Better expectations for goal setting.

February 17, 2017 - 7 minute read - Posted by

Have you ever had a manager set you a goal? It sounds great and you think to yourself, “I can do that”. You aren’t just being polite either, you really do think it’s reasonable and attainable. Three weeks later, you look at it and think: “How the heck am I going to get there?”

It’s easy to do. If you’ve ever entered a half-marathon, I bet you’ve felt it. “Sure, all I need to do is go running 4 times a week”. By Wednesday you are aching and wheezing your way along a 3 mile run thinking “how on earth will I do 13.1 miles”.

It’s easy to get demotivated by goals when we are only just beginning, and especially when it comes to goals at work. This is something we want to avoid, especially if you’re a leader who helps to set goals for a team of employees.

It’s a familiar story, but there are some things you can do to set better goals for yourself and your team and it comes from organizational psychology.

In an ideal world, the path taken to achieving goals is apparent and easy to navigate. As long as you put the effort put in, achieving them is easy. Unfortunately, in business, this isn’t always the case. Simply setting a goal isn’t enough, because of what researchers at UNSW in Australia call complex tasks.

“Complex tasks are those on which the path to goal achievement is not immediately apparent or easily understood.”

— Heslin et al., (2009: 98)

It’s not that the task is hard, it’s that the path, the sequence of tasks is unclear. How can we expect our teams to perform well when they don’t even know the path to take?

“[Employees] work harder and harder until they eventually conclude that the goals cannot be attained, whereupon they become demoralized and disengaged.”

— Kerr and LePelley, (2013: 39)

The last thing a fast-moving team needs are demoralized and disengaged people. Not least because the leadership did a bad job of goal setting! Luckily, the University of Cambridge has a technique we can use.

The idea is to think of goals as expectations. Especially at work, that’s what employees see them as: the minimum standards. Put yourself in your team’s shoes. A minimum standard is a lot more daunting than a ‘goal’.

The way you can lead better is to spend more time thinking about the path. The nature of the work required to hit a goal (or expectation). Depending on the path, there are different goals types, it’s your job to make sure you’re applying the right one.

As a leader, taking these three types of expectations into consideration can help employees better navigate goals they need to achieve and set a minimum standard. Employees are able to better understand not just what they need to achieve in terms of goals, but how their success will be measured based on the minimum expectations.

At the end of the day, it will save your team an immense amount of time because more expectations are met on the first try.

Task or project goals

This type of goals best fits with ‘complex tasks’ that have dynamic and unpredictable outcomes.

An example would be a project like designing a new product feature or creating a strategy for a new market. The best way to set this goal — according to University of Cambridge research — is to break down a complex goal into multiple subtasks or steps.

The key to this is to define and consider the process, as the measure of success. E.g. “create and validate market penetration strategy with 3 independent consultancies” considers the process as the success measure. “Increase sales in Asia” is more daunting, and places undue pressure on the outcome.

But, we want the outcome! Sure, but research from University of Toronto and University of Maryland found that setting learning goals produced better outcomes than simply focussing on the outcome alone.

Objective metrics

Objective metrics are much better placed when the process is familiar and proven by the person using it. This isn’t about you knowing it works, it’s about the goal owner knowing it works.

Objective measures are best matched with goals that have obvious, quantitative outcomes.

A good example is a seasoned Sales Manager who needs to increase sales revenue by 10%, but has also done so before.

Using objective metrics helps employees separate goals where the path aligns to measurable outcomes, versus the type of goals with more dynamic or unpredictable outcomes.

For a junior employee, they might begin with a task, but transition to objective goals, giving them more autonomy.

Behavioural standards

Behavioural standards are goals that apply to all types of work but are particularly suited to qualitative, knowledge-driven goals.

While more abstract to measure, they can be applied to all employees in the form of company core values, department level values and having the team peer-recognize each other for them.

An example that is popular with customer facing roles might be to “always go the extra mile”, where colleagues, managers, and execs call out exemplary actions.

In summary, if you notice you or a team constantly struggling with goals or never quite reaching your full potential, ask yourself this:

Do we really know the path, or are we demotivating people by sending them down unchartered territory? It isn’t a matter of lowering expectations but rather using the best tools for the job.

Leaders will help their teams achieve more by thinking more about the path to expectations. Give your team a break, and give them better expectations.


Also published on Medium.

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