I remember a story during my early working days when the organization I worked for was demanding and competitive. I was given performance targets that were seemingly insurmountable. I constantly feared that I would fall short of my individual goals and it caused me great anxiety. As it turned out, my fears and complaints were proved true. I performed badly in that period and so did most of my colleagues. We had struggled with the targets and as well as the motivation to hit them.
My manager, also my mentor at the time was a fiery lady who always knew what to do in sticky situations. She came up with what I called a golden piece of advice that struck me then, and still does even today.
“Don’t stress about the fact that you can’t hit the targets that were set, in fact none of you will be able to hit them. I was agape. “What?” “Sure thing. This is one of those situations intended to stretch you all, to check what stuff you are made out of. They are unrealistic to say the least.” She then put it into further perspective.
“Think of it this way; Imagine you have gone camping with one of your friends and during the night you have an encounter with an angry mother bear. You are both unarmed. What would be your best strategy to survive?”
I began immediately to think of ways in which to defeat the bear and save both my friend and I. But none of the scenarios I shared with her, about the challenge ended in success. She advised that against the power of a mother bear, my fight would be useless at best. I thought of outrunning the bear, but an angry mother bear would be completely impossible to outpace, even for an Olympic runner.
Eventually, stumped, I offered my last jab at the puzzle; “Even two of us can’t fight the bear and survive, and neither of us can outrun the bear. What would you advise?”
My mentor dropped a short piece of wisdom upon me, and said simply: “Realistically you are right, you can neither fight the bear nor can you outrun it. But you can outrun your friend, and that is your best chance to survive.”
Escaping the bear in this scenario represented the un-achievable targets. But setting a personal target to outrun my friend seemed like a realistic goal and the best way to win. If I focused only on beating my colleague, I would have beaten the bear eventually. I would not be on the bear’s dinner table but someone else would. Mark you, this was not about doing bare minimum so as to survive. This for sure had to be one of the stiffest races, for none of us wanted to become food for the bear.
In sum, solid performance targets, by their very nature, are designed to test resilience and competence in the face of difficulty, and the people who set them intended them to be that way so as to combat complacency and distinguish the front runners from the laggards. My mentor’s advice changed my limited perspective and I started to look at performance targets and appraisals differently. Hard targets turned out to be a disguised opportunity for the truly great performers to stand out and earn the recognition they deserve.