatisfied, she quit. 

Unsurprisingly, this is not an isolated case. A recent study found burnout to be the cause of up to 50 per cent of cases of employee attrition. Turnover like this is costly, and maybe even more costly are those who lose engagement but choose not to leave immediately, often creating drag on the efforts of others. 

A mentor of mine describes this managerial challenge as finding the balance between stretch and strain in goal-setting. Striking this balance takes care, as the perception of what constitutes an appropriate goal varies widely depending on the individual. Having stretch goals is essential for growth, but go too far and you risk straining people.

Working on your ability to develop others is likely to remain among the most praised qualities for leaders. So what can you start or stop doing today to help find stretch goals for your team?

Aim for the flow

Can you help reports find a match between the challenge they perceive and the abilities they have? Without awareness of that balance, it is easy to either overwhelm your staff with too much, leading to anxiety, or too little, leading to boredom and disengagement.

Praise efforts not achievements

Too often, when somebody does something well, the focus is on the outcome. Instead, it is more helpful to pay attention to how people go about doing things – do they solve problems effectively? What is their level of commitment?

Build up creative tension

If you want to be inspiring you have to be inspired yourself. Make sure you know what you care about and get curious about what others are passionate about. Understanding the principle of creative tension, developed by Robert Fritz, means you know the future you want to see and stay grounded in the reality you face today.

Exercise patience

We often underestimate how long it may take for another person to learn new skills. When people are asked to estimate how long it will take somebody else to become good at something they already do well, generally they underestimate it by five times. 

Boost motivation

It’s important to understand what motivates people. In Drive, Daniel Pink talks about the idea of ‘autonomy, mastery, purpose’. People are motivated when they can control aspects of their work, are on a clear path to building skills and there is a reason behind what they do. Purpose could range from wanting to make a difference to clients, impact the wider world or provide a certain life for your family.

Embrace the mistakes

When mistakes happen fear kicks in and people tend to avoid exposure by blaming others. Successful managers create an environment of psychological safety where owning up to your contribution when things go wrong allows learning and growth to occur.

Thomas Sullivan is a professor of leadership skills at Hult International Business School

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