How to tell if you're being 'goalposted' at work

Burnout businesswoman under pressure in the office work
Goalposting at work is where an employer constantly changes your targets and goals, often at a moment’s notice. (praetorianphoto via Getty Images)

There are few things more annoying at work than thinking you’re on track with a project, then having the targets moved with no prior notice. It can be stressful, disheartening and leave you questioning if your boss — or the company — really knows what they’re doing.

Unfortunately, "goalposting" is something many of us experience. So what are the signs — and is there anything you can do about it?

“Goalposting is where an employer constantly changes your targets and goals, often at a moment’s notice,” says career expert Rob Phelps, of Social Media Jobs.

“You may be working towards a target, only to have the bar raised at the last minute, making it less achievable,” he says. “It creates a sense of chasing a finish line that you'll never reach, and can have a serious impact on your motivation.”

There are many signs of goalposting to watch out for, including the targets being vague from the outset, with unclear goals that are never truly set.

“This allows your employer to claim you fell short, even if you hit what you understood the target to be,” explains Phelps. “Frequent changes in targets and deadlines, which can be confusing and make it hard to plan effectively.

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“Unrealistic expectations, with the bar being raised higher and higher, regardless of how achievable the new goals might be. This can make you feel like you're being set up for failure, and can lead to burnout,” he adds.

As well as leading to increased stress and anxiety, goalposting can affect motivation. If someone thinks they’re doing their job well, but then their employer stretches the targets or changes their expectations, it sends a message that their efforts are meaningless. It can foster distrust and can lead to doubts about the direction of the business — ultimately undermining the relationship between employee and employer.

There are many reasons why an employer may continually — or arbitrarily — shift a worker’s targets. “It could be down to poor planning and management on their part. Without the employer having their own goals well defined, targets can become subject to last minute changes to get immediate results, as circumstances change,” says Phelps.

“It could also be because they feel the need to micromanage. A need for control manifesting in constant adjustments to your goals and targets can mean that they don't trust your abilities, and can be damaging to your confidence.”

In some cases, it could be a sign that a business is floundering, especially if decisions are being made quickly without much thought or planning. “It could potentially demonstrate a lack of direction. If the business is unsure of its own goals, indecisiveness can lead to confusion further down the chain,” adds Phelps.

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“It could even be a sign that there is internal conflict causing disagreements about strategy and direction, meaning that you're constantly being given conflicting goals, and end up unsure of what's expected of you.”

If you think you’re being goalposted, it’s important to speak to your manager calmly to clarify what is wanted from you.

“Ask them to clarify the changes in goals, and work with you to establish more stable expectations, and more achievable targets,” says Phelps.

It’s also helpful to document what is asked of you. Then, you’ll be able to refer back to it if your employer may try to gaslight you, for example, by saying that the targets have always been the same.

“Keep track of initial targets that you're given, no matter how vague they are, as well as any changes that are made, so you can provide evidence if there are concerns about your performance,” he says.

“If the goalposting becomes severe and starts to create a toxic work environment where you don't feel like you can discuss it with your employer, consider that it might be time to look for something new — something with clear expectations and more supportive management.”

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