Personal success requires a personal goal. Obvious really. However, people commonly seek to avoid clear targets to avoid the risk and disappointment of falling short. Losing a realistic goal means losing engagement, the ability to learn and inviting intervention. We don’t have to impose targets externally, but we can ensure that people set their own goals.
Target setting in many organisations is often a weak process. We all know the games that are played to set low or vague targets. Many employees prefer the idea that they have no targets at all, at least at first.
Experience suggests that unclear (or low) targets generally results in new and different pressures for employees. Because the targets are unclear for an employee’s work, they have undersold their value. That results in:
- Lower engagement: when it is unclear the value that an employee is delivering, that employee is the first to know. Engagement suffers when an employee can’t be clear how the work that they are doing is contributing to the organisation’s outcomes
- Greater oversight and intervention: Nothing attracts interventionist managers more than uncertainty and potential underperformance. If the performance can’t be assessed by stakeholders then they are much more likely to call for an intervention at the expense of employee autonomy.
- Inability to prioritise: We all have too much work. There’s always too much to do. Without goals there is no way to prioritise what to do and what not to do. This can lead to a dynamic that impacts both engagement and brings on more intervention.
We all learn and improve based on feedback. You need a measuring stick to assess what could be done better or differently. Without some form of realistic expectation for the work set in advance, measurement of the work is harder. Declaring success becomes a subjective exercise or often simply that the task was completed delivering the outcome it achieved.
Asking employees to define in advance the goals they will achieve with a task is a key exercise in planning and prioristing their work. The targets don’t have to be set externally. Employees can nominate and defend their targets with the evidence and lessons of past performance. They can also be a part of the process of reviewing whether the aggregate of their and their teams’ efforts is enough. This changes the target setting process from one that is parent-child to one that is adult-adult.
Engaging in a rich dialogue around realistic expectations for future work and the lessons of past work provides the best foundations for autonomy and engagement of employees. It also accelerates the organisational learning process.