The single biggest mistake managers make when setting employee goals

The single biggest mistake managers make when setting employee goals

Doug Cunningham
July 20, 2017

Goal-setting seems simple: decide what you want to achieve, commit, and revisit in the future to confirm that it’s done. But why do so many employees and managers find themselves struggling to measure progress, achieve those lofty goals, or pinpoint where things went wrong? All too often when it comes time to evaluate the end-result of a goal, a debate ensues around the level of success.

The good news is that there is a sole cause for confusion — the original goal never clearly specifies outcomes. In this post, we’ll explain why outcomes are crucial to achieving your goals, and how to set outcomes that drive results, create clarity, and facilitate reflection for future improvements.

Outcomes Define Success

Think of your goal as a destination you’re trying to reach. You might get to your destination out of blind luck, but it’d sure help to have directions. Objectives are your road map to success - clear guidelines, benchmarks, and milestones so you know you’re on the right track and how close you are to achieving your goal.

Set outcomes early

You’ve likely crafted your direct report's goal to be lofty and bold. That’s perfect - you want to motivate your team to think big. But it’s crucial you balance an ambitious goal with the practical considerations of being able to evaluate progress and achievement. Every goal requires clear measures of progress and success from the outset. If you are trying to decide how to measure success when reviewing the end-result, you’re far too late and may be unable to recoup the time and effort you’ve already spent.

Make outcomes clear, quantifiable, and measurable

After deciding on the goal, create a set of outcomes that clearly outline expectations. You can think of outcomes as the answer to the question: how do we know we were successful?

For a simple goal, a single outcome may suffice, while a more complex goal might have 4-5 outcomes. Here is an example goal and associated outcomes for improving customer satisfaction:

Goal: Improve customer satisfaction


1. Generate 100 positive mentions from customers on social media

2. Raise our net promoter score from 30 to 40

3. Reduce our customer complaints by 10%

You'll notice three important aspects of each of the above outcomes. They are clear, quantifiable, and measurable.

Clear: It’s easy to think you’re being clear when you’re not. Have you ever walked away from a conversation with a colleague thinking you’re on the same page, only to later find out (usually at an awkward time) there's significant disconnect? By asking "How will we define success?" you frame the goal in terms of output instead of input, an important distinction. Rather than list activities that the goal owner will execute, you declare what will come of it.
Quantifiable: Perhaps the most important aspect of defining the outcome of a goal is to determine how it will be quantified. Sales will increase by 20%. Manufacturing defects will decrease by 10%. If you can't find a metric to represent success, then you should reconsider the goal. One exception to this is a milestone outcome.
Measurable: It is not enough to define a success metric — the metric must be one you have a means to measure. Suppose you have a goal for an engineer to improve code quality. To quantify it, you settle on an outcome such as "achieving a 95% rate of bug-free commits." But based on your development workflow, you are unable to track bugs at the granularity of particular developer commits. Your goal is clear (fewer bugs), it’s quantifiable (95% bug-free commits), but it’s not measurable.

Use Outcomes to Track Progress

Now that you’ve defined success, you must track it. While straightforward, this is often neglected until something has gone wrong. If you are managing your employee’s goals actively, then you are likely reviewing them your regularly scheduled one-on-ones. Many managers will discuss how goals are progressing but in a very qualitative and surface-level manner. Outcomes facilitate a more granular discussion of how things are developing.

Review goal outcomes regularly

It is essential to drill into the details and discuss how the goal is progressing against the clear, quantifiable, and measurable outcomes you set for it. If you neglect to revisit progress regularly throughout the duration of the goal, then you run the risk of a large disconnect between what you think is achieved and what is actually achieved. Regular check-ins lets you identify and diagnose problems quickly and efficiently.

Record and share updates

Not only should you review progress regularly, it’s important to record it in a place that both the manager and direct report can access and reference. The history of progress for a goal is important. If you only record the result, you'll only focus on hitting your target metrics in the final days, and likely forget key details come performance reviews.

By tracking progress, recording it, and publishing somewhere each stakeholder can see, all involved parties will focus on the goal with more intent over its duration. Additionally, sharing progress across teams and departments can be a powerful motivator and driver of company-wide transparency and ownership.

Use Outcomes to Evaluate Success and Refine Processes

Once the goal deadline arrives and it’s necessary to evaluate success, it’s easy to gloss over results yet again. You might review a goal, discuss the outcomes, see that they weren't achieved, and decide to mark the goal 100% complete anyway. Resist this temptation.

Provide an honest assessment

Goal-setting is a learning process for both managers and employees. By being honest about the level of achievement, you facilitate a candid discussion to accurately pinpoint what went wrong, and how to improve the process and communication flow to ensure a better result next time.

Marking every goal within the rigid confines of "success" or "failure" weakens your overall goal-setting effectiveness and deprives your direct reports of the opportunity to build confidence in their ability to set targets and achieve them.

Acknowledge poorly defined outcomes

Even the best goal-setters will at times create a flawed goal. It might be because the outcomes were only correlationally related to the goal, or the outcomes weren't clear, quantifiable, and measurable.

When confronted with this situation, it's important to acknowledge this disconnect and accept responsibility as a manager for not having caught it sooner. Doing so will build trust with your employee and reaffirm that you are partners, not adversaries, in the goal-setting process, and that you will share both credit in wins and blame in losses.


Goal-setting isn't difficult to get right, but it's easy to get it wrong. Remember to create outcomes that are clear, quantifiable, and measurable, and then manage to those results in an open, honest, and collaborative way. Your employees will feel empowered with a clear target to hit and your support and encouragement to be successful.

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