Goal Setting to Improve Performance: 4 Best Practices

By Doug Glener

All good performance begins with clear goals. In fact, employees who have clear goals perform 12% to 15% better than employees who don't have goals.

Yet a staggering 50% of employees don’t know what’s expected of them, according to long-standing research conducted by Gallup.

What’s the goal setting situation in your organization? Here are four tips you can use to ensure your people have clear goals that lead to improved performance.

  1. Collaboration Is Key

Setting goals should be a team affair, meaning the leader should partner with the person who needs to accomplish them. Some leaders create goals for their people in isolation, but this is a mistake. If you want someone to find a goal motivating, it must be meaningful to them. And the only way you'll know if a goal is motivating is by partnering with them.

There’s another benefit to partnering with your people. When they play a central role in creating the goals, they’re more likely to achieve them.

  1. Make Goals Challenging but Attainable

The ideal goal is a stretch one: attainable but challenging. Stretch goals increase employee motivation and commitment to the organization. They encourage people to be engaged and creative. They inspire employees to take initiative and to grow. And they encourage people to apply skills that have gone unused.

Ultimately, stretch goals can build self-confidence and instill a feeling of accomplishment. But they come with a risk if a person doesn’t meet them. Failure can hurt someone’s self-esteem. Don't minimize this. The result can be quite damaging.

If you're leading a person who did not achieve a stretch goal, remind them that the goal was a stretch one. Let them know you have faith in their abilities. Remind them of their past successes.

Doing this once is not enough—especially if the stretch goal was a high-profile one. The person may need to hear you express confidence several times before they are able to put the challenge behind them.

People who feel undue pressure to achieve stretch goals can also make risky decisions and resort to unethical behavior. You obviously don't want to create a situation that tempts people to make bad choices.

The takeaway from all this is to create realistic stretch goals with the input of your people.

  1. Give Immediate Feedback

It's much more difficult to know whether we are on track to achieve a goal if we don't get feedback along the way. This might seem obvious, but giving feedback is not common practice for most leaders. Almost half of employees said they receive feedback only a few times a year from their manager—which is woefully inadequate.

Leaders should give feedback as soon as possible and in an appropriate setting. The reason for this is obvious: give feedback when it's relevant and it will be much more powerful. Give it a week, month, or year later, and the incident will likely be forgotten.  

Don't fret about giving feedback. Some 65% of employees want more of it. People are receptive to positive feedback. It’s the feedback that feels like a personal attack that they dislike. Of course, there are times when people must receive corrective feedback, but that’s a different subject.

  1. Do Quarterly Check-Ins Instead of Annual Reviews

Ditch your annual performance reviews. The fact is, they aren't helping anyone. Gallup found that only 14% of employees said performance reviews inspired them to improve. Even more disheartening, more than 30% said it made their performance worse. An annual performance review is a stressful situation, and it's made worse when leaders share feedback that should have been given throughout the year.

A best practice we use at Blanchard is to have quarterly discussions where managers and their people review goals and discuss challenges and successes. These conversations eliminate uncomfortable surprises. People know how they are doing throughout the year and can course correct as necessary.

This might seem like more effort, but it’s worth it. Quarterly reviews pay tremendous dividends. Researcher Josh Bersin found that companies who use quarterly discussions generate 31% greater returns from their performance process than those who hold annual reviews.

Final Thoughts

Goal setting drives performance in the workplace. But it's a little more nuanced than that. Collaborate with your people when developing goals. Create stretch goals that are challenging but attainable. Give feedback on performance as soon as possible. Hold quarterly check-ins instead of annual reviews.

Do these things and you'll be well on the way to turning workplace planning into workplace results.

Editor’s note:  Would you like to learn more about how to improve goal setting and day-to-day coaching practices in your organization? Join us for a complimentary webinar on April 20, Communication Essentials: 3 Conversations Leaders Need to Master. The event is free, courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies.

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