Are your managers hurting employees’ careers with weak goals?

According to Mark Murphy, it's time for a paradigm shift in how goals are formulated. Weak goals are actually harming employees' careers:

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Jun 21, 2024

In an era where employee engagement and career progression are at the forefront of corporate priorities, a disconcerting trend is emerging from the hallways of management: the setting of weak, uninspired goals.

This trend, often stemming from a well-intentioned desire to reduce employee stress, may be inadvertently stunting career growth and diminishing job satisfaction.

The irony is that by attempting to shield employees from challenges, managers might actually be hindering their development.

Why weak goals fail employees

The rationale behind setting achievable and stress-free goals is understandable.

Managers, especially amidst the turbulent waves of recent global challenges, argue that by setting easily attainable goals, they are safeguarding their team’s mental health and avoiding unnecessary pressure.

It must also be said, that several recent studies, including the Leadership IQ study “Are SMART Goals Dumb?,” have highlighted how significant number of employees view their goals as mere formalities too.

As such, the copying and pasting of goals from one year to the next has become a common practice. And what was intended to be a key driver of performance and progression has, for many, degenerated into a trivial exercise in box-ticking.

But the aim of managers to shield staff from stress has unintended consequences.

It assumes that challenge and stress are inherently detrimental, ignoring the fact that appropriate challenges can be invigorating and crucial for growth.

Data from the aforementioned Leadership IQ study reveals that only 14% of employees feel their annual goals will help them achieve great things.

This startling statistic suggests that most goals are not only uninspiring but are perceived as irrelevant to personal and professional growth.

Moreover, when employees are not challenged, they tend to engage less with their work, leading to a cycle of disengagement and under-performance.

The Impact of non-challenging goals

The consequences of setting non-challenging goals are multifaceted.

Firstly: employees deprived of the opportunity to stretch their abilities invariably experience stagnant career development.

As noted in the study, employees who face challenging goals are 34% more likely to love their jobs, indicating a direct correlation between goal difficulty and job satisfaction.

And, we know from more than one million takers of the “What’s Your Leadership Style?” test, that the most desired type of leader is one who fosters significant learning and growth.

Secondly: By not encouraging employees to step out of their comfort zones, managers are inadvertently signaling a lack of faith in their team’s capabilities.

This can lead to reduced self-esteem and diminished ambition among employees, who may internalize the low expectations set for them.

Thirdly: The study “Career Growth Or Stalled Progress” highlights another critical aspect: only 20% of employees believe their current goals will help them advance in their careers.

This misalignment between employees’ career aspirations and their goals underscores the necessity for goals that not only challenge but also align with long-term career trajectories.

Rethinking goal setting

It’s time for a paradigm shift in how goals are formulated.

Managers need to balance the fine line between challenging employees and providing them with achievable targets.

This involves understanding each employee’s individual capacity for stress and challenge, and tailoring goals that push boundaries without causing burnout.

Incorporating the HARD goal methodology, which emphasizes Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult goals, could be a strategic move.

Unlike SMART goals, which focus on specificity and attainability, HARD goals encourage employees to connect emotionally with their objectives, see the necessity of achieving them, and recognize the challenges they present.

Implementing effective goals

To combat the issue of perfunctory goal-setting, managers should engage in meaningful discussions with their team members to understand their personal and professional aspirations. These conversations can help align individual goals with organizational objectives, ensuring that each goal has a clear purpose and is integrated with the employee’s broader career plan.

Visual tools and continuous feedback loops can also play a crucial role.

As shown in the study, people who use visuals to describe their goals are 52% more likely to love their job.

Visual representations can help clarify the steps needed to achieve a goal and make the outcomes more tangible.

Moreover, setting up regular check-ins can help keep employees on track and make adjustments to goals as necessary.

These check-ins provide opportunities for encouragement and reassessment, ensuring that goals remain relevant and challenging.

While the intent behind setting less stressful goals is commendable, it’s crucial for managers to recognize that challenge is not inherently negative.

Properly framed, challenging goals can invigorate employees, foster skill development, and accelerate career growth.

In the quest to enhance employee well-being, we must not shy away from setting ambitious goals that push individuals to harness their full potential.

As HR leaders and managers, the call to action is clear: reevaluate goal-setting practices and ensure they foster not just comfort but growth and engagement.

In doing so, we not only enhance individual careers but also drive organizational success to new heights.