Setting Realistic Goals

I have never met anyone who doesn’t want to succeed or feel successful at what they are doing. I think it’s hardwired into who we are. The problem is that it can be very subjective, especially when you are held accountable or are holding someone responsible for their actions. When you are in leadership, you are always leading or being led by someone. With that leadership comes responsibilities, expectations, goals and outcomes. You will be held or have to hold someone accountable the question is will you be “subjective” or “realistic” with your goals.

Before we go too far, let me define for you what I mean by those two words because it sets up where we are going. 

The definition of subjective is “based on personal feelings, tastes or opinions.”The keyword here is “personal,” as in your interpretation drawn out of who you are, how you’re wired and your perks/quirks. You are the driving force of a “subjective” worldview. Your feelings, tastes and options drive how you see and absorb the world.

The definition of realistic is “representing familiar things in a way that is accurate or true to life.” When something is realistic, it operates in that “true to life” way. It conforms with the established norms of the world. That could be a universally accepted truth or a law of nature that governs the world. To be realistic is to process with a whole picture.

Here, we see the difference between being “subjective” and “realistic.” To be subjective is to interpret the data based on your own filter. However, to be realistic is to interpret the data based on the whole picture, to draw a conclusion based on multiple angles and multiple filers. This difference seems simple, but it profoundly affects how you approach leadership.

If we set and measure goals with a “subjective” lens, we create a recipe for conflict. The problem is that the success and failure of these goals will be 100% based on our personal opinions. Now you might say that they should be because you’re the “boss” and you want things done a certain way. But let me challenge you to shift your perspective. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re leading or holding accountable. Consider the following situation and how you might feel if this happened to you. 

Your boss asks you to throw a dart at a target and try and hit the bullseye. You will be successful only if you hit the target. On the count of three, you are asked to throw your dart.



Three… the lights go out, and the room goes dark. You’re told to throw the dart anyway. When you’re done, the lights come on, and you realize not only could you not see the target, but the target had also been moved. You turn to your boss and protest, “the room went dark, and the target was moved; how could I have known where the bullseye was? But your boss simply replies, “your job was to hit the target, and you failed.”

Let’s step back and ask the question, how do you think you might feel if that were you? My guess is you would feel cheated, lied to and probably frustrated because the task was rigged. But how does the “boss” feel? My guess is they feel frustrated, annoyed and disappointed because the task wasn’t completed. Regardless of the perspective, both people are frustrated. The “subjective” nature of the task made hitting the bullseye unrealistic, maybe even impossible.

More often than not, when we as primary leaders are setting goals, tasks, and responsibilities for the people we are leading, it’s happening in a “subjective” way. We often do not tell the whole story by accident, design, or we just don’t have all the variables. Regardless of the reason, we are setting people up to be disappointed, and in some way, the person most disappointed will be us.

So how do we avoid all of this? How do we give realistic and clear goals to the people we are leading. I think there are two actions we can take to help set realistic goals, and we will have to cross one mental hurdle to do it. 

Action Step #1 – Work in Community: The best way to set realistic goals is to create them in community. Part of making something “realistic” is that it conforms with the “true to life” part of the definition. The “subjective” mythology is a recipe for tunnel vision. But the solution to tunnel vision is more prospectives. Consider having the whole team set goals together and constantly ask each other the question, “Is this true to life?” basically, does this make sense? Consider the following practice.

Have each team member write out three personal, spiritual and work goals for the next 3, 6 and 12 months. Give guidelines and directions following your organization’s values and mission statements and give them some time to work on it. While your team is doing their part, take time to write out one “primary” personal, spiritual and work goal you would like to see each team member work towards over the next 3, 6 and 12 months. 

Gather your team and have each person share their goals, and make sure you share your primary goals as well. When everyone is done, go through them again and ask, “Is this true to life?” basically, do these goals make sense. Based on how they answer the question, make any necessary adjustments to the goals. Ultimately the goal is to set realistic expectations, and sometimes that requires more than one perspective. 

Action Step  #2 – Build in checkpoint: Once you have established what your realistic goals are going to be for every team member, you need to develop some check-points along the way to see how the team and individuals are tracking. This is mission-critical to creating realistic goals and measuring their success because life has a way of getting between things. 

You can’t set goals and come back to them a year letter with complaints or frustrations (more on that in the next post). I suggest creating a combination of individual and team assessments at key points and asking the following three questions when you meet. 

  1. How are your goals doing?
  2. Where do you need support?
  3. What extra resources do you need from the team or me to help you meet your goals?

Setting up clear checkpoints allows for both accountability and an opportunity to make sure we are keeping “realistic” expectations and not “subjective” ones. 

The Mental Hurdle: This will be unpacked in the next post more, but the reality is the best, and maybe the only solution to a “subjective” worldview is understanding that there is always another way. By that, I mean there is always more than one way to accomplish a task or find success.

Individually we all see the world uniquely because we were all created unique. There is no one else like you in all of creation, and that is 100% a good thing. The mental hurdle hits us when we believe our uniqueness is the only one God created. For the two action steps above to work, you need to stretch your viewpoint to be more “realistic.” To learn how to see the world from another perspective and recognize that their approach may not be wrong. It actually might just be them meeting their goals in the unique way God has created them. 

To overcome this mental barrier, you need to go back to the first action step, where you wrote out your “primary” goals for the people you’re leading. I still want you to do that step, but I want you to take a moment, slow down and ask these two questions before you finish.

  1. Does my primary goal reflect their unique gifts, talents and abilities?
  2. Is there more than one way we can measure the success of this goal?

As a primary leader, you will always have to set goals and expectations for yourself and the people you lead; there is no way to get around it. But you can choose how you approach setting those goals. The solution to not getting sucked into the “subjective” track is to create goals in community and slow down enough to create checkpoints along the way. 


There are no critical questions this week as there was a lot to unpack in this post. So, for now, all I want you to do is find some paper or grab some kind of digital device and reflect on a time when you had to set goals or had goals set for you. Where are they “subjective” or “realistic,” and how did they make you feel. You can also consider just making a big list of all the recent goals and identify if they are “subjective” or “realistic” and not how they made you feel then and now. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: