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Here's How Managers Can Help Employees Set Meaningful Goals

A silhouette of a man standing on top of a mountain with a target in his hand.

​Annual performance goals that feel purposeful and attainable to employees can be a great motivator. But too often, goals set at the start of the year become obsolete by midyear. "No one wants to work on a goal that is no longer relevant," said Lisa Chui, vice president of people at San Francisco life sciences company Dascena.

Here are six ways managers can help employees set meaningful goals for 2022.

Show employees how they can have an impact.

Present the company's key objectives for the next six months and ask your team members how their expertise and interests can help the company reach these goals, Chui said. "Without tying goals to the company's overall strategy, it can feel like employees are just doing something for the sake of doing something," she said.

Managers should refrain from creating goals for employees, Chui added. "You can dictate the objective but not the goal," she said. "It's best if the employees come up with the goals themselves."

Find common ground between employee and company goals.

Encourage employees to talk about their personal goals, and help them see how working toward these goals can also support the company in achieving its objectives, said Jennifer Tardy, CEO of Jennifer Tardy Consulting LLC, in Bowie, Md. During an end-of-year, one-on-one conversation, ask employees to consider how they can use an interest or a skill they're trying to develop to fill a gap on the team. "Give them the freedom to brainstorm where their interests might fit in at work," Tardy advised.

Managers can help by finding where the employee's personal goals intersect with the company's goals, said Anne Shoemaker, a women's executive coach in Greensboro, N.C. Invite employees to talk about their unique skills, what they are good at and what is challenging to them, and then set goals that allow them to optimize the skills they have and develop new talents, Shoemaker said.

Consider new possibilities.

Use experiences from 2021 to help employees consider what they could have done differently at work, and then develop goals to address those issues, said Kym Harris-Lee, an executive coach in Atlanta. Ask each employee, "If you were able to make changes, what would you have done differently?

Harris-Lee also suggests helping employees set goals that will get them to collaborate with colleagues in other departments. "This will give them the opportunity to learn something new, increase their visibility and help them form new relationships that have the potential to advance their careers," she said.

Give goal setting a new name.

Two years ago, leaders at Grant Thornton began calling goal setting "expectation setting" to put more emphasis on the conversation and less focus on the process, said Wendy Wright, senior director of learning and organizational effectiveness at the accounting firm. "The process of goal setting had gotten a negative slant because of the focus on documenting goals," she said.

Under this new concept, managers talk to employees about what is expected from them based on their role, job level and projects from three angles—what the firm expects, what the team expects and, finally, how the employee hopes to grow in the coming year, Wright said. The employee's personal expectations become the goal, she said. It might be a promotion or a lateral move, or it could be becoming an industry expert or mastering a new technology.

Help employees achieve their goals.

Give employees time to reach their goals. Perhaps employees take a half-day every Thursday to work on their goals, whether that means taking online training, meeting with a mentor or thinking through a stretch project, Harris said.

Work with employees to break their goals into bite-sized achievements that can be celebrated, she added. "Building in milestones is a win-win. If you don't achieve the entire goal, at least you hit a milestone and we're still more ahead than we were before."

If a goal isn't achieved, don't just add it to next year's to-do list. It's important to understand why a goal wasn't met and talk about how to adapt the goal so it becomes realistic, Chui noted.

Show employees the benefit of reaching a goal.

Ask employees to think about how attaining that goal would improve their lives, Shoemaker said. For instance, perhaps they would become more confident, learn a new skill or earn a bonus. "Help your employees to see the goal as not just an end, but as the beginning of something else that could be new and improved in their lives," she said.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. 


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