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S.M.A.R.T Goals Do Not Work

Kirjoittanut: Flóra Lang - tiimistä SYNTRE.

Esseen tyyppi: Yksilöessee / 2 esseepistettä.

Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All, and They'll Give You Even More
Change: Learn to Love It, Learn to Lead It
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Expereience
Mark Murphy
Richard Gerver
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 6 minuuttia.

Every company needs goals. Setting goals helps the members of an organization to have a vision of growth and a shared finish line in mind. Goals help to organize the workforce and to prioritize as well as to evaluate. (Reeves & Fuller)

Most business students learn about the SMART goal-setting system as well as employees of certain companies. Although many believe that SMART goals are useful and would defend this system no matter what, there are other and many examples that say otherwise. In this essay, I am aiming to examine more of the second opinion.



SMART is a system that aims to look at both personal and organizational goal-setting structures. As it is one of the very few such structures, SMART is wildly known and used without many alternatives. SMART is an acronym, includes the main points when setting a goal:





T-Time based

(Doran 1981)

Example: I want to improve my Finnish language skills from A2 to B2 in a year. In order for me to achieve this goal, I have to learn 20 new words every week and go to a Finnish language class twice a week.

In the example above we set a specific goal, that can be measured with a language test and can be achieved through hard work. It is a relevant goal for people living in Finland, moving to Finland, having Finnish connections, or wanting to learn more about Finland. The goal is time-based, there’s both a timeline and a deadline.



One’s goal can become SMARTER by adding E (evaluated) and R(recognize, review, reward) to the equation. (Harris 2019)

Adding those to the previous example would change it like this:

While I am on my way to achieve this goal with the Finnish language, using the SMART method, I evaluate the process by taking a test halfway through my studies and noticing that I am already at level B1. With this information, I can conclude that I study faster than I thought, and I can readjust my workload or the outcome. I decide to study less from now on, however at the end of the one year, I am still at level B1, so I haven’t improved since the half-year mark. However, I put a lot of effort into developing my skills, so I reward myself with a month-long holiday, without learning any Finnish to have more energy to get back to my studies later on.


SMART Goals Do Not Work

“Virtually every company sets goals for its employees, and what manager hasn’t set a SMART goal? But when leadership IQ studied 4182 workers from 397 organizations to see what kind of goal-setting process actually helps employees achieve great things, we learned that SMART goals often act as impediments to, not enablers of, bold action and actually encourage mediocre and poor performance.”

SMART goals can give a free pass for low standards, not aiming high enough can be the death of creativeness and be the birthplace of low effort and performance. (Grote 2017) Based on Mark Murphy’s and the Hundred Percenters studies, there is no correlation between successful companies and companies that use the SMART goal-setting method. On the other hand, we can presume that the ones that use it, will set an achievable goal that limits the company’s resources and learning possibilities, pushing it into a comfort zone. (Murphy 2014, 41)

Although I am skeptical, I am not completely dismissing the SMART goals. Some organizations or even individuals might give a structure around reaching their goals and later helps achieve them. However, I have never been a huge fan of the idea. It turns out that SMART goals are one of the only goal-setting formulas in the professional world, with very few good alternatives. Richard Gerver uses the argument in his book, Change: Learn to Love it, Learn to Lead it, that the SMART goal system is not even a formula, but just a tool itself within a bigger system of goal setting, that provides more structure in the industrial field, while less and less in this “organic age” we live in. (Gerver 2013, 40-41)


HARD goals

HARD goals are aiming to correct some of the flaws of SMART goals, such as the “achievable” aspect which doesn’t give the incentive to learn and push our boundaries, and the “relevant” aspect which only prepares us for the present. At the same time, the HARD goals for example keep “measurable” as a useful aspect. (Murphy 2014, 41)

HARD is also an acronym, but it gives more freedom to perceive the meaning behind the words.

