Inbound marketing is fueled by SMART goals. That is, goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. It’s nothing revolutionary. Fourth graders are given the same parameters at the beginning of the school year. SMART goals are ubiquitous because they work.

Until they don’t.

Research at Harvard Business School found that in many cases, goal setting — particularly in the workplace — led to negative behaviors. With their eyes affixed firmly on the prize, employees were more likely to cut corners and even lean on unethical methods and behaviors. Relationships suffered. People weren’t happy.

Not exactly what a business wants.

Goals aren’t the bad guy, necessarily. The issue is often with the type of goal or the weight of the goal. The study found that performance goals at work are more likely to cause harm than goals around personal growth and learning. This is familiar territory. It’s about the journey, right?

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Set healthy goals

Instead of dropping goals entirely, rethink what SMART means for you as an individual and for your business.

  • Is the goal attainable or realistic in the context of your existing workload and the ecosystem of existing goals in your organization?
  • Will the goal itself overshadow smaller goals that might not be as shiny — but might be just as important to healthy work? (Goals like active collaboration, day-to-day task management, positive employee interactions.)

In the context of inbound marketing, pay attention to whether or not your goals get in the way of other goals. If you’re focusing on social engagement, are you devoting enough time and attention to SEO? Be willing to course-correct at any time, even if that means you don’t meet a goal. Let go of frustration if that happens.

You set the goal. It wasn’t chiseled in stone.

Make goals work for you

Whether you’re setting goals for your digital marketing campaigns or a personal wellness, goals can help you achieve what you want.

The key is to set goals you can meet without sacrificing your values or your happiness.

Emphasize incentives instead of outcome and you will find yourself far more motivated.

Get creative with goal-tracking. Make it more fun and hands on. Try using a paper journal or level up your journaling technique with a bullet journal. Be playful. Set up a sticker chart on the wall if that helps. (Everyone loves glittery stars.) Celebrate big and small wins, and track ongoing progress — not just the end result.

Set personal growth goals. Some of your goals should be solely about feeling good. And that will vary from individual to individual. Try relatively easy goals, like reading one book a month or making one especially healthy food choice a day. You’ll still feel good about your achievements, and you’ll lessen the risk of “failing” at goals and engaging in unhelpful self-judgment.

Be gentle with goal-setting. Goals should not feel like threats. Consequences are not motivating. When the stakes are too high, especially at work, that’s when things start to fall apart. Stress smothers creativity. Never set a goal that can only be met at the expense of creative problem-solving and thought leadership.

Rethink what happens when goals aren’t met

Try not to emphasize failure in the workplace. (The same goals for your personal life and goals.) If a goal wasn’t met, that’s an opportunity to explore why. You may find it wasn’t for lack of trying. Dig deeper. Look at the greater context, the attainability of the goal, and outside influences and inherent risks. Acknowledge that emotions get involved — and they’re normal. (It might be time for a positive power walk or a high-five.) (Or a beer.)

Use this exploration as a chance to try new methods, set different goals, or explore processes and relationships. In terms of inbound marketing, consider platforms, topics, and the data. Did you consider overall trends? Did something happen offline that you can take into consideration in your next cycle?

Most of all, don’t get sucked into a vortex of negative thinking. Goals can only harm you and your business if you let them. Meet them, exceed them, learn from them, or smash them into smithereens and start all over.