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updated 7/24/2012 11:45:16 AM ET 2012-07-24T15:45:16

One organizational area that tends to tie a company in knots is the way leaders set goals. Most managers struggle to find the right balance between being too tough or too easy — and when they overcompensate either way it can cause unintentional complexity.

A number of years ago my colleague Robert Schaffer identified the seven deadly sins of goal-setting, all motivated by the desire to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. As you read the descriptions of these “sins," ask yourself if you recognize any of them in your own dealings with subordinates (or interactions with your boss):

  1. Backing away from tough expectations: You spend more time negotiating the goal downward than in figuring out how to achieve it.
  2. Engaging in charades: You and your people know from the beginning that the goal is just an exercise to convey the appearance of progress, but there’s no hope of achieving it.
  3. Accepting seesaw trades: When your people take on one goal, they are relieved of another one.
  4. Setting vague or distant goals: The time frame is not explicitly defined or set too far into the future, so no one takes it seriously.
  5. Not establishing consequences: You don’t really differentiate between those who successfully achieve goals and those who do not.
  6. Setting too many goals: By assigning an overabundance of objectives you allow subordinates to pick and choose the goals that they either want to do or find easiest to do — but not necessarily the ones that are most important.
  7. Allowing deflection to preparations, studies, and research: You allow people to spend time planning instead of committing to a real goal.

All of us fall into these traps. Here’s a quick illustration: Say Yes to Education is a non-profit organization that promises a college education to economically disadvantaged students if they can successfully make it through high school. To help kids realize this promise, Say Yes assigns a three-person team (a learning specialist, a social worker, and a program manager) to each targeted group of students with the expectation that they will create a holistic plan for improved achievement.

While this method may sound fine on paper, making it happen is another story. For example, while the Say Yes teams in Harlem were working incredibly hard, somehow their efforts were not adding up to adequate results in the classroom. But when the president and EVP of Say Yes tried to push the teams to improve measurable outcomes, they heard many “deadly sin” responses. One team employed the seesaw-trade excuse: “Sure we can spend more time on the after-school program, but we’ll have to work a lot less with parents.” And another team pushed back with a vague timetable, arguing that the depth of the problems at the school meant much more time was needed before they could see results.

As the Say Yes leaders heard more of these responses, they began to realize that the teams were spinning their wheels partly because they had not given them a clear, compelling goal.

With that insight, the Say Yes leaders asked each Harlem-based team to formulate one clear, result-oriented goal that could be achieved in 100 days. And unlike past “requests” it was made clear that coming up with this goal — and executing it — was non-negotiable.

Once the gauntlet was laid down, the teams not only responded positively, but also actually raised their games in creative ways. For example, one team helped a fourth grade class to raise reading scores by one grade level in the next 100 days. Another team improved the English-language skills of a group of parents, which was key for their children’s academic performance. And another improved the public presentation skills of a middle-school class so that they could better apply to specialized high schools.

The Say Yes staff reported improvements in their own skill-sets as well. As one team member said, “Focusing on one goal and doing it well as opposed to having several goals with minimal outcomes has been a significant learning for us.”

For the leadership at Say Yes, the lesson was simple: Setting specific goals in a clear and compelling way — and insisting that people work together to achieve them — is the best way to get results.

Are you putting the right kinds of demands on your people, or are you committing some of the deadly sins?

Ron Ashkenas is a senior partner of Schaffer Consulting, a Stamford, Conn., consulting firm and the author of "Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done."

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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