In personal life and in career, it’s common to set goals or be encouraged to by parents, managers and mentors. Setting goals can make dreams seem achievable and drive us to strive for more, for better and for success.

But are we all setting the bar a bit too high? And if we are, is that not a good thing?

Our JI research team pulled data from over 1200 people who were classed as high performers in their field. These are CEO’s, MD’s, directors and others who’ve been recognised as successful achievers by their organisations and we wanted to drill down into the way they set goals and handle challenges.

High performers have a healthy perspective of their goals

From the research, we found that 88% of our high performers had a positive appreciation of goals, meaning they were able to see Point A (where they were) and Point B (where they wanted to be) and the path to get there. The “healthy” perspective means that the goals were not unrealistic or out of reach, and the path to reach them was realistic.

Interestingly we found that of the whole group, in fact 39% had an extremely strong perspective of goals, quite possibly too extreme, and by that we mean their goals were more like super goals, and much harder to achieve.

You could argue that a factor in these high performers success could be the fact that they are stretching themselves to reach their goals, but there is one draw back to over stretching yourself… you risk burnout.

Symptoms of burnout

It’s interesting that high achievers are more susceptible to burnout…. the fact is lazy people often don’t get tired! 63% of the group were showing signs of weakened energy – they were struggling to deal with difficult people or situations, and this was causing them to lose focus on the bigger picture – they were only able to focus on what was right in front of them. They typically neglected themselves in comparison to the task and this also had a dramatic impact on burnout. When this happens, especially with a leader, other natural strengths that they might have can also get weakened, so it’s important to put strategies in place and address potential burnout before it becomes an issue.

We would recommend identifying the main pressures or stress causing this reduced energy in the first place. Can it be pinpointed? Can it be anticipated? Following that it’s important to pro-actively delegate and ask for help… something high performers find notoriously hard! Think about it, if you’re a high performer you probably have high standards, and if something may not be done right you’d rather do it yourself. This is a classic route to burnout and a lot of leaders we work with have learnt to recognise this and place a large importance on delegation.

So do unrealistic goals lead to burnout?

Well, to understand more we need to look at a few other factors.

80% of our high performers had scores in the ideal range for positive morale and coping skills. That would suggest that despite workload, they were able to cope with the pressure and maintain a positive attitude in the working environment. Pretty impressive.

However 74% of them had high levels of self-criticism, and a tendency to beat themselves up over things; think of the person that ticks 9 things off their list but gives themselves a hard time over the 1 thing they didn’t get done. This negative self-talk can have an effect over time and when sustained, could impact on that positive morale and self esteem.

If the positive attitude begins to fade through negative self talk, and the energy fades too, then that Point B spot, the goal that is trying to be reached, is just going to seem further and further away, and you can see for yourself how all of these factors can cause a downward spiral in performance.

At the Judgement Index we believe in goal setting but also in taking a holistic approach to it (in sport scenarios we call it fine margins). We like people to have a positive perspective of their goals, but we’re also keen to encourage attainable, short term goals so that self-criticism doesn’t get a chance to kick in, and that positive morale and attitude stays intact by acknowledging success. When that is achieved you truly are on the path to success.

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