Are you on target?

HAVE you noticed how aggressive our language has become in the past few years? There are the obvious things – we “battle” cancer, we “fight” our way through traffic, we see sport (particularly the “team” games such as rugby, soccer and cricket) as “war,” and we can be “crushed” by just about anything going not quite right.

However, the most mis-used and most aggressive word is “target” – it is the one that most impinges on the lives of most people and in its apparently harmless way, it is probably the most deadly, because our careers, our businesses, our organisations, our events and even our lives can depend on it.

Just so we understand what we are talking about, “target” can be either a noun or a verb, but in either case it is a word with clearly aggressive impact. As a noun, a target is a person, object or place selected as the aim of an attack (in 9/11, for example, the Twin Towers were the “target” for the attack). Useful synonyms are prey, quarry, game, kill or bag. So whichever way you look at it, if you are a target, you are (virtual) dead meat, whether you are a grouse going about your business on the moors or an accountant number-crunching in your glass box 50 floors above.

As an object, a target is also a mark or point at which one fires or aims, specifically a round or rectangular board marked with concentric circles used in archery or shooting. The useful synonyms here are mark, bullseye or goal. As a target you (or the unfortunate grouse) are also the victim, focus or just fair game (which probably brings us a bit closer to today’s twisted use of the word).

Historically a target could also be a small round shield or buckler ­– although it is questionable whether anyone these days has a shield that will protect them against the targets wielded by those in power whether it is the corporation’s finance director, the hospital chief executive or a government department.

As a verb, to target means to select as an object of attention or attack and possible synonyms include pick out, single out, select, choose, decide on or earmark.

A conversation with a hair-dresser set me thinking about targets (conversations with our hair-dresser are rarely of the “where are you going on holiday?” variety). She was telling me about her time at another salon, where her cost for her clients was increased, not because of her skill but because of her success at selling extra products (those shampoos, treatments, gels and wax and other sprays displayed in the salon). It was not how happy her customers were with their hair-cut or new style, but how much additional revenue she had gained for the salon owner that determined how the stylists were rated and what they were paid. So she left and joined a salon where the customers’ satisfaction was more important than how many trendy products they left with (and never knew how to use).

Targets affect almost every aspect of our lives. Supermarket managers are targeted on the through-put at the check-outs or how many BOGOFs they sell. Newspaper editors are targeted on how much they can cut their freelance budgets. Council chiefs are targeted on outsourcing as many basic services as possible, and social services (particularly essential child protection work) are undermined by budget cuts. Head teachers (often more accurately described as managing directors) are targeted on exam success. Chief operating officers of multi-nationals are targeted on how many costs (and employees) they can strip out of a newly acquired business to maximise profits and “efficiency.” Sales managers are targeted on how far beyond their targets they can reach and advertising executives are targeted on everything, from the number of calls they make in an hour or how short they keep their “comfort breaks” to the number of adverts they can “up-sell” from print to the website.

For those who “hit” their targets there are rewards – which can range from a massive six or seven figure bonus for senior executives to a new car, a holiday in the sun or a spa treatment lower down the pecking order. At the bargain basement level of cold calling the chase is further exaggerated by making the incentive a reward for the most successful salesperson within a department, a region or even the whole company (but if they miss their targets, the whole department is penalised). The race is on, watch the ferrets run.

Nowhere has the corrosive effect of targets been more obvious or more drastic than in the National Health Service – a public service forced to operate within a “free market economy” with targets, budgets and the concomitant bonuses, rewards and penalties.

And nowhere has the impact of targets in the NHS been more fatal than in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, where a “culture” (there’s another abused word!) of targets, cost-cutting and constant monitoring of budgets meant that there was not enough staff actually on the wards to deliver (not babies of course – these days we “deliver” services, only we don’t, or at least Mid Staffs didn’t) patient care. The results have made for tragic and horrifying personal stories of suffering, misery, degradation and even death.

It is surely only a matter of time before the current obsession with (fictional) serial killers morphs into a black joke computer game where funeral directors and crematorium managers battle to reach their ever-rising targets – come back Burke and Hare, there’s a target just waiting to be hit.

Fanny Charles