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The new way to approach employee objective-setting

In order for employee objective-setting to work, it needs to be approached as more than a frustrating bureaucratic exercise.

Here’s a counterintuitive observation about setting employee objectives: The longer I was in management, the longer it took me to do them. 

Though I actually think I was much better at them after 24 years, say, than after one year. So why did it take me longer? Normally you assume that when you get better at something, it’ll take you less time, not more.

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The answer is simple: because I was focusing on them more and approaching them more rigorously.

Why employee goal setting is important

It’s tempting – though lazy – to approach annual employee objective-setting as little more than a frustrating bureaucratic exercise (one of those nettlesome year-over-year tasks HR always makes us do!). Just plug in last year’s objectives, review them to see if anything needs obvious updating, revise quickly, and move on. This was how I approached objective-setting at the beginning of my management career.

It was, however, an ineffective way to approach performance – not good management, not good for a motivated employee, and certainly not good for an organization. It’s also not uncommon. Studies show only half of all managers set productive performance goals.

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Employee objectives should be ambitious but attainable

As I grew more experienced in management, and had some excellent mentors along the way, I slowly began to realize just how important a managerial tool job objectives were. They set the tone for the whole year. They helped determine compensation. They might well determine whether an employee succeeded or failed. Why would any manager treat them as just a tedious task?

Asking the right questions when setting employee objectives

Are these functions really what this employee should be working on – or might time be better spent elsewhere? Are they also in synch, at a higher level, with what your own management wants for the organization?

Are the goals specific? Can they be accurately measured? Has the employee (for “buy-in” purposes) been actively involved in their creation?

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I always liked the phrase “ambitious but attainable.” In short, is the bar set at the right height? Not too low but high enough that it can be reached with a good stretch yet not so high that reaching it is impossible and is probably just a recipe for demoralization.

When viewed this way, objective-setting quickly becomes more thorough and complex. Not a task a manager can simply knock off, say, in half an hour, but a process that will take multiple rounds of back-and-forth discussion, likely also involving your own management, until you arrive at meaningful goals that are a real management aid – a substantive document you can manage to for an entire year.

Drilling down

I wrote an earlier blog on management accountability – and the importance of driving this notion through a management culture. Job objectives are a tangible way to help bring to life the less tangible notion of accountability. They’re a direct link to productivity. What better way to focus on productivity but to imbed clear, robust goals in performance objectives and then closely manage to them?

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This basic process can work for all levels of an organization. C-suiters ideally have specific, measurable, “ambitious but attainable” goals, just as do entry-level employees on the shop floor. A companywide focus not just on setting “employee goals” but on taking time to thoughtfully establish meaningful “performance objectives” is a high-level emphasis that can be drilled down through an entire organization.

Back in 1954, Peter Drucker became the first management thinker to write extensively about about the value of “management by objectives.”

He was right, as he so often was.  

Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author.

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