Successful Employee Goal Planning Sessions

Employee goal planning is one of the most important parts of your job as a successful manager. Goal planning is an intensive process – one which requires thought, focus, and energy. In this free tutorial, we’re going to explore employee goal setting sessions and how to properly handle them.

You’ve shared with your employees the information they need to draft their goals. Now it’s time to meet with them one-on-one, take a look at what they’ve drafted, and help them finalize their goals. But don’t expect a productive meeting if you waltz into the session planning to just “walk through” the draft goals and see what issues come up. Important discussions always benefit from structure. And there are, predictably, certain things to look for. We have compiled a ten-point checklist you can use to keep this meeting on track and help your employees assure their goals are properly aligned, coordinated, calibrated, focused, and supported.

Preparing for the Goal Setting Meeting

You’ve done the preparatory work – set your own goals, assuring their alignment to your manager’s goals and to your company’s higher-level goals, and shared information with your direct reports so that they can draft their goals for the upcoming performance period. The task now is to work with your employees to ensure they have meaningful goals – that is, goals that will do a good job of guiding their work efforts to everyone’s mutual benefit (the company’s, most certainly, included).

These sessions with your employees are important. Performance management (PM) is a structured process, designed to deliver organizationally relevant results, and it is a process that can be facilitated by technology. But, no matter how good the technology is, the essence of PM is in the interaction between manager and employee. And one of these interactions is the goal-setting discussion in which you and your employee arrive at mutually agreed upon goals, which the employee will be held accountable for achieving.

In a group of employees, each probably has a slightly different (or, sometimes, dramatically different) way of setting goals. But it’s important to have some standardization, a common structure and method, and comparable ways of measuring performance and gauging achievement of goals. This helps make things fair and equitable. You want to avoid having employees set goals that are either too difficult or too easy. And you want to minimize gaming of the system.

A Checklist for Employee Goal Setting

As you review your employee’s draft goals with him or her, are there some criteria against which you can compare the drafts? Are there specific questions to ask to facilitate constructive discussion of the goals? The following questions may be helpful. Try it out as a checklist. Use it to guide your discussion.

1. Are the goals relevant?

This question is intended to cut to the heart of the matter. If your employee were to achieve this goal, would it make any difference to you (the manager) and to the organization? Since your employees’ goals will demand their attention, consume their energy, and tap their talent for the next three to twelve months, they ought to be goals whose achievement will make a difference.

The best way to determine relevance is to “look up.” Look up to see if the goal in question supports any of your own goals. Look up to see if it aligns, ultimately, to any of the higher-level goals of the company and to the company’s strategy. Is it consistent with the company’s vision and values? This is the discipline of alignment. Your employees, of course, should have drafted their goals in full knowledge of your goals, so that alignment would be assured. If a goal isn’t relevant, eliminate it or rethink it.

2. Is the scope of the goals neither too grand nor too small?

Goals are useful when they provide practical guidance. If your employee has a goal with a 5-year timeframe and a scope broader than his or her (or even your) job, it loses its ability to guide the person’s performance in the short run. For example, “Achieve division profitability in 5 years” would be a good higher-level goal or strategic objective, but too grand in scope for an individual working on a 12-month timeframe. Such goals need to be trimmed down to size.

Goals do take on a different complexion as they move from the executive suite to the rank and file. At the top, goals – by definition – will be more strategic. At middle levels of the organization, goals are more tactical and are purposefully set to support the more strategic goals. At lower levels, goals are operational and consist of carrying out the actions and producing the results necessary to support the tactical goals. So it is natural for an executive’s goals to be considerably broader in scope than the goals of an employee further down the hierarchy.

More common than overly grand goals is the tendency to set goals that look like items on a to-do list, such as “Submit expense reports on time,” “Complete report by next Tuesday,” or “Fill vacancy in production department by next Friday.” These are not really goals but tasks. Setting goals that are at the task level and are short in duration invites micromanagement. If your employees set goals of this limited scope, you will soon be so preoccupied with the bark of the trees that you’ll forget there is a forest.

These “goalettes” need to be kicked up a notch. Filling a specific vacancy may be part of a larger goal concerning managing and maintaining a quality staff, and filling vacancies might be a legitimate measure of that goal. If you think a goal is too task-like, you can begin to figure out how to kick it up a notch by asking your employee: Why are we doing this? What value is being added?

3. Are there neither too few nor too many goals?

There is no magic “right” number of goals, but we often hear something in the range of three to seven goals as an ideal capacity. Too many goals and it is unlikely a person could address all of them with any attention to quality. If your employee has proposed too many goals to be humanly tackled, rank them in order of priority and eliminate the less important ones. If they all seem important, determine which goals could be assigned to someone else.

Too few goals? Has your employee included the key responsibilities of his or her position? If not, it’s vitally important to do so. Key responsibilities should be the starting point for setting goals. Sometimes, however, having only a couple goals makes sense, given the nature of the job. We have known software engineers who had two goals: “Write code” and “Fix bugs.” And those two were all they needed.

Having too many or too few goals might also be due to goals being either too fine-grained or too coarse-grained in scope. For example, if goals are set on microscopic aspects of the work (e.g., tasks), there will likely be a bunch of them. (See the item above on “scope” for more on this.)

4. Are your goals coordinated with other people’s goals?

It can be wasteful of resources, talent, and energy to have people working on goals that conflict with one another, or to have them working on similar or overlapping goals. As you look over your employee’s draft goals, are there potential conflicts with other employees’ goals? Could any of these goals overlap with others’ goals? If you suspect conflict or duplication, check it out. You might want to bring the other employees with similar goals, or their managers, together to discuss and resolve the issues. Work out who is going to be accountable for what results so that resources are best used and collaboration is emphasized.

Coordination is especially needed when work on one goal is dependent upon other employees’ efforts on their goals. In fact, in most organizations there are probably more dependencies to be worked out than conflicts or overlaps to be resolved. When dependencies exist, you may need to build in coordination as one of the goal’s measures of successful performance.