How to Challenge Unrealistic Expectations and Foster Sustainable Growth

Here are my top tips for successfully getting leaders to re-evaluate unrealistic expectations so teams have clarity, feel empowered to succeed, and the business can progress sustainably.

How to Challenge Unrealistic Expectations and Foster Sustainable Growth

Setting achievable goals is a crucial part of any business.

As a leader, it’s important to stretch your team to reach their potential, but establishing impossible targets can have the opposite effect – demotivating your staff, harming morale, and setting everyone up to fail.

I’ve worked with many founders and executives who have struggled to find the right balance between ambition and realism when goal-setting.

In my coaching practice, I often guide leaders on how to thoughtfully yet firmly push back when the targets they’re handed feel disconnected from reality.

Over the years, I’ve discovered techniques that successfully get leaders to re-evaluate unrealistic expectations so teams have clarity, feel empowered to succeed, and the business can progress sustainably.

Here are my top tips:

Build A Credible Counter-Model

If you want to effectively dispute a target, the best approach is to build your own forecast model to serve as a counterpoint to the one being set by your boss, which is very often entirely top-down in its creation.

Creating a bottoms-up projection based on sound, grounded assumptions will carry more weight than verbally questioning the numbers alone, as it should you’ve put the leg work in to genuinely understand and articulate the situation you’re in.

Map out detailed calculations of exactly what’s feasible for your department or business unit, demonstrating where and why the top-down goal falls short.

One example I went through recently with a coachee was modelling out SQL targets for the marketing team. In the model, their budget requests had been ignored, but future projections assumed either a 4-5x reduction in CAC…or the need for that kind of increase in budgets! When they took the model back to their boss, the growth targets were shaved and the previously denied budget was given the green light.

Ideally, you should share your model early, even before formal target-setting. This shows proactive leadership, gets your perspective anchored from the outset, and avoids you looking reactive or obstructive later down the line.

Make Assumptions Explicit

Targets set at the executive level often involve high-level assumptions that seem reasonable when quickly reviewed in a spreadsheet. However, drilling down into the thinking behind the figures tells a different story.

Push to uncover all assumptions and have them shared beyond the leadership team. If increasing sales conversion rates from 20% to 30% is assumed, what specifically will drive that uplift? Is there evidence from other companies that such an increase is possible month-to-month? What would need to change in the sales process, tooling, messaging? And can they be achieved in the timeframe set out in the model?

Get your leadership to walk through scenarios that translate the numbers onto expected impact on real-world capacity – both for the business and for people. Adding that context helps ground the target and illuminate flaws in the thinking. Numbers are easy to manipulate; human effort and bandwidth less so.

A great example here is when you assume x-headcount will be added and pile fully ramped quota on top of that headcount growth, driving rapid revenue growth.

But when you work backwards from this, you can start to ask questions like:

  • Ok, we need 4x new FTEs with y experience, which means:
  • Given our average hire rate, how many interviews will we need to do?
  • Have we modelled out how many hours this will take out of people’s diaries to run the interviews? 4 hires could easily be 40+ hours of interviews, decreasing capacity for some people
  • Our hiring cycles are usually x-months, plus y-months of ramp…this model has them producing 100% quota in Q2, which means we needed to make these roles live 3 months ago!
  • Is attrition modelled in?

You get the picture…what looks easy on a spreadsheet can be messy in reality.

Spot Unreasonable Growth Rates

Pay close attention to any major spikes in growth baked into the plan – particularly 50-100% increases quarter-to-quarter or 30%+ lifts from one month to the next. Ask what changed within the business to credibly enable these gains. Probe the rationale and evidence that such scale-ups align with company stage and maturity.

Annual goal-setting often backloads ‘big results’ like doubled sales or tripled customer conversion to Q3/Q4 once ‘ foundations are set’ in the front half of the year. But what specifically sets the stage for 5x growth after months of smaller increments? Real transformation takes time, so push back on hockey-stick style projections.

Another variation of this is the idea of ‘stacking risk’ where no one increase seems material by itself, but taken together they compound to produce very significant results.

Here’s an example provided by Todd Busler, CEO at Champify.

““Sure, the product roadmap may be exciting, awareness is increasing, and reps have another year of tenure, but assuming too many positive increases is a recipe for disaster.”

What he meant was that when you look at the annual plan, it’s easy to justify your assumptions:

- Win rate will go up 5% because of a new product feature & more tenured reps

- Pipeline/SDR will go up 10% because of new tooling and a new leader

- Ramp time will decrease 15% because of a big enablement hire

- Deal size will go up 7% because of a new add on that’s sellable

When you look at each one of these individually, the numbers look doable.

But when you stack these micro-improvements together, you end up planning for a massive impact on productivity that won’t happen.“

Leverage External Perspectives

Respect for expertise and authority is ingrained in leadership. So utilize quotes, benchmarks, and insights from trusted industry sources to reinforce your position. For example, platform adoption or digital transformation metrics from renowned research firms can provide counterweights to overestimated projections. Experience-based guidance from respected operators offers valuable perspective.

Reference investor guidelines on healthy growth rates by startup stage. Position your view alongside established voices that decision-makers look to for patterns and guidance. This builds credibility and prompts more prudent evaluation of what aggressive targets demand.

Remind Leaders of Impact on Culture & Staff

Sky-high expectations don’t just pressure business metrics – they filter down to team morale, energy levels, and turnover risk. Remind executives that sustainable success requires motivated, invested people, not just numbers on a screen.

There are two key but competing approaches leaders take:

  1. Setting enormously ambitious goals forces teams to stretch themselves
  2. Establishing ambitious but achievable targets builds confidence and momentum as the team consistently record wins they can build on

I sit firmly in the second camp. Motivation requires balance between realistically attainable goals and pushing boundaries.

Despite some high-profile founders advocating the “10X thinking”approach, their own teams usually aren’t held to those exponential standards. Instead they’re used as a way to drive ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, but the actual targets set are usually more attainable. Outlandish hypotheticals can spark innovative thinking but still require reasonable executional targets.

Review and Revise

Rather than rigid annual goal-setting, push for quarterly or even monthly reviews on progress and recalibration of targets if needed. This increases flexibility to account for internal execution issues or external market shifts. Expected dependencies for growth like new feature launches or platform integrations often face delays – adjust targets accordingly if foundational elements slide.

Use time-bound check-ins to call out unrealistic ambitions early, not just at year-end reviews after 12 months of frustration. Secure executive commitment to revisit numbers if certain growth enablers aren’t realized or initial milestones aren’t hit. This early transparency will help keep teams focused rather than anxious and burnt out.

Be Willing To Walk Away

As a last resort if you've exhausted all other approaches, be prepared to vote with your feet and step away from unrealistic expectations. While an extreme option, resigning rather than accepting and inevitably struggling with unreasonable targets shows the seriousness of your position and concern.

Leaders often believe that more demanding goals inspire greater effort and innovation from teams. But promise only what you believe you can deliver, then put yourself to the test by exceeding that bar. Remember once you have accepted the goals, they become yours to own!

In conclusion

Ultimately targets need achievable foundations and should be grounded in evidentiary approaches not just aspirations. By steering decision-makers towards prudent forecasting, you serve both the business and its people while cementing yourself as a trusted advisor rather than obstructionist.

Sustainable success and efficient growth requires the courage to temper dreams with realism.