Successful Employee Goal Planning Sessions

5. Are the goals results-based and verifiable?

Do the goals measure value-added results or output, not just activities? Goals should not be activities to be completed. They should embody desirable outcomes or results. There is a tendency, especially among first-time goal setters, to write goals that look like activities, such as “Write reports” or “Conduct training programs.” To counter this natural inclination, we like to make sure everyone has at least one or two measures for each goal. Defining measures forces people to think explicitly about what results are expected. A measure for “Conduct training programs,” for example, might be “80% of participants pass proficiency test with score of 90 or above.” This puts the emphasis on the result desired (employees whose knowledge of an important topic has been increased) rather than on the activity (running a bunch of employees through a training program).

In addition to specifying results, do the goals and their measures make it possible to verify that the goals have been achieved? Check the measures to make sure some kind of qualitative or quantitative results are specified. How will you know if the goal has been achieved? How will you know if it has been exceeded? You don’t want to arrive at the end of the performance period and not be able to agree with your employee on whether or not a goal has been achieved.

6. Are the measures set at the right level?

Some employees will be overly ambitious and set unrealistically difficult goals for themselves. It is good to have challenging goals for their motivational value, but if a goal is impossible to achieve, it will only lead to frustration.

Sometimes employees will set their measures too low, either inadvertently (through naivete) or purposely (through calculation). “Sandbagging” is the term typically used to describe the intentional setting of easy goals, with the goal setter often claiming that the goal’s achievement will be fraught with hazards and hardships. This is probably the most contentious item on the checklist. Negotiation may be required to get the measures set at the appropriate level.

From your perspective as a manager, having seen other people’s goals and the measures they set for themselves, you will be in a better position than your employee to know whether “100% customer satisfaction,” “12-hour response time,” or “$5M in booked sales” are too easy, unrealistically difficult, or just right.

You will want to make sure that your employee’s measures are consistent with those set by other employees with comparable goals. In some cases, measures will be dictated by the higher-level goals that they support. For example, if your goal for a project has a budget constraint of $25,000, any of your employees’ supporting goals would need to have measures set within that constraint.

Want to set a stretch goal? It’s probably a good idea. The way to do this is to first define the results that constitute the “meets expectations” level of performance and then define what “exceeds expectations” looks like. The “exceeds” level represents the “stretch.”

7. Are the measures practical?

Measures are intended to make it possible to track progress as a goal is being worked on and to determine how well it’s been achieved when you are completing the employee’s performance evaluation. But they should be practical. It shouldn’t require as much effort to measure progress on the goal as it does to actually work on the goal itself – nor should it be unduly expensive, intrusive, or resource consuming.

For example, it would be difficult to track progress on a customer service representative’s goal if its measure was: “Every customer inquiry handled in exemplary fashion.” That would require somehow monitoring every call. A more practical measure would be based on exception reporting: “No complaints regarding how customer inquiries were handled.”

8. Is achievement of the goals under your employee’s control?

This principle may seem obvious but we’ve seen it violated so many times it is well worth including it on the checklist. The principle is: If a result is beyond the employee’s power to control, he or she shouldn’t be held accountable for achieving it.

A classic example is holding HR accountable for employee turnover. Turnover has many causes and HR can, at best, only indirectly influence most of them. One could argue persuasively that managers should be held accountable for the turnover of their staffs. Managers have a more direct influence on employees’ decisions to leave the company. But consider all the other factors involved: people are more inclined to leave when the economy is strong, unemployment is low, and they are highly marketable. You wouldn’t want to punish managers or HR because the economy is doing well and they are hiring and developing talented people, but that would be an outcome of holding them accountable for turnover.

On the other hand, no one ever has complete control over the results they are attempting to produce. But people still need to be held accountable. To minimize the control issue, it would be a good idea to identify the obstacles and problems you and the employee expect to arise as he or she works on a goal. What are the additional resources needed to ensure success? What preventive actions can be taken to forestall anticipated problems? What contingency plan should be put in place just in case? In short, if you are going to hold an employee accountable for this goal, how can you provide the resources or authority needed to make it a fair game?

9. Does the employee have the skills needed to achieve the goals?

Another way to look at the idea of a “stretch goal” is that it is a goal whose achievement requires a bit more skill than the employee currently possesses. Now it’s not possible to precisely measure this – it is an estimate. But in many cases you know, and the employee knows, that fully achieving the goal will require him or her to stretch beyond his or her present capabilities. When you know this is the case, there are a couple routes you can take. One is to back off on the goal – trim it down and scale it back so that the employee can handle it – or, alternatively, to reassign the goal to an employee who is fully capable of achieving it.

Taking this route, however, would pass up one of the reasons many people go to work every day – the opportunity to learn and to grow in their positions. So, the other – and recommended – route is to assist the employee in identifying the competencies and skills needed to successfully pursue the stretch goal and to craft a development plan to run in parallel with and support their work on the goal. Working on challenging assignments is a primary stimulus of employee development.

10. Is each goal truly a goal rather than a competency masquerading as a goal?

In the end, you’ll evaluate your employee on results (how well they achieve their goals) and behaviors (how well they apply the competencies associated with their position). We have often seen competencies get reflected as goals, such as, “Improve teamwork” or “Communicate more effectively.” If the competencies on which you will evaluate your employees include “Teamwork” and “Communication,” there is no need to establish “Teamwork” and “Communication” goals. Doing so would set up a kind of double jeopardy for the employee – you’d end up evaluating the employee twice on the same thing. It is an unnecessary duplication.

Now, it’s perfectly OK to create development plans focusing on improving teamwork and communicating effectively. The logic of performance management, after all, is that people apply their competencies in order to achieve their goals, and if they are lacking in a particular competency, they devise a development plan to bolster that competency.

You can use this checklist in your meetings with your employees. Use it to stimulate critical discussion of the employees’ goals and to help your employees refine their goals. We know that goal setting is a powerful management tool and is capable of driving high levels of performance. The criteria included in this checklist can help fulfill this promise. But equally important is conducting these sessions with your employees so that they are open, two-way discussions. Your employees need to be committed to the achievement of their goals – to “own” them – and the best way to gain this commitment is to ensure your employees have a significant hand in fashioning these goals.

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