This missing question explains why so many employee goals are useless

In virtually every organization I know, employees either set their own goals, or have goals set for them. But at the risk of sounding heretical, most goals are pretty pathetic.

In the Leadership IQ study Are SMART Goals Dumb?, for example, we discovered that only 14% of employees admitted that their goals for this year would help them achieve great things. Surely, there’s little point setting a goal if it’s not going to generate something exceptional.

Most goals have no real purpose

Mediocre goals are partly the result of setting targets that are too easy. But an even bigger problem is that most goals have no real purpose. Why do I want to be more productive this year? Or produce more widgets? Or earn that certification? Or get that promotion? Perhaps the worst part of methodologies like SMART Goals is that there’s no test for purpose, passion, or heartfelt connection to one’s goals.

We have to find out why people care

One of the most important questions for transforming weak goals into something far more transformative is, “Why do you care about this goal?” 

This simple question works on two levels.

First, it forces the goal-setter (ie the employee), to think about their level of commitment to the goal. If the “why” of their goal is that their boss told the employee to achieve this target, then you know that employee isn’t going to fight through obstacles to achieve it. By contrast, if their “why” is that this is their life’s purpose; or that they’re addicted to the types of achievement this goal represents – well now you know they’re likely to reach the goal no matter what the roadblocks are.

Secondly, it reveals when someone’s goal is inconsistent with their true desires.

Let’s take an example of both these considerations coming to the fore:

Imagine you’ve got an employee who says, “My goal is to become a manager.” Now imagine you ask them: “Why do you care about this goal?” Perhaps they tell you that they really want more autonomy in their job, or that they want to better control their work schedule. If you laughed at those reasons, it’s because you know, all too well, that being a manager in today’s companies is fundamentally inconsistent with greater autonomy. And you now know that this person’s stated goal is at odds with their underlying motivation. It’s far more likely that this is someone who would benefit more from a work-from-home position than a managerial role. They’re someone who would benefit from remaining in an individual contributor position, perhaps a higher-ranking one, but would likely be miserable if promoted to manager.

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It’s the caring that matters

Think about this same employee and imagine that, when they tell you why they care about their goal, they said this instead: “I want to be a manager because I’ve always felt happiest when I’m coaching people to achieve their potential.” With this person, the managerial career path could actually be useful. Assuming they have the requisite skills, they’re far more likely to feel happy working as a manager.

As the examples show, it’s really not that difficult to develop goals that are fully in-sync with peoples’ underlying motivations. But easiness notwithstanding, it doesn’t often happen. In the study “The State Of Leadership Development,” we learned that only 20% of employees say their leader always takes an active role in helping them grow and develop their full potential.

So, when you’re setting goals for your employees, or guiding them to set their own, just ask them ‘why’: Why do they care about this goal? Why did they choose this goal? Why does this goal benefit their career?

However you ask the question is less important than surfacing employees’ underlying motivations and creating goals aligned with those motivations and desires.

You’re far more likely to see your people reach their goals and achieve something truly significant if you accomplish this.

 

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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