Performance Manage People

by Paula Newton

Goal setting is crucial

Goal setting involves setting specific, measurable and time-targeted objectives. It is an effective tool for helping people to make progress because it ensures that they are clearly aware of what is expected from them if an overall objective is to be achieved.

Key point

Objectives/goals give staff a target to achieve, and managers a performance standard for their staff.

Objective or goal setting thus plays a key role in performance management. Setting targets allows both managers and staff to measure achievements in a formalised way. Without objectives, performance management is not possible: until you define your outcome, there is no basis on which to assess performance.

Well-set objectives

Well-set objectives make it clear to staff exactly what is required, but allow some flexibility in the means by which they are carried out.

A well-known method for the setting of objectives is the acronym SMART. This is used to structure objectives in such a way that there is clarity surrounding exactly what is required and by when.

* goals need to have a time frame.

Using this framework to set goals gives staff a much higher chance of achieving them than if targets are woolly or open to interpretation.

Consider an example.

Sarah’s holiday

Sarah needs a rest and wants to have a holiday. She sets herself a goal:

Go on holiday.

This goal is not specific, nor does it have a time frame associated with it. Perhaps it is achievable, eventually, and maybe it is realistic for Sarah, but this is difficult to know. It is at least measurable, because she will either go on holiday or not!

Once Sarah starts shopping around for the holiday she will most likely be overwhelmed with the number of options available to her, because she hasn’t been specific about what type of holiday she wants, or how much money she wants to spend on it. She has not set herself a time frame, so it will be more difficult for her to come to a swift decision about what she wants. There is a good chance of her target taking longer to achieve than she may have imagined, and the holiday costing more than she hoped, at least in time spent figuring out the options. It is easy to see how this objective could be open to huge differences in interpretation, depending on personal perceptions.

Sarah would have a much better chance of finding the holiday she wants by setting herself a SMART objective. For example:

Take a two-week package holiday, costing no more than £650, within three months, to a quiet beach destination in the Mediterranean.

Here, Sarah has followed all of the major guidelines for successful objective setting.

  • Her holiday will be for two weeks, in the Mediterranean and a quiet beach resort and will cost no more than £650: the goal is specific.
  • She must go on holiday within three months and it must cost no more than £650: the goal is measurable.
  • She can afford the price and three months gives her sufficient time to find something that she will be happy with: the goal is achievable.
  • She can afford the price and she should be able to negotiate a two-week break within the next three months with her boss, since nobody else has leave booked yet: the goal is realistic.
  • She has set herself a deadline and will be able to assess at the end of that time whether she has been successful or not: the goal has a time frame.

It is easy to see the difference between the two goals. The first provides room for wide variances in interpretation in terms of length, cost, destination and timing of holiday. The second, however, is clear and allows the individual the chance to work with some flexibility within fairly set guidelines. If you set goals for your team in this way, their performance will be easier to manage.

Goals at work

In order to be able to set SMART goals, it is important to first understand what your staff can achieve, so that you are able to be realistic about the possibilities. Setting targets for which there is no grounding or basis can make it very difficult for staff to deliver, usually because those targets are not realistic or achievable. Impractical and unlikely goals can only result in frustration and despair – not the most productive emotions for an effective team.

Few things, in fact, are more de-motivational than an unrealistic goal. Managers should not set targets that will be out of the reach of their team. Instead, to manage performance effectively, managers should think carefully about what staff will realistically be able to do, and how much time they can afford to dedicate to achieving specific targets. An essential part of effective goal setting is listening. If a team member says that an objective isn’t achievable, listen to what they are saying. It may be that the target is out of their reach, or it may just be that you have not explained clearly enough to them what you expect. For more on this, look at Step 4 of the delegation process.

However, goals should still be stretching for staff and have some level of challenge, so that a sense of achievement is felt when they are met, and also in order to drive the organisation forward.

Setting objectives effectively is a key part of performance management. Making a poor job of this, or leaving goals open to interpretation, will make it much more challenging for you to guide your team towards great results.

See the Goal Setting topic for further information. There is also information on areas such as KPIs and other measures in the organisational Performance Management topic.