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HUMAN RESOURCES

The Reality Gap
 

If you're constantly dissatisfied with your company's accomplishments, maybe you're pursuing unattainable ideals instead of realistic goals. Here are the various ways to measure progress.
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Owner's Manual

Are your '99 business goals attainable--or are they abstract ideals that will only make you feel like a failure if you don't achieve them?

In 25 years of working as a strategic coach for financially successful entrepreneurs, I've observed two distinct personality types. At one end of the spectrum are those high achievers who are happy individuals, people who seem to appreciate and enjoy their daily lives. It's motivating just to be in their company. Their lives are a progression of ever greater challenges, new goals, accomplishments, growth, and satisfaction.

And I have met high achievers for whom the opposite is true. In spite of their success, they feel like failures. When they look at what they have accomplished, it seems like nothing to them. They are extraordinarily harsh in assessing themselves--and others. "I can't find good staff," they complain bitterly and repeatedly.

I'm reminded of a 46-year-old self-made man I'll call David. When he came to me, his business was growing fast--with 25% to 30% annual sales growth. Profits were increasing. But he wasn't happy. He thought his sales growth should have been more like 50%, and he was kicking himself for all the missed opportunities. David had a lot of energy but was always tense. It was kind of uncomfortable to be around him. Not surprisingly, turnover was high among his staff of 30, especially among his support staff. David himself was on his second marriage, and that relationship was strained as well.

What's surprising is how many high achievers like David don't believe they have a choice in how they view their work. I hear arguments all the time like "The reason I'm successful is that I never allow myself to be satisfied with what I've done. There's always more and better, and this is what motivates me." Fair enough, but people who think that way also spend a significant amount of their valuable energy beating up on themselves.

It doesn't have to be that way. The solution, I believe, lies in how you measure your progress. And the key to it is recognizing that there's a crucial distinction between goals and ideals.

As humans, we're given the ability to conceive of perfection, or the ideal. Ideals serve three important purposes: they help us set goals, motivate ourselves, and withstand hardships. What we often fail to realize about ideals, however, is that they are mental constructs. I often liken ideals to the horizon--the closer you try to get to it, the farther away it seems.

Goals, however, should be achievable by definition. If you are setting functional goals, at useful increments, they should be both real and realizable. The distance between where you actually are now and your goal can be measured objectively, and when you achieve your goal, you know it. Think of the distinction this way: no matter how fast you run toward the horizon, you'll never get there, but if you run more quickly toward a goalpost, you will get there faster. Sounds simplistic, but I'm constantly amazed at how many people--and entrepreneurs in particular--confuse their goals with their ideals.

This brings us back to measuring progress. When you complete a task, you can measure your progress in two ways: you can compare it with your goal or you can compare it with your ideal.

Measuring against where you've come from. This method of measuring gives you the opportunity to stop and celebrate your progress and to understand where you are in relation to your next goal. Once you've achieved your current goal, it becomes the starting point for your next progression. Measuring in this way builds confidence and a sense of achievement and satisfaction. It puts you in what I like to call "the positive zone."

Measuring by the ideal. People who do this always fall short no matter what their effort and accomplishment. Ironically, they feel their greatest sense of failure and frustration when they're at their most successful point. No matter how hard they work, they can't seem to bridge the gap between their actual progress and the ideal of what they'd like to achieve. I call that "living in the negative zone."

What they fail to realize is that there is a permanent difference between your actual level of achievement at any time and the corresponding ideal. That is what makes the ideal great as a motivator and a beacon (it's always out there ahead of you) but useless as a target (it's moving as long as you are). How frustrating to reach a hard and long-sought-after goal, only to feel it isn't enough.

It's not always easy to see that you're living in the negative zone. Explaining the distinction between goals and ideals to others may help you also realize that you've been imposing your own ideals on employees--and punishing them because they fail to measure up. For example, when you set your 1999 goals for your business, were you honest with everyone? I know CEOs who have one set of goals for "the company" and another set that is much higher for themselves. So even when everyone works very hard toward the stated goals, those CEOs are still dissatisfied.

Simply recognizing the gap between goals and ideals helps some entrepreneurs feel better about the progress that their businesses are making. After all, it is progress, not perfection, that we should be striving for.

Dan Sullivan is president of the Strategic Coach, a company that provides a three-year program for successful entrepreneurs.


Closing the gap
We all need to learn the proper "care and feeding" of ideals, since even the most positive among us occasionally trods into the dreaded negative zone. Here are three strategies for increasing your ability to live in the positive zone:

Recognize the gap between the actual and the ideal. Understand the nature and purpose of the ideal as a mental construct. You shouldn't feel any more frustration at not being able to reach it than you would at not being able to reach the horizon. It's just the way things work. The most difficult thing about bridging the gap is remembering the gap concept when it most matters--that is, when you are being hardest on yourself or others. Seek progress, not perfection.

Set ideals that are much bigger than yourself. This approach helps to distinguish your ideals from your goals. Also, living with big ideals gives you room to set big goals and helps generate the positive energy to attract the resources and creativity necessary to achieve them. Remember, people want to be led by individuals with big ideals.

Acknowledge new accomplishments. Set aside a regular time for yourself--maybe at the start of each week--to write down and reflect on your 10 biggest recent accomplishments and what makes them significant. You'll be amazed at how much you've done. Then think about what you need to do next to continue on this positive path, and write down specific action steps. And don't forget to celebrate your successes along the way. Doing so will give you renewed confidence and the energy to tackle new challenges.

Last updated: Mar 1, 1999




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