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Balancing SMART With Heart

Friday, March 13, 2020
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The first happiness consultant, Aristotle, instructed that goals motivate us, yet “one swallow does not a summer make, nor does one day make humans blessed and happy.” Two thousand years later, accompanied by resounding productivity research, leadership’s shepherding of purposeful and meaningful work remains underwhelming.

Despite heroic efforts of 20th century empiricists—Upton Sinclair, for instance, whose The Jungle chronicled workplace dehumanization—the prevailing industrial psychosocial zeitgeist still haunts us. Many leaders continue to trumpet Andrew Carnegie’s, "Happiness doesn’t depend on outward, external conditions. It depends on inner conditions,” ignoring why employees quit: to escape bosses.

SMART Goals: The Last Vestige of Workplace Engineering and Control?

Our industrial forbearers most certainly influenced George Doran’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART) goals. But I suggest neither art nor heart populate the acronym, an incomplete relic, destined to history’s dustbin. As Aristotle said, “Excellent geometry but foolish in everyday affairs.”

All agree that goals propel progress, and we often pursue multiple “cascading” goals, revealing formative needs to fulfill core desires. I have been intrigued, however, by SMART goals progenitor, Edwin Locke, who assures SMART goals are irrefutably motivational. His disdain for attaching “intelligence” to “emotion” accompanies a cold certainty that “emotional intelligence” is inherently illogical. Yet most personal or institutional renewal initiatives fail not because they lack SMART-ness but are heartless.

Appreciative inquiry emphasizes the importance of how all feel when most involved and excited. Thus, perhaps, a reasonable artifact of SMART goals may affect each individual’s construction of a personal mission statement. On the other hand, the chief criticism of SMART goals is that they are risk-averse and contrary to the “big, hairy, and audacious,” perhaps the personal. Useful for short-term, tactical wins, they diminish sustained, long-term growth. Moreover, because we often avoid the obvious, a goal can be “smart” without being wise, can be “relevant” yet ignore personal needs and unattended challenges. SMART goals’ limitations can easily contribute to marginalization and spiritual starvation.

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A Profitable Workplace Requires a HEARTbeat!

At the center, comprehensive goals should balance “SMART” with heart. Heart is at the core of nearly all leadership advice. In Endurance, “No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope on something and then expect it to fail.” George and Kouzes and Posner emphasize research conclusions to “lead with” and “encourage the heart.” Covey asks, at heart, are we doing the right thing for the right reasons? And Druskat and Jordan, in rebuttal to Locke’s certainty, state in “ Emotional Intelligence and Performance at Work,” that context matters.
Goals also must account for random messiness, no less human foibles, and cultural roadblocks. Carl Sagan’s excellent interpretation of Aristotle’s “Excluded Middle” speaks to each of us serving as a leveling force to reconcile dissonance that falls between true and false.

“How have we, as leaders, habitually, individually, and institutionally ignored known obstacles, or worse, inhibited the goals, growth, opportunity, or transcendence of others?” Does institutional decision making best leverage the talents and aspirations of others, or are workers confined to convenient pigeonholes?

Bellah’s classic Habits of the Heart speaks to how decisions should affect the common good. Reconciling emotion and logic is moral: to move beyond “minds shattered by brutishly designed systems applied carelessly.” A chief goal of leaders is service to others, to give away power. Mark Murphy argues that this reconciliation of mind and heart recalibrates “work HARDer, not SMARTer.” Workplaces Require Difficult, Heartfelt Animation. That is, dignity fuels success.

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Upsetting Status Quo Applecarts

Nearly all writing about engagement reveals a chasm between workers’ and administrators’ differing perceptions of how they feel about belonging to the whole. Traversing perception, truths, and trust matters. Therefore, effective attainment of goals requires improved maintenance of a collective consciousness.

I recently listened to a vice president of operations passionately speak about his vision. “We used to cater to the lowest common denominator, but we’re better than that! Our standards will dictate the customers we serve,” he said. An hour earlier, a pivotal staff member empathetically professed, “We pride ourselves on serving the lowest common denominator. It’s part of who we are.” Unheard or unattended points of view surely contribute to a goal’s ultimate entropy. The VP’s goal requires not only conviction but connectivity as well as reconciling the two conflicting points of view.

On a micro level, conversations at workplace water coolers, those tales people tell but don’t feel at liberty to utter to anyone in power, accurately reflect company culture. Of co-workers, is anyone on staff hired or promoted based on friendships (“networking”), nepotism (family businesses aside), favoritism, perceived loyalty, or cronyism? Of course—and each will contribute to a groundswell of distrust.

On a global level, an online search of “Is meritocracy a myth?” yields a resounding “Yes.” Yet we continue to face a common refrain about individuals born into poverty: “Try harder,” a misdiagnosis that perpetuates the myth. Search “Salary gap.” On average, women annually earned $10,000 less; the gap widens for people of color. Discrimination by age? The EEOC answers yes. We tend to ignore these truths and their hidden effect on institutional and individual goal fulfilment. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Given institutional conditioning to disregard the known, or to disrespect the knowers, how can we honestly say, “Be ‘SMART’ about our goals?” According to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, “Wrongs a person does to others will correspond to the bad qualities that s/he him/herself possesses.” Further, Aristotle writes that every action is due to nature, compulsions, habit, reason, anger, and appetite. The most relevant, chance, resides first on his list.

In designing comprehensive goals, in addition to the unattended (in ourselves, others, and institutions), accounting for and minimizing the random requires other-centric courage and restraint not to retreat to catbird seats. This empathy—feeling, passion, meaningfulness, and worth—is the foundry of true goals and institutional health. Insurmountable, no. But leaders must grapple with the responsibility to overcome personal, professional, and institutional shortcomings and half-truths.

About the Author

Vincent Miholic, author of Bridging Engagement Gaps, serves with the Louisiana Division of Administration’s OHR organizational learning and development team.

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