Ever had to tell your boss that you failed to meet a goal?


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looking at a field through a smaller frame

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

― Ernest Hemingway (again!)

Dissecting feedback from our Sweetspot clients is, of course, a tremendous way to gauge the success of our reporting platform and to make improvements that bring value to clients. We love to listen to the good, the bad… and, while sometimes not easy, even the ugly! Something can always be improved! This, of course, extends to our prospective clients and their needs and challenges too.

During one such conversation with a prospect recently, a question arose regarding the default wording used to communicate progress towards a defined goal within a dashboard.

”Is this easily configurable to reflect the language we use internally at our company?” they asked. ”Using a word like ‘failure’ (with its overt negative connotations) would be frowned upon in our organisation…”.

Brilliant! This led us to consider and investigate this fascinating ‘positive language’ concept. If employee performance can be enhanced by the adoption of standard positive vocabulary, could the interaction and collaboration of your teams and the results on your performance dashboards also be impacted in a similar way?

Our take on goals

In order to help you reach your goals, Sweetspot allows you to map your performance against them and to set different types of goals. We call this Enterprise Dashboard methodology ‘Goal-driven Optimization‘.

Traditionally we have used the following terms to describe goal attainment:

  • Failed: the goal was not reached within the specified time period
  • Current: the goal is in progress as the specified time period has not ended
  • Success: the goal was reached within the specified time period

“Failed” to meet a goal? “Try again” to meet a goal? or Goal “not attained?”

The request previously referred to was based specifically on the use of the term “failed”. The concern of the requester was based on organizational standards in the use of language. In their organization, positive language is used to encourage performance. But what if motivations hadn’t been so pure?

Whilst we recognise the impact positive language can have on encouraging collaboration and prompting better results, it is always pertinent to understand motivations for wishing to use this language before implementing it throughout organizational communications.

So the question is: would terms such as ‘try again’ and ‘almost there’ better encourage teams to keep working towards their goals? Or would ‘not attained’ be more appropriate? It’s not as harsh as ‘failed’ but it certainly does make it clear that results did not reach the desired level during a given time frame.

The positive vs. negative language debate

Company Culture

Culture is an extremely important factor in answering the question ‘what is the best language to use to describe non-attainment of goals?’ Every single organisational process should comply with and enhance company culture.

Perhaps your organisation has created a culture of encouragement and found that this is the best manner to get positive results from teams. In this case, positive reinforcement terms such as ‘try again’ might be the path for you.

On the other hand, you might find that competition compels your team to perform better. In this case, ‘negative’ language which urges them to compete against the team’s own expectations may induce stronger performance.

Accountability Avoidance?

Whilst ‘failed’ is strong and blunt, its impact may be what’s needed to help give a team a little push.

It is crucial to understand why you are actually advocating for positive language. Is it truly because this is the best way to ensure positive performance and goal attainment from your team? Or is it because you are scared of taking accountability for poor decisions?

If this is the case, changing the pervasive language on your reports to reflect positivity will not actually enforce any positive changes. It is crucial that all organizations promote transparency and accountability for decision-making. Only when responsibility is taken for actions, will teams and individuals acknowledge why poor results were seen and work towards improving their processes. Mistakes, errors in judgement or simply unexpected consequences of decisions are all crucial in our learning experience.

Whilst telling your CMO that your team ‘failed’ to reach objectives may be way more than uncomfortable, the desire to avoid a repeat and lose face may compel teams to work harder to meet their objectives.

Does optimism serve to encourage better performance than pessimism?

Eric Barker shared an extremely interesting article on optimism vs. pessimism. He describes how whilst optimists use positive language to describe situations, pessimists act to the contrary. Applying his thoughts to our case, we can say that:

  • when an optimist does not make their objectives, they will frame the conversation on ‘why’ around the fact that this failure is temporary, has a specific cause and was not necessarily their fault.
  • when a pessimist does not make their objectives, they frame the conversation on ‘why’ around the pervasive nature of the failure, their part in the failure and the universal nature of it.

But which framing of the non-attainment of objectives is correct?

Barker tells us that whilst optimists may be more productive, persistent and successful, pessimism certainly has its own benefits. Pessimists are often more realistic, accurate, and able to see potential problems with clearer vision. He describes how when the risk of failure is high, pessimists may make better decisions.

Therefore, perhaps our takeaway in the context of positive/optimistic language vs. negative/pessimistic language on dashboards should be that:

  • we use positive language in the case that the implications of not meeting our goals are not terribly dire, in order to encourage efficiency in making recommendations, persistence where the initial implementations of an action don’t lead to goal attainment, and to encourage success.
  • we use negative language in the case that there are strong negative implications of not meeting our goals, we want to encourage extremely comprehensive analysis of the situation and creative and exhaustive recommendations, and we require a more realistic picture of how we are performing.


We would really like you to join in the conversation and give us your thoughts on this topic.




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Megan Wilcock

VP of Business Development for Sweetspot. Responsible for strategic brand development, marketing and business development. BA/BComm graduate from the University of Melbourne. My passion lies in finding creative solutions and encouraging collaboration.

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