Managers: make employee goal setting motivating and meaningful

Written by: Nora St-Aubin | Illustrated by: Chloé Allard
Published on April 28, 2020 | Reading time: 7m

As a manager, you know that setting goals is a key part of driving employee engagement and performance. What may not be as clear, however, is how exactly to establish these goals and monitor your employees’ progress during 1-on-1 conversations.

Taking a collaborative approach to goal setting will help you better leverage each of your team members’ strengths, and inspire a sense of personal commitment and accountability from employees. We’re here to help, with simple and actionable advice for developing clear goals that will both motivate individuals and contribute to team objectives.

Key takeaways for effective goal setting:

  • Take a collaborative approach to drive employee accountability.
  • Incorporate team members’ individual strengths into their goals.
  • Aim for a good balance between challenge and attainability.
  • Ongoing coaching and feedback in 1-on-1s are essential to employee success.
  • Track, evaluate, and adjust goals with employees on a regular basis.
  • Ask questions to understand when goals aren’t met and drive proactivity.

First…the importance of employee goal setting

The best individual employee performance goals feed into the goals of the team, and ultimately the goals of the organization. Creating this alignment is what drives the overall performance of a workforce, and gets everyone working towards a shared vision.

Individual goals → Team goals → Organizational goals

When it comes to setting individual goals, it’s all about finding the connection between a team member’s professional development ambitions and the company’s bottom line. When this is achieved, it nurtures that sense of purpose for employees, where they feel that their role contributes to something bigger than themselves.

Free bonus: download our complete before, during, and after guide for the perfect 1-on-1!

Why take a collaborative approach to setting goals?

Setting individual goals with employees should help them envision not only how they’ll contribute to team objectives, but also how they’ll apply their strengths and develop their skills. The best way to ensure this is to actively involve employees in the process of goal setting. Modern performance management calls for continuous learning and opportunities for growth, and people want a say in their development trajectory. Yet according to our Pulse Survey data,

34% of employees do not feel appropriately involved in decisions that affect their work.

When you work together with your employees to determine their professional milestones, it creates goal commitment. In other words, it sparks their intrinsic, personal motivation to accomplish their goals. Not only that, making goal setting a dual effort shows people that you trust them to connect their expertise to the team’s goals and the company strategy. Foundations of mutual trust between managers and employees are essential to having authentic feedback exchanges and meaningful conversations about performance.

Guidelines for setting meaningful employee goals

Having the right management tools to help you in your own role makes you more equipped to set your team members up for success. That’s why we’ve laid out some basic guidelines to help you set and track meaningful employee objectives. Follow these, and you’re sure to see a boost in how your team members apply themselves as they strive toward their goals.

Get to know your employees’ strengths

First, lay the groundwork to have meaningful conversations with your employees about their role within the team, their skill set (hard skills and soft skills), and the areas that they’re most eager to develop. Schedule 1-on-1 meetings with your team members, and ask them to prepare by doing a self-reflection on their strengths.

Have employees reflect on questions like:

  • How have you contributed to reaching the team’s objectives?
  • What motivates you the most at work?
  • What is something you find challenging, that you’d like to work on?
  • How would you like to use your strengths in the future?

Take the time to talk through your employees’ reflections and gain a deeper understanding of how they view their work and their contributions to the team.

Set SMART, strengths-based goals with employees

With a common understanding of your employees’ strengths, you’re ready to launch into setting some goals together. Aim for no more than three goals per person, and find a balance between goals that are directly related to team objectives (performance goals) and those geared more toward developing their expertise (development goals). The SMART goal acronym is helpful to keep in mind: are goals Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound?

Examples of good individual goals for employees:

  • Obtain a lead quality score of 3% above average from the next business development project.
  • Within the next month, have a coffee date with [potential mentor] to discuss setting up regular coaching sessions with them.
  • Create a pitch to implement [tool/software/platform] and present it to the stakeholders ahead of next quarter’s budget planning.
  • Complete 10 hours of online [area of expertise] training in the next 3 months.
  • Plan, lead, and document a team brainstorm for the ideation of [upcoming project], and present it at the next cross-team alignment meeting.

Once you’ve established goals with your employee, discuss what they’ll need to achieve them, such as tools, resources, or support from their colleagues or a coach. Create an action plan and delegate tasks to set them up for success.

Free bonus: download our complete before, during, and after guide for the perfect 1-on-1!

Coach employees to achieve their goals

Just as your team members’ personal involvement and commitment to achieving their goals is essential to their success, so is your ongoing support along the way. According to our Pulse Survey data,

1 in 3 employees report that they do not have someone at work who helps them grow and develop.

Develop your coaching skills to help employees achieve their goals, and set them up with a mentor in their area of expertise. Have recurring 1-on-1s with your employees to discuss their progress and troubleshoot any blockers that may arise. Remember that goals can shift along with the team priorities and company strategy, so it’s important to re-evaluate them on a regular basis.

Questions to ask in 1-on-1s to monitor employee progress:

  • How are you advancing on your track towards [goal]?
  • Have you felt challenged by [goal] as you’ve been working on it?
  • Are there any roadblocks that have come up in relation to [goal]? How have you overcome them?
  • Is there anything that I can do to help you where you are currently with [goal]?
  • Given the current context of the team’s projects and objectives, do you feel that [goal] is still relevant?

Touch base on goals regularly with your team members—maintaining ongoing communication with them is the best way to set, track, and celebrate goals.

Don’t forget that last part: Celebrate! 🥳
Part of monitoring your employees’ progress in 1-on-1s is offering encouragement and congratulating them on their hard work. Celebrate, of course, when goals are achieved, but remember to also give recognition for all the smaller wins along the way.

What to do when goals aren’t met

Despite having clear goals and being personally motivated, there will be times when employees fall short of their objectives. It’s understandable to feel some disappointment as a manager when this happens, but your employee is probably disappointed as well, and reprimanding them is unlikely to have any positive effect. Instead, use your next 1-on-1 to connect with your employee and get to the root of what went wrong, so they can learn from the experience and find a new path forward.

Questions to ask when goals aren’t met:

  • Was there a problem with the goal itself (timeframe, specificity, etc.)?
  • Was there something you were missing to achieve your goal (resource, tool, support)?
  • Is the goal still relevant and attainable if we alter the scope/timeline?
  • If you can pinpoint what the problem was, is there anything you could have done differently to troubleshoot or work around it?
  • Is there anything that I could have helped with or that I should know?
  • How do you see us proceeding forward from here?

Give your team member the space to work through the issues and come up with their own solutions. Asking open-ended questions such as these helps create a safe space for them to share context or roadblocks that you might not have had visibility on. Remind your employee that you’re there to help, and that if the goal was off-base, you can readjust it together.

You’re all set!

Goal setting can be intimidating—but with the right mindset, a solid framework, and the collaboration of your team members, you’re bound to set goals that will amplify teamwork and drive employee performance.

This article has been updated to reflect current workplace and leadership best practices and trends.

How do you approach goal setting?

Tell us about how you set goals with your employees in the comments section below! 👇