How to avoid goal-setting pitfalls

How to avoid goal-setting pitfalls

Phoebe Vaughan
November 5, 2016

Many common goal-setting practices do more to distract and discourage than inspire and energize. Ask a random sampling of your friends if they feel motivated by the goal-setting process at work and you might get an earful. For some the process is micromanaged with too many hyper-specific goals set by management, or it may be so loose and unstructured that employees have no sense of how their work directly impacts the bottom line. Add to that the omission of personal development goals, and you have a recipe for poor motivation, stagnant performance, and retention challenges.

Apply the solutions below to common goal-setting problems and ignite your employees’ motivation around shared and individual goals.

Problem: Too Many Goals Create Distraction

Solution: Set a Cap to Keep Goals Memorable

Having too many disparate goals makes it nearly impossible to remember or focus on all of them, and this dynamic can be magnified when reviews happen just once a year. When employees are asked to spread their attention too thin, they are less likely to focus on what really matters. Apply the Pareto principle, aka the “80/20” rule, by isolating the few goals that are most likely to drive results and cutting the many trivial ones that will distract from what really matters. While no pre-defined number of goals is right for every organization, less is more. A helpful litmus test is whether your employees can be reasonably expected to remember them cold.

Problem: Business Objectives Get All the Attention

Solution: Include and Nurture Personal Development Goals

Focusing only on revenue goals or other transactional aspects of job performance and failure to support employees in the development of new skills can lead to performance plateaus, even from highly motivated employees. Neglecting this aspect of the goal-setting process can lead to retention issues longer term, as employees may think that they have to find a new job or enroll in classes full-time in order to develop desired skills. Employees experience greater fulfillment when they are encouraged and supported in the attainment of new skills. In fact, opportunities for learning and development are ranked as the top concern among job-seekers, according to recent research. It is incumbent upon managers to encourage employees in setting and achieving their personal development goals and treat them as seriously as business goals.

Problem: Top-Down Goal Setting Feels Hollow

Solution: Manager and Employee Collaborate

When managers set all the goals, employees are robbed of the opportunity to contribute and collaborate while managers are burdened with all the work of crafting goals for each employee. Furthermore, managers may not be the best authority on what constitutes a realistic goal vs. a stretch goal. Taking employee input out of the equation can not only be demoralizing, but it can lead to unethical behavior, particularly when employees feel encouraged to “do whatever it takes” to hit an unrealistic goal or quota. At the beginning of each measurement period, managers can communicate the top-line business goals and leave it up to employees to craft their own goals which support the business, then fine-tune together as needed. In addition, employees can draft their personal development goals and articulate where they need manager support to fulfill them.

Problem: Measurement is Difficult or Impossible

Solution: Set Measurable Goals & Review Progress

Writing goals is not to be confused with writing a mission statement. While “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful” makes for an inspiring company mission, measurement is impossible and subjective. Inspiring employees to achieve great things isn’t enough. Employees like to know exactly what is expected of them and track where they stand, which means setting measureable, achievable goals and providing regular opportunities to review progress and request support. Reviews in many organizations happen just once a year, leaving employees feeling unmoored much of the time. Establishing quarterly goals and reviewing progress in routine one-on-one sessions helps bridge the gap.

Problem: Goals Feel Unimportant or Irrelevant

Solution: Manager Supports & Rewards Goal Fulfillment

Perhaps no practice is more destructive to the morale and performance of employees than creating a culture where goals are set but then ignored, or goals are articulated without establishing clear ownership on the employee level. Unfortunately, this a top mistake made by business leaders. Not only will employees feel frustrated by the expectation that they commit to goals that aren’t connected to their work, but managers run the risk of not being viewed as leaders. For employees to feel that their work matters and be motivated to continuously develop their skills, managers must create a culture where goals are taken seriously. Skillful leaders do this by effectively addressing performance shortfalls and rewarding the big wins so that employees consistently know where they stand and feel directly involved in the trajectory of their career.

In summary, managers seeking to motivate and retain talent collaborate with employees on the development of focused, role-specific goals and meet with employees regularly to review progress and provide necessary guidance. They nurture learning and development goals to boost employee fulfillment and skill development. Finally, they know that great people want to be part of great teams, and the best way to create them is through rigorous goal-setting and supportive performance management of each team member.

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