How to Set Goals for your Employees
- Human Resources
6 min. Read
Last Updated: 03/09/2021
Table of Contents
Employee goal-setting is a key responsibility for any manager. By setting measurable and attainable goals, a supervisor can not only guide improvement in employee performance, but also can actively help strengthen the business and enhance its reputation as an employer of choice.
Setting goals at work can include other benefits such as:
- Aligning staff's work with the company's broader short-term and future goals
- Establishing guidelines and criteria for a successful employee performance review and/or company bonus program
- Deepening employee engagement
Here are some considerations for goal-setting in the workplace that can help make these potential benefits a reality.
1. Set goals that align with company objectives
Each employee's goals should be tied to the company's overall growth strategy. When employees understand how their individual role and responsibilities contribute to the bigger picture, they're often more focused and motivated to achieve goals that result in success for both the business and themselves. Consistently communicating strategic business goals (and regularly emphasizing the company mission) can help keep employees engaged in the work they do.
Businesses may choose to link their company performance goals to key strategic objectives, and from there convert those into team-performance goals. As a result, employees may accept increased accountability as they recognize how their individual performance directly impacts the company.
2. Invite employees to identify job-specific goals
Managers may have certain objectives in mind for each employee, but they will likely get insightful answers if they ask employees to identify goals specifically related to their job and that are meaningful to them. There's a big difference between imposing goals on employees and encouraging them to suggest goals on their own. When their suggested goals align with company objectives, a manager can work alongside employees to develop action plans to attain those goals.
Depending on the position, employee goal-setting ideas might include those centered around productivity and efficiency. When working with an employee, aim for fewer mistakes on the job and an increase in productivity. This could translate to more sales calls in a day or, for a customer-service representative, addressing customer issues in a shorter period of time, so as to interact with more customers on a daily basis.
3. Set SMART goals
Employees may not know how to make goals for work that they can realistically achieve. In the past they may have created vague or poorly crafted goals, which tend to feel daunting and set them up for failure in achieving their objectives. Instead, carefully planned, clear, and trackable goals set within the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) framework can help outline the steps necessary to reach a goal. Each element of the SMART framework, outlined below, works together to set boundaries, define next steps, identify necessary resources, and pinpoint indicators of progress. Consider using the SMART goal framework when working with employees to help them create a strong foundation for success.
Create goals that are as clear and specific as possible. When you and the employee first meet and you ask them about a goal they want to achieve, their answer may initially be vague ("I want to do better on sales calls"). But the more the employee can hone in on a specific desired goal ("I want to increase my number of units sold"), the more you can help them understand the steps necessary to achieve it.
Getting into the specifics requires asking the right questions. When working with employees, ask them for more details, such as:
- What are you looking to accomplish?
- Who is a part of this goal?
- What are the steps to achieve this goal?
- Why do you want to achieve this goal?
- What outcomes need to happen to make this a success?
The measurable part of the SMART framework outlines specific criteria for indicating progress toward a goal. It helps employees stay on track, keeps them accountable, and adds motivation as they quantify how much closer they're getting toward achieving an accomplishment. For the salesperson in the example above, the measurable part of their goal may be: Increase my sales calls to the Midwest region by 2 percent each week and increase overall unit sales by 8 percent.
When working with employees on measuring their goals, drill down into specifics by asking questions such as:
- How much of an improvement are you aiming for?
- What key performance indicators have you used before, and how successful were you? Does anything need to change with this new goal?
- What indicators will signal that you've met the goal?
A well-defined goal is one that an employee can realistically attain, but should also stretch the employee in their role so that they feel challenged. During this part of goal-setting, consider any limitations that might stand in the way of the employee hitting the achievement. Work with employees by asking questions such as:
- Is this goal realistic?
- Do you have what you need to get it done?
- How does this goal fit in with your overall workload?
- Have others been able to achieve similar goals?
- Are other relevant team members available to help if you need it?
