The traditional method of setting performance goals in January, and then waiting until midyear to discuss any progress toward those targets, might not be the best way to help employees achieve their objectives.
Instead, more managers are embracing monthly or weekly check-ins with staff.
“Waiting until a midyear or annual review is often too late,” says Kat Kornegay, chief purpose officer at Johnson & Sekin, an advertising agency based in Dallas. “When you have more frequent one-on-one meetings, you can have an ongoing conversation that allows you to ask questions such as, ‘Did you check out the new training?’ or ‘What did you take away from today’s meeting?’ ” says Kornegay, who has monthly check-ins with most employees and meets more often with less experienced ones.
Here are six ways managers can help employees achieve performance goals.
1. Have many meaningful conversations. The traditional annual review or midyear review may prevent managers from having meaningful conversations with employees, says DJ Casto, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at financial services company Synchrony, based in Stamford, Conn. He maintains that’s because there’s too much focus on the administrative process of rating employees’ work and then justifying that rating in a written appraisal.
During the pandemic, Synchrony paused its traditional performance review process and instead told managers to have one-on-one conversations with employees without worrying about ratings scales and appraisal documents, Casto says. Managers were directed to discuss with employees what they did well and what they could do better.
Those conversations went so well that Synchrony decided not to go back to its traditional annual review process.
“The ratings diluted the core conversations we wanted between employees and managers,” Casto says. “People typically shut down once they hear what their rating is, especially if they didn’t get the highest rating.”
Outside the review process, employees also should be prepared to initiate one-on-one conversations with their managers, says Steve Woodward, vice president of quality, training and development at hotel company Red Roof Inn, based in New Albany, Ohio. “It’s not me asking about your goals, but you coming to me with how you’re progressing,” he says.
Woodward puts the onus on his staff to tell him about any obstacles hindering their progress. If they’re off track, he’ll pepper them with questions “to help them think about it differently,” he says.
This approach helps employees feel a sense of ownership of their goals and gives them something to brag about when they achieve a win, he says.
Asking employees, “Did you do this?” will elicit “yes” or “no” answers. It won’t prompt a conversation, he says.
2. Make sure goals remain relevant. Goals that are set in late December or early January will often change as the year unfolds. If that happens, it’s important to help the team understand why things changed and to ask for their guidance on how to reshape their personal goals, Woodward says.
Kornegay agrees that managers shouldn’t just throw a new goal at their team and expect them to figure out how to proceed.
“Explaining the reason why, and the benefit of what they will get out of the new goal as a team, helps people to move forward,” she says.
At Synchrony, goals are reassessed every quarter to make sure they align with larger business plans.
“We don’t expect goals to change dramatically every quarter, but we might prioritize two of the three goals based on what’s happening with the business,” Casto says.
One of the downsides of not meeting with employees regularly is that achievements may go unnoticed. If the manager doesn’t find out about an accomplishment until later in the year, that’s a missed opportunity to celebrate it and set a new goal, says Star Carter, co-founder, chief operating officer and general counsel of Kanarys Inc., a Dallas-based company that uses data to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
3. Help employees find purpose in their goals. Performance goals can be overwhelming to employees, and it isn’t uncommon for an employee to agree to a goal presented by a manager without giving the objective much thought.
Managers need to make sure their employees understand the goals, can articulate what success will look like and are able to describe how they will succeed, says Irial O’Farrell, author of SMART Objective Setting for Managers: A Roadmap (Evolution Consulting, 2020).
Coach the employee on how to break the goal down, she says. “They might agree to the goal, but they might not know how to go about [achieving] it, and if that’s the case, then it will be the last thing on their to-do list,” she says.
Make it clear what the company is looking to accomplish and set a clear timeline for achieving milestones, Carter advises.
To motivate an employee, don’t forget to discuss what the reward will be when this goal is achieved, she says. Possible rewards include a cash bonus, a free lunch or a shoutout at a town hall meeting.
At Johnson & Sekin, employees are encouraged to combine personal and professional goals, Kornegay says.
For instance, when an employee told her manager she wanted to leave at 4:30 p.m. every day to pick up her daughter from day care, the manager helped her prioritize her workday to achieve her goal.
Another employee wanted to run a marathon, so her manager asked if it would help to have a longer lunch break or a later start to her workday so she could train, Kornegay says.
4. Know when to update a goal. If an employee is struggling to achieve an objective, it’s important to determine the reasons why. Is the plan wrong? Is the process faulty? Are outside influences to blame?
If they can help remove barriers, managers should step in, Woodward says. “But if the barriers are things we won’t overcome, then talk about that.”
When a goal hasn’t been met, Carter raises three questions with the employee: Is this goal still realistic? Is now the best time to accomplish it? Is this goal still relevant? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it’s time to consider finding a new objective.
5. Foster collaboration with team goals. While most employees focus on individual goals, managers are finding that team goals can help make groups more cohesive, especially with staff working from home for the past two years.
“By aligning our goals with our peers’ across multiple departments, it can help to create a sense of belonging to the organization and help build relationships,” Woodward says.
At Johnson & Sekin, employees share their goals with each other to create empathy and accountability.
“When they know each other’s goals, they can help each other, and that builds trust,” Kornegay says.
6. Recognize small wins. Managers don’t need to wait until a goal is completed to celebrate an achievement. Recognize when employees master something new or demonstrate that they’re working toward a larger goal, Kornegay says.
“We always set big goals,” she notes, “but there are smaller, more attainable milestones along the way.”
Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal.