Why Setting Clear Goals For Employees Is So Critically Important

Some things change. Other things are more enduring in their reflection of truth and human nature.

I think of goals as falling into the second category.

Technology messes with them some on both ends; it brings us efficiency and organizational capabilities for goal management, but it also accelerates the business cycle so that it often feels impossible to even set them. Nonetheless, this much is true: Employees do better with clear communication about what is expected of them.

Don’t set the employee up for a fall

I forwarded a great quote from Alexander Hiam (from his book, Motivating and Rewarding Employees) to a client recently, to follow-up on a discussion we had on this topic. I thought it would be worth publishing again here:

“Do better” is not a performance goal. Nor is “Do much better.” Nor is “Be the best.” Yet managers often state so-called goals like this. The reason these aren’t goals is that they are not specific enough to be clearly relevant to performance. They set the employee up for a fall because they are low in task clarity. What does a manager expect when he or she says to do a good job? What’s the manager’s definition of good? What does he or she care about? Employees wrestle with these dilemmas every day, and they are generally pretty bad for motivation levels because you can never seem to guess quite right.

When the manager surprises the employee later by saying, “I told you to do a good job and look at the mess you’ve made of it,” the employee is usually puzzled and hurt by the feedback. Why is it a bad job? The employee didn’t mean to do a bad job. People don’t go to work to do a bad job, … When they do, it’s an unhappy accident for them and their supervisors. But saying, “Do a better job” is a controlling approach. It makes the employee dependent upon your judgment of what is good and bad, rather than making it clear enough that they can trust their own judgment and know why you like some work better than other work.”

Goal setting: it’s hard, but it’s crucial

I pay particular attention to the last two sentences.

Refusing to set clear goals is a controlling approach. Rather than empowering people, it disempowers them. Instead of building their sense of autonomy and control over their work and performance, it sucks their power away and forces them to play guessing games in an effort to read their manager’s mind to discover what will please and delight him or her.

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I know that setting goals is hard, really hard. But we owe it to people to ditch the games and give them the clearest information we can about performance expectations.

That’s what I think.

This was originally published on Ann Bares’ Compensation Force blog.

Ann Bares is the Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group. She has over 20 years of experience consulting in compensation and performance management and has worked with a variety of organizations in auditing, designing and implementing executive compensation plans, base salary structures, variable and incentive compensation programs, sales compensation programs, and performance management systems.

Her clients have included public and privately held businesses, both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, early stage entrepreneurial organizations and larger established companies. Ann also teaches at the University of Minnesota and Concordia University.

Contact her at abares@alturaconsultinggroup.com.