Goal setting has long been considered a cornerstone of any high-functioning organization. However, recent research has shown that when done improperly it can do more harm than good. Unless goal setting focuses on the most important aspects of work, it inevitably detracts from them. Many organizations perpetuate the “more is more” mentality when it comes to setting goals but even the most talented executives will buckle under the weight of too many competing objectives. In the absence of manageable and clearly prioritized goals, there is a tendency to focus on what is immediately at hand rather than what matters most long term. This can spell disaster for the bottom line and employee well-being and performance.
The cost of wasting time on the wrong goals
Executives are working longer hours with more distractions due to perpetual tethering to devices and devotion to multi-tasking, despite its many pitfalls. This means that it is particularly important for business leaders to cut through the clutter by setting clear strategic objectives and translating them into manageable goals at the employee level. Whether at work or at home, we all know how enervating it feels to chip away at an endless to-do list. We may not know where to start and decide to just bang out the easiest items on the list while the challenging problems are overlooked, intentionally or not. Effective time management can aid in this process and a systematic approach ensures that everyone in the organization has the tools and support that they need to focus on what really matters.
Adopting a systematic approach
The most fundamental ingredients for a successful goal-setting process are clearly articulated goals and an action plan for fulfilling each one. Above all, limiting the number of goals helps ensure that attention will be focused where it matters most. As simple as this sounds, many organizations fail to employ a systematic way of setting, measuring, and supporting the fulfillment of goals, leaving employees at the mercy of their managers. Those with managers who take a proactive, hands-on approach to performance management might receive the support they need to set and achieve their goals. Yet the many who do not have a manager engaged in their development will not fulfill their potential (best case) or in the worst case, may make mistakes that take a significant toll on the business and the health of the team. It is incumbent upon organizations to provide tools that streamline the performance management process and to create a culture where development is nurtured and discussed regularly, not just once or twice a year.
Effective goal-setting starts with a clear strategy
Arriving at the right goals means taking the time to set a thoughtful strategy at the organizational level. Once a top level strategy is finalized, creating quarterly objectives that support the big-picture goals is relatively easy. Technology companies and NGOs have been at the forefront of embracing more nimble, dynamic strategic planning process wherein an long term strategy may be tweaked based on unexpected marketplace dynamics throughout the plan period. Some industries are far more volatile than others so it is up to management to decide whether it is sensible to adapt or hold firm to long term strategic goals. Either way, making time to create a long-term plan and then announce relevant updates as needed helps keep everyone in the organization aligned around the overarching strategy.
Use goals to nurture talent
Research has shown that many firms mismanage top talent, resulting in poor engagement and retention. After all, top performers who realize their value will seek out opportunities where they can make the most of their abilities and reap maximum rewards. Across the performance spectrum, employees value learning and development opportunities, which means that managers should be helping their team members set both performance and learning goals. As with setting business objectives, brevity and measurability are key so that the process feels purposeful and attainable. One or two learning and development goals with corresponding action plans is enough.
The final ingredients that help ensure the success of a goal-management program are cultural as well as tactical. Managers need to send the message to employees that goal-setting matters by talking about it regularly in one-on-one sessions and being genuinely available to provide support when appropriate. This doesn’t mean hand-holding, but it does mean that lines of communication with employees are open so that they feel welcome to ask for help and share successes. Furthermore, employees need to see that their efforts are duly recognized and rewarded on an ongoing basis and that performance shortfalls are addressed in a timely fashion. This helps ensure that individuals feel connected to big picture goals in a real and ongoing way.