Why shifting the goalposts can be poor form for any leaders

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I spent many years running a boutique recruitment business specialising in the advertising and design space, and I can remember how excited I was to get a call from the HR Director of one of Asia Pacific’s most reputable ad agencies wanting me to find them a Creative Director. 

It was a pretty big deal. 

A meeting was set up for me to take the official brief from the agency’s Managing Director. Naturally, I was curious to learn why the position had come about, since the agency was known for having a very low turnover rate – particularly at the senior end. 

I couldn’t believe the MD’s response at the time. 

“He didn’t think it was fair that we expected him to start pitching to clients”. 

“Pitching his concepts and story boards?”, I asked slightly confused, since to me this was obviously a key part of any Creative Director’s role. 

“No”, the MD replied firmly. “Pitching the business.” 

I just looked at him very surprised. 

“He’d been with us for so long. He knew our clients inside out, and when we couldn’t find a suitable Business Development Manager after months of looking, I figured he’d be great out there in front of potential new clients.” 

Unfortunately for the agency, the former Creative Director didn’t want to be out there pitching the business. In fact, he didn’t want to have anything to do with business development. And why should he? After all, being creative is a totally different skillset to selling. 

“We really hope the new CD won’t be so averse to sales”, the MD continued. “But we’d prefer that you didn’t include anything about the sales side in the job ad or discuss our expectations around having to sell during your screening process. We’ll let them settle into the role and maybe phase it in more subtly than we did with Philippe.” 

“So, you’re basically asking me to lie”, I said, trying to remain as professional as possible. 

“Not exactly”, he replied. 

Yes exactly, I thought to myself, before politely declining the brief and the opportunity to recruit for this prestigious agency. 

Did you know that one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make (right up there with not delivering feedback properly and poor decision making) is what is most commonly known as shifting the goalposts?  

When a team member thinks they are doing their job effectively, but then the leader does a bit of a 180 on them and suddenly announces that they should be doing something quite different, stretches the targets, or alters their expectations (sometimes midway through a project) – thereby typically making success in the role more difficult (or potentially even impossible) to achieve. 

We’ve written about the importance of setting clear expectations in the past, and how there’s no point setting expectations after a project has commenced.  

Strong leaders make their expectations very clear from the outset.  

They have them clearly defined (and documented!) so there’s no room for uncertainty. It’s important to put the expectations in writing and always ask your team members to repeat the expectations back to you in their own words to ensure that you are both on the same page. You certainly don’t want anything lost in translation. 

Once you have set clear expectations, it is then a lot easier to manage the expectations and ideally avoid any scenarios where your team member might not have adequate knowledge or have had sufficient training to perform at the level you’re expecting them to; where there is a misalignment between what your team member thinks you expect and what you actually expect; or where there is a significant difference between what you expected and what your team member delivers. 

However, what is even worse than not setting clear expectations, is shifting the goalposts – particularly around someone’s role. 

Employees crave clarity when it comes to what they’re meant to be doing every day. Nobody wants uncertainty, or even worse, to suddenly be told they’re now expected to do something completely different which (and apologies for using one of the most overused phrases in the world of recruitment) was never in their job description. Until my meeting with the MD of the ad agency, I’d certainly never heard of a Creative Director with any sales related KPIs that’s for sure! 

If one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is shifting the goalposts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the most common reasons employees give for leaving an organisation (right up there with a toxic work environment and low salary) is that they never had clarity in their role, or that the expectations around their job changed (suddenly) without any real justification and without any appropriate pay increase. 

To put it bluntly, employees don’t trust leaders who are continually shifting the goalposts, moving targets, re-setting KPIs, or changing their expectations.

They just want to know exactly what’s expected of them so they can do their best to deliver on those expectations. 

When goalposts are shifted (without explanation), an employee is most likely going to believe that something untoward is going on in the background. Perhaps the organisation wants to avoid paying out a bonus or incentive; or worse still, maybe the organisation wants to set them up for failure, so they ultimately self-eject, saving the business from having to pay out a redundancy. 

On the other hand, when leaders and team members clarify expectations or set goals together, it’s better for everyone. Besides, your team members will feel more invested in their contribution and the ultimate impact that they can make on the organisation’s success. 

Of course, there are going to be some situations where a leader has to make changes, often at short notice. But if these changes are going to have an impact on what a team member does day to day, rather than simply shifting the goalposts, providing context and being transparent will ultimately create a healthier culture where employees don’t assume the worst. 

Strong leaders set clear expectations, are transparent in their communication, and above all don’t shift the goalposts.  

When all is said and done, shifting the goalposts around someone’s job leads to high employee turnover when high potential team members leave (often at short notice) because they don’t want to be seen to be underachieving or because they suddenly find themselves doing something they never expected to have to do. 

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