Setting stretch goals is like preparing for a big presentation.
You settle on a topic and create lofty goals for everything you’d like to say. Chances are, you can’t cover all this material, but you start big and pare down as you go to ensure the most valuable information isn’t forgotten.
Your ambition makes it impossible to include everything on the list — but that’s okay. You’ll express more important information in your presentation than if you’d decided to wing it.
What are stretch goals?
A stretch goal is an ambitious and challenging target that individuals or teams set, usually exceeding their current abilities and resources. It’s a type of goal that isn’t meant to be 100% completed.
Rather, stretch goals provide direction and motivation to encourage people to go above and beyond their typical performance levels, even if they don’t quite reach it.
American psychologist Edwin Locke pioneered research on the importance of setting challenging goals, demonstrating in “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives” that ambitious objectives coupled with constructive feedback were crucial for motivating employees.
Locke argued that the harder and more explicit the goal, the stronger people’s motivation to reach it.
A subsequent study revealed that 9 out of 10 times, clearly ideated, high-effort, high-risk goals encourage stronger performance than easier objectives.
What’s the difference between SMART and stretch goals?
The difference between SMART goals and stretch goals is how realistic they are.
SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. You design these goals with completion in mind.
While a SMART goal is a foreseen destination, stretch goals are your north star. These are lofty ideals meant to guide you in a specific direction. Your team might benefit from a series of SMART goals that build toward the stretch goal.
3 benefits of stretch goals
Even if you don’t pass the finish line, striving to achieve ambitious goals motivates you toward greater success than working toward easier objectives.
Here are three benefits of creating stretch targets:
1. Attracts professional rewards and opportunities
Managers might notice that you rise to the challenge of achieving more difficult goals, which could result in a raise or promotion.
2. Boosts self-confidence
Professional success often boosts self-esteem and confidence, and vice versa. Self-esteem is a powerful resource for workers: it increases your ability to self-advocate and voice opinions, perseverance against failure, and general happiness and decreases your susceptibility to stress.
3. Strengthens team bonds
Stretch goals require people to depend on one another and work together creatively. When you notice your team moving forward on a particularly challenging objective, you learn you can rely on one another to confront other challenges, like project roadblocks or higher workloads.
The importance of stretch goals at work
Workers and organizations must push themselves to break barriers and advance to build and maintain a competitive edge. Here’s how goal setting helps organizations, managers, and individuals, with examples of stretch goals for each:
Consumer demands and market fluctuations mean organizations must be ready to adapt to change. Stretch goals don’t just improve productivity — they create a work environment where employees have the experience and drive to overcome challenges and push the business into its next phase.
Here’s an example of a stretch goal for an organization:
The goal: Design and launch new sustainability benchmarks to lessen the company’s environmental footprint by 50% within 5 years.
The challenge: Overhauling an organization’s environmental footprint is an enormous and costly task that requires effective team collaboration.
Radical structural changes and new organizational processes could mean swapping out machinery, changing vendors, reskilling an entire workforce, and building a new marketing and sales strategy.
The payoff: Consumers increasingly demand purposeful, sustainable practices. And the reward can be handsome — sustainable products and goods with sustainable packaging are growing faster than their traditional counterparts.
Managers are the middle ground between executive leadership and other employees. You can use stretch goals to encourage your employees to meet an executive’s demands or their own professional goals.
Here’s an example of a stretch goal for a manager:
The goal: Decrease employee turnover by 40% in 12 months by strengthening retention initiatives and the overall employee value proposition.
The challenge: Organizations with chronic turnover likely have foundational problems that penetrate all areas of the company, few of which have quick fixes.
To meet the goal, managers must liaise between executives, human resources, and the workforce to audit the current situation and create meaningful changes that can be implemented and financially sustained — which will take time, teamwork, and resilience.
The payoff: Lowering turnover is a financially sound strategy for any organization. Losing an employee can cost organizations up to three times that worker’s annual salary. Plus, happy employees are more productive and engaged.
Focusing on employee satisfaction benefits everyone, even if the organization doesn’t make it to 40%.
Professional development involves continually advancing your skills and gaining a competitive edge, and stretch goals help you do this. You’ll also feel more engaged if you’re learning new things instead of becoming bored with monotonous and easy tasks.
Here’s an example of a stretch goal for an employee:
The goal: A freelance graphic designer wants to increase monthly invoicing by 100% while maintaining quality.
The challenge: Raising profits is more complex than raising prices. In addition to expanding rates, they’ll have to improve their negotiating, project management, and marketing skills to build a solid brand that attracts high-paying clients.
They’ll also have to audit current processes and analyze where they can diversify income streams or automate tasks to work more efficiently.
The payoff: Maybe they only increased profits by 50%, but all the skills they learned in the process will help them progress toward 100%. Plus, they’ve learned important transferable skills they can apply to other challenges in business and life.
What’s the stretch goal paradox?
The stretch goal paradox regards how difficult setting effective stretch goals is. If they’re too challenging and unrealistic, employees might feel unmotivated and burned out. But if they’re not ambitious enough, they won’t stretch themselves or achieve more than they’d thought possible.
Stretch goals also aren’t appropriate for every situation — and businesses often get this wrong. They’re ideal for when you or your team are on a high-performance streak with resources to continue to blaze trails, not when morale is low and current goals aren’t being met.
But the former scenario is exactly when most get conservative to preserve gains and inadvertently slip into complacency.
What’s the most likely consequence of setting unrealistic goals?
While stretch goals are ambitious, they’re not necessarily unrealistic. If everything goes smoothly and employees give their all, your team might achieve them. But things don’t always go to plan, and you don’t want to burn your team or yourself out.
Set stretch goals keeping in mind that they might not be achieved.
Here are the two most likely consequences of setting unrealistic stretch goals:
1. They demotivate
One of the indirect benefits of stretch goals is setting yourself up for some failure to learn from mistakes and gain personal growth. Embracing bumps in the road is essential to relieving the stress of failure and moving forward.
But failure can also threaten your ego, and continuous failure could reduce your confidence and make you neglect tasks altogether. It’s important to set goals that stretch you but don’t seem so unrealistic that you feel set up to lose from the get-go.
2. Employees get frustrated
Lofty goals typically force you to acquire new skills, which is great, but constant upskilling is tiring. And while confusion and frustration are a positive part of learning because they build resilience, too much of these feelings and you’ll be procrastinating every task.
Make sure to balance tasks that ask you to acquire new skills with those that use ones you already excel at.