Why S.M.A.R.T. Goals Are Not Smart Enough
Last Update: Aug 12, 2020

“Ups, it’s about time to kick off the target agreement talks with my team members,” thinks Michael, who has recently made it from the first subject matter expert to the head of the database team in the IT department.

He had already received the second reminder from HR to finalize the mandatory target process. Given his expertise and a burning interest in IT, he is still heavily involved in technical task management. Consequently, there is almost no time for people management responsibilities.

Pondering on how to meet HR’s demands quickly, he recalls his initial leadership seminar. There he learned that he just had to incorporate the S.M.A.R.T. characteristics to write effective goals for his people. It sounded pretty straightforward. So, why should he bother at all?

Matter-of-factly, he should bother a lot. The currency of successful leadership is employee engagement, and the ill-considerate usage of goals interfere immediately with people’s motivation to get engaged.

Where S.M.A.R.T. comes from

SMART guidelines were drafted 40 years ago as an aftereffect of scientific findings from 1968. In his paper “Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives” E.A. Locke posits that “specific hard goals produce a higher level of output than a goal of “do your best.” With this promising outlook, Locke’s goalsetting theory became the mantra in corporate life. The only remaining question seemed to be how to design those goals effectively. 

In 1981 G.T. Doran provided an answer:

 “Managers are confused by all the verbiage from seminars, books, magazines and consultants. Let me suggest that when it comes to writing effective objectives, corporate officers, managers, and supervisors just have to think of the acronym SMART.” 

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Assignable
  • Realistic
  • Time-related

The acronym was so smartly chosen that it has resonated with the business world for 40 years, albeit the meaning has undergone several changes since.

But what’s wrong with S.M.A.R.T.?

Firstly, the S.M.A.R.T. simplification created a shift from the motivational towards the manageability aspect of goalsetting. As a consequence, Locke’s caveats that the performance improvements induced by high and specific goals could only be proven for committed people carrying out simple tasks have vastly remained overlooked. 

Secondly, 40 years have gone by. We live in the digital age. The complexity and competitiveness of today’s business always call for creative problem solving and inventing new ways of doing things. Both challenges are light years away from being simple tasks. Besides, we can’t presume the workforce to be engaged. For years, we have been facing a global disengagement level of more than 60% with IT employees, even ranking at the lower end of the scale. 

In summary:

The indiscriminate application of the goalsetting theory by frontline managers won’t work with knowledge workers in complex environments. We need different and more engaging methods. 

What’s the alternative?

Fortunately, motivational science has also developed during the last four decades and provides answers on how to improve people’s motivation, engagement, emotional commitment, and performance. According to L.Deci’s and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, high quality of motivation requires the satisfaction of people’s three basic human needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. If those needs get satisfied, people will highly likely engage themselves volitionally in tasks and goals to an extent the challenges of our demanding business world requires. 


We offer a unique mentoring program for team motivation and engagement. It is rooted in our 30 years of leadership experience and SDT theory. We have designed and adapted it precisely to the daily challenges of first-line leaders. It provides a wealth of immediately actionable motivational techniques and tools that address the actual needs of employees. Please download the program guide from our website https://myfeedbach.eu/services/



Doran, G.T. (1981) There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives

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