For example, if you ask your salesperson the questions above, they may realize that increasing unit sales by 8 percent is too aggressive. Looking at factors such as the company's sales history and the employee's workload, a target increase of 6 percent may be more realistic.
A relevant goal should align with other goals, but also be worthwhile to the employee. They should be able to clearly see the benefit of going after the goal, understand how and why the goal is important to the business, and help reinforce how their work is part of the big picture. When determining the relevance of goals, ask employees:
- Is this goal worthwhile?
- How well does this goal align with our company's mission?
- Does this goal map to current business priorities?
In the salesperson example, the goal of increasing sales in the Midwest may be relevant if the company is focusing on improving market presence in that area of the country in the upcoming year.
You and your employees need to be on the same page about when they need to reach goals. Without a sense of urgency, your team may not feel motivated to achieve them. That's why it's important to set clear target dates for meeting goals. Depending on the position, specific goals centered around productivity and efficiency are often very effective, such as more sales calls in a day or addressing customer issues in a shorter period of time. When building SMART goals, work with your employees to answer the following questions:
- What is the deadline for this goal?
- Why is this deadline important?
- Are there other initiatives hinging on completion of this goal?
Examples of SMART goals
Goal-setting in the workplace can range from performance achievements to professional development ambitions. But all well-crafted goals are aligned to larger key business strategies. Some employee goal examples that revolve around performance improvement are:
- Increase new signups by 15 percent by the end of Q1 to improve sales pipeline.
- Contact 100 percent of my customer base each month on either a direct contact or touch basis, using meetings, email, or phone.
- Reduce call wait times by 10 percent over the next six months to improve customer service ratings.
In the area of professional development, examples of goals include:
- Network with two company senior leaders every six months to better understand how other areas of the business work.
- Complete all management training courses in the company LMS before my next performance review.
- Attend one industry event each quarter and share findings with the team during staff meetings.
4. Emphasize attainable goals
Attainment is an important factor in the SMART goal framework. As mentioned above, goal-setting can fail when the objective is overly ambitious or unrealistic, given the employee's skill set and available resources. Burdening an employee with an out-of-reach goal can lead to frustration with the process and a resulting lack of motivation for further improvement. They might think, "Why should I even bother if this is an unreasonable goal for anyone to achieve?"
Consider previously established benchmarks when working with employees on their goals. One way to consider how attainable a goal can be is to consider if someone else with equal experience and training has achieved a similar goal before.
5. Set consistent goals for employees with similar responsibilities
It's the employer's responsibility to foster a healthy working environment that encourages growth opportunities for employees. Goal-setting in the workplace may backfire when it's framed as a contest or competition among employees. It can also quickly undermine a positive work culture. Refrain from encouraging internal rivalries, which can lead to diminished morale, frustration, and resentment.
6. Reward employees who achieve their goals
It's critical to recognize employees who achieve or exceed set goals. Not only does such a recognition (reward, bonus, certificate, or public acknowledgment at a staff meeting) honor that employee's efforts, but it also demonstrates that the company values this type of commitment and hard work. It may even further incentivize the rest of the workforce to work hard on their own goals. Alternatively, when such hard work goes unnoticed, employees can justifiably feel there's no point in working so hard and may reduce their productivity or even begin looking for a new job elsewhere.
7. Work closely with employees who fall short
Not every employee will successfully attain their goals, regardless of how hard they try. Ideally, their manager periodically assesses progress and steps in to provide assistance where needed. In a situation where the agreed-upon deadline arrives and the employee hasn't met their goals, there should be an in-depth discussion about what went wrong, combined with encouragement to try again and address or rework the stated objectives. Working with your employees to set goals helps strengthen a culture of ongoing feedback and open communication. Employees with clearly outlined goals are also in a prime position to push themselves, meet new challenges, and feel aligned to big-picture initiatives.
Create a competitive advantage for your business. Help your workforce stay challenged, motivated and connected with their work through appropriate goals. Learn more about how goal-setting can help deepen employee engagement within your organization or explore how HR consulting may be right for your company.