A solid finding from decades of psychological research is that goal-setting is indispensable to improve performance and develop at work. Goals increase motivation by making the desired end state more concrete, and also help focus our attention and effort. Thus, one of the most important things to do as an engaged manager is to help employees set the right goals.
To be effective, goals should have a number of features. At Alva labs, we have incorporated many of these in our goal-setting module. Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when setting goals – for yourself or as a manager together with your employees:
- Make sure goals are meaningful. It is all too easy to forget about the most important thing of all: That goals should be meaningful, i.e., important and relevant for the individual to attain. This ensures commitment to the goal, and in the long run make them a much more effective management tool. This is easiest attained by making sure that the individual chooses his or her own goals.
- Be as specific as possible (but no more specific than that!). The more abstract and fluffy, the less likely that the goal will result in actual behavior change. It also becomes difficult to evaluate. For instance, “to become a better leader” is a very broad goal and could mean very different things for different people. However, in knowledge-intensive work, being overly specific may not be meaningful either. The goal also needs to be flexible enough. Continuing the above example, “to improve my coaching skills” could be a suitable option.
- Define an observable outcome. In the goal-setting module, you are prompted to add one or several observable outcomes. These should respond to the question: How will you know when the goal has been attained? Strive to define a desired end state that is as “objective” as possible. This decreases the risk of misunderstandings between employee and manager. Sometimes there is a measurable outcome, such as “when I have reached sales target X”. In the majority of working life cases, however, that is not the case. The goal “improving my coaching skills” might have the outcome “when my direct reports rate my coaching skills as a strength in our assessment.”
- Set up a strategy for how to reach the goal. Goal achievement is much higher when we devote time to defining a concrete action plan. This serves the dual purpose of clarifying the steps and enhancing motivation by creating small victories along the way. This is why the goal-setting module prompts you to define milestones: Activities that should be undertaken to move towards the goal. For instance, a goal like “improve my coaching skills” could include milestones such as “attend training X” and “interview a role model”.
- Show (or attain) managerial support. Goals work best if the individual ‘owns’ the goal him- or herself, i.e., is responsible for its attainment. Nevertheless, having the right support from the closest manager is key. Therefore, we recommend that manager and employee together identify the most important supporting activities needed, under “how can your manager support you?”. This may include anything from “approving the budget for attending course X” to “arranging a rotation to department Y”.
- Have a clear timeline. The goal module lets you set a deadline for each goal, since time-bound goals tend to create more structure and focus. Of course, the suitable timeline differs greatly depending on the goal. A general rule of thumb, however, can be quarterly goals: Three months is a sufficient time to achieve a meaningful result, and still a brief enough time frame to keep the goal current. If a goal needs longer time, set up at least some milestone that is attainable within the next couple of months.
- Combine the goal with feedback. Substantial research shows that goals alone do not do the trick – the real magic happens when they are combined with feedback on how we are progressing. Therefore, make sure to set up a structure for how to give – or receive – feedback, preferably on at least a monthly basis. In between, you can work with informal feedback in the form of a quick comment or email.