H – Heartfelt

A – Animated

R – Required

D – Difficult

(Murphy 2014, 31)

Heartfelt: One needs to care about the goal itself to be motivated and driven enough to give it their best. When one cares about the goal for the sake of keeping their jobs and getting their paychecks, it is not motivating enough to learn and push their own boundaries, which would be essential to achieve meaningful goals both in personal and work lives.

For a company to become “heartfelt” it also should become NOBLE according to Murphy. NOBLE is another acronym for

Name a part

Other than ourselves who will

Benefit from this goal

Like costumers and

End users

NOBLE is encouraging empathy thus strengthening the “heartfelt” -ness.

(Murphy 2014, 23-40)

Animated: The goal needs to be somehow visually presented. The more precise it is, the harder it becomes to fight the urge to scratch the itch, get up and do something about it. Murphy mentions Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, starting with “I have a dream”, a great example of animated goal setting. He makes the listener visualize what he wants the future to look like, instead of stating requirements and numbers, which helps remember the speech almost 65% better. (Murphy 2014, 40-41)

As mentioned before, “measurable” is the most used part of the SMART goals, but in this case, related to the HARD goals, it is not only numerically measurable but can be put into an emotional scale to name another example.

Required:  An important keyword related to this part of the HARD goal is ownership. When one sets up a goal, one needs to take ownership of it and make sure that it is required so there is a reason for it to be achieved. This aspect is based on another theory called the endowment effect. “It basically says that people place a higher value on objects they own than on objects they don’t own.” A Tale of Two Pizzas is an experiment focusing on the endowment effect, that helps understand this phenomenon better. (Murphy 2014, 45-47)


Difficult – This is the step where we replace achievable. Although a goal needs to be possible, it doesn’t necessarily have to be achievable from the get-go. Having a possible but difficult goal means that there is room for improvement and growth by pushing one’s limits and learning. (Murphy 2014, 48)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian -American psychologist come up with the theory of the flow state, which represents a zone of mental state where one can fulfill themselves and can be the most productive. (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 74-76) Another similar, but more closely related model for goal setting is the Yerkes-Dodson law.

On the other hand, Locke and Latham’s research suggests that there is a strictly linear correlation between the difficulty of the goal and performance, meaning the more difficult the task is, the better the performance will be and this correlation is linear, no matter the stage.

HARD Goals can be used in all kinds of situations, however, in some cases, it might be easier to build them up in a different order. For example, starting with animation can be more logical for some.



Starting this essay, I believed that for the most part, I would discuss SMART goals and why they do or do not work. Throughout my search for information, not only did I find facts against the SMART goals, but I discovered a few, not very well-known alternatives to it, which I am excited to try in the future.



Reeves, M. & Fuller, J. 2018. When SMART Goals are Not So Smart. Published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Uploaded on 21.3.2018. Read on 19.9.2022.



Doran, G. 1981. There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’s goals and objectives. Published by Management Review in November 1981.


Harris, D. 2019. How to make your SMART goals even smarter. Read on 19.9.2022.


Murphy, M. 2014. Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All, and They’ll Give You Even More (2nd edition). Read on 8.8.2022.

Grote, D. 2017. 3 Popular Goal-Setting Techniques Managers Should Avoid. Published by Harward Business Review. Uploaded on 2.1.2017. Read on 19.9.2022



Gerver, R. 2013. Change: Learn to Love It, Learn to Lead It. Read on 13.6.2022.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1st edition). Read on 19.9.2022.

  • Katrina Cirule

    Hey Flora! Thank you so much for this insightful essay.. It was interesting to see the comparison of the SMART and HARD goal theories since the first one is so often used. I believe this essay is well written and gave me new ideas for practice. Kiitos!

  • Sille Sinor

    Hey Flora! I really like the heading of this essay because it creates an emotion to the reader. You compare two of the methods well and give nice examples and enjoy how your points against SMART goals are supported by other sources. You own opinion against SMART goals comes out various times and is clearly said to the reader that it is the writers opinion. I would say this is good essay and the topic is interesting! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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