Giving Employees Better Goals to Reduce Burnout

People are far more likely to endure hardship if they feel like they’re getting something out of it. We endure the soreness from a tough workout because we know our muscles are growing. We’ll give up a relaxing weekend to spend our time painting a room because the space will look better when we’re done. We put money into retirement accounts rather than spending it now so that our later years are financially secure.

This phenomenon is no different in the workplace. Employees will willingly and happily exert intense effort on a project when there’s a demonstrable benefit. One of the problems right now, however, is that many people don’t see the upside to all the stress and long hours; workdays often feel like a Sisyphean slog.

While we might not be able to correct every painful aspect of people’s jobs, there is one simple tweak we could make to employees’ goals that would significantly improve their wellbeing and reduce their burnout: Make them learn something.  

In the study “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” we discovered that only 35% of employees say that they’re always learning something new at work. Meanwhile, 52% are never, occasionally, or rarely learning new things. More importantly, employees who are always learning new things are 10 times more likely to be inspired than those who are not.

Given how few employees feel like they’re learning and growing right now, there’s a wealth of untapped potential for inspiring employees and reducing their burnout. It’s important to note, though, that learning something does not necessarily mean doing more work or working harder. Nor does it mean formal education or training. Instead, learning just requires intentionality and the occasional pause to reflect.

When you’re creating goals with an employee or asking them to create a goal, insert the question, “What new skills are you going to learn by pursuing this goal?”

The acquisition of those new skills doesn’t require formal education. For example, imagine a call center employee was given a goal of reducing the number of service calls over five minutes. Maybe this is a simple matter of better following the department’s scripts, but it could also easily become an opportunity for significant growth. Perhaps they could learn some new listening techniques to more quickly assess a customer’s emotionality. They could go next-level and learn about prosody, pinpointing the rhythm, stress, and intonation of their customers’ speech. Dissertations have been written with less real-life data than the typical call center employee gets on a daily basis.  

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“Follow the scripts” is one directive a manager could give the employee, but “what new skills could you learn” is a far more stimulating prompt. It’s true that not every employee will want to become an expert in prosodic analysis; that’s why the manager should start a conversation to discover what skills the employee does want to learn.

This exercise doesn’t stop with creating a goal that involves learning. Every month, the manager should again start a conversation with their employee, this time to ask, “What things are you better at this month than you were last month?”

The purpose of this prompt is to force the employee to pause and reflect on what they’ve learned. Learning for learning’s sake is great, but to achieve the maximum boost in emotional wellness and burnout reduction, you want the employee to fully recognize just how much they’ve grown.

The majority of leaders know and admit that they need to work on this competency. In the study, “The Leadership Skills Gap,” we discovered that only 40% of leaders rated themselves advanced or expert at setting inspiring goals for employees. What’s wonderful about this exercise is that as managers are improving their employees’ wellness, they’re also engaged in their own learning (i.e., the science of goal-setting) and thus getting a personal engagement boost.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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