Starting a business from nothing requires you to constantly overcome unreasonable problems. You have no resources, no time and an infinite list of tasks to complete. In pursuing your goals, you are asking both yourself and your team to do unreasonable things.
However, there is a fine line between being unreasonable and being unrealistic. If you lose sight of that line, you will fail.
Learned Helplessness vs Self Confidence
One of the most depressing psychological principles that you will ever encounter is called learned helplessness. It is a mental state where the subject is trapped and subjected to adverse stimuli (pain, abuse) from which they cannot escape. Eventually, the subject learns that there is no escape from the adverse stimuli and, even when given the chance to escape, fails to even try. They have learned to be helpless.
While I am sure you will never abuse your team, subjecting them to unrealistic goals which they can never achieve can have a similar effect. Eventually, after being subjected continuously to nothing but unattainable goals, people begin to disassociate from such goals and will fail to treat them seriously. People will give up before they even start.
On the other hand, there is a clear tie between motivation and setting ambitious goals. Self efficacy is a psychological term for the confidence a person has in their ability to achieve a goal. Research has shown that optimal performance is reached when a person’s self efficacy is slightly above their actual ability, meaning that they are in a little over their heads.
So, how do you set goals that are just beyond reach but not so far as to make the goal meaningless?
Unreasonable vs. Unrealistic
As with anything in your new company, finding the balance between aggressive goals (unreasonable) and impossible goals (unrealistic) will require testing. In the early days of decision making, you will set some unrealistic goals which backfire and some unreasonable goals which will drive your team to do amazing things. The more goals you set, the easier it will be to tell the difference.
It will be hard to tell the difference if you lack faith in your team, as you will question whether your goals are unrealistic or if your team is not pushing themselves hard enough. This is yet another reason why you should never compromise on the quality of your team, especially in the early days. You should never waste time wondering if your team is working as hard as possible.
Don’t fear setting unrealistic goals, it is part of building a company, but beware setting too many of them. Instead, you should strive to be unreasonable.
Image made available via Creative Commons by Wikipedia user 4C.