In this article we’ll give tips on how to create goals that are motivating and effective. We’ve already discussed the science behind goals, but it’s important to note not all goals are created equal so in this guide we’ll teach you the components needed to create a great goal.
How you set the goal matters
Before we get into the specifics of crafting goals, let’s take a step back to understand the importance of how you set goals. Here are three ways to help employees be more committed.
- Participate in creating their own goals: Employees who are involved in the goal setting process set higher goals and have higher performance than those whose goals were assigned by their manager. Though it’s easy to assume these performance outcomes are strictly a result of improved motivation, much of the performance increase actually comes from the information exchange that happens while collaboratively establishing goals (Locke, Alavi, & Wagner, 1997). Participative development of goals not only results in greater clarity around expectations but also produces more effective strategies for how to achieve them.
- Document the goals: It may sound old-fashioned, but there’s research to prove it: detailing your goals in writing or in some reviewable, visible way increases commitment to achieving goals (Travers, 2013; Morisano, Hirsh, Peterson, Pihl, and Shore, 2010)
- Make goals visible to others: Once you’ve documented goals, sharing them publicly enhances commitment by establishing a virtual social contract and making action and follow-through a matter of integrity in the eyes of the team members and others (Hollenbeck, et al., 1989). Therefore, leaders should ensure that their team’s goals are visible and have been communicated to relevant parts of the organization.
How to make a SMARTER goal
The SMARTER guidelines can be applied to essentially any goal framework, be it OKRs, Tiered goals, Backwards goals, etc. For your employees to truly benefit from any type of goal setting, the core aspects of SMARTER need to be addressed. We’ll discuss each letter in detail below and we’ve created an accompanying guide if you want your managers to work with their teams or direct reports to set goals.
Goal setting & alignment
When setting goals, make sure they are:
Specific: Clarity is the foundation of effective goals and is critical in every aspect of the SMARTER model. It’s necessary to be specific about the long- and short-term objectives to be achieved along with spelling out the strategy for achieving each outcome.
Measurable: How exactly will you know if you’ve succeeded in achieving the goal; what does success look like and how can that be communicated to the organization? Of equal if not greater importance: how will you measure progress along the way and evaluate if you’re moving in the right direction at the right pace? Designating specific milestones or key results is a powerful motivator and helps drive understanding around progress during performance reviews & feedback sessions.
Ambitious & Attainable: Goals that are difficult yet achievable produce the best results and are a powerful motivator (Klein, et al., 1999). Further, work with the team to specify how they’re going to accomplish each of the steps along the way. Team discussions on goal strategy helps drive knowledge transfer and clarity around expectations.
Relevant & Aligned: Be sure your goals are relevant to the company strategy and aligned to higher order goals. When teams develop goals that align with organizational objectives, team members understand the importance of their work and feel a greater sense of purpose and motivation. Likewise, alignment of employee-level goals with their team’s goals is equally important and results in greater team performance (Seijts & Latham, 2000). Alignment to broader objectives also helps identify priorities when time and resources are constrained.
Time-bound & Transparent: Setting a clear deadline for the overall goal along with milestone dates to evaluate progress helps create a sense of urgency and drives focus on the key actions which are critical for success. As noted before, transparency will increase commitment to the goal for the individual and allow others to align their goals accordingly.
Once you’ve set your goals, you’re not done yet! It’s imperative for leaders to track goals as well. Progress and outcomes need to be:
Evaluated regularly: How frequently goals are evaluated depends on the nature of the goals and how you operate, but in most cases, goals should be reviewed at least monthly. Additionally, there may be times of changes in the company (e.g., restructuring, M&A, global emergencies) where you’ll need to evaluate and realign goals at a much quicker cadence. Feedback and guidance are an absolute necessity for engagement and development. A few questions that should be asked in review sessions:
- How are we progressing?
- Are we on track to hit our next milestone?
- What wins have we had?
- What challenges or blockers are appearing?
- Are our actions and approach still appropriate or is course correction needed?
- Is this goal still aligned with the broader strategy or do we need to pivot?
- How should we be prioritizing given any new information we have?
Recognized & Rewarded: Finally, recognizing things like effort, persistence, and problem solving is essential for maintaining motivation and optimism. It’s invaluable to recognize small accomplishments as much as rewarding big wins along the way. Celebrating wins helps drive team confidence and motivation, leading to greater commitment and motivation… thus producing what is known as the “high performance cycle” (Latham, Locke, & Fassina, 2002).
Remember, goals should never just be a to-do list; rather, they should be motivational and clarifying in terms of what we want to accomplish, how we're going to get there, and how the outcome impacts the team and organization. The key results or ‘steps to get there' may include specific tasks or "to-do's" but even at that level, they should be more focused on measurable outcomes than act as milestones.
If you want your managers to work with their teams or direct reports to set goals, send them our Manager's Guide to Creating & Aligning Team Goals.