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Goal Setting

It is not uncommon for a supervisor to begin a project with his or her department with the best of intentions, only to see its execution deteriorate, become sloppy, late or even incomplete. A project’s results sometimes suggest to the manager that the assignment was never understood, and in a worst scenario, the project may never see completion. Despite the frequent occurrence of failed assignments, some managers see the repetition of them again and again, never comprehending the force behind such failures. Often the key to turning such disappointments into successes is the widely-misunderstood and woefully under-utilized managerial tool of goal setting.

All to frequently, the process of goal-setting is either improperly implemented or ignored altogether, frequently resulting in unfortunate missed opportunities in many organizations.

Managers need to understand the importance of the process in management. And they must learn the criteria for establishing goals, along with the prominence of goal review and commitment in the goal-setting process. So what does goal setting offer?

It closes the manager—employee gap. Often there are misunderstandings, miscommunication,or even no communication at all between upper management and lower level employees regarding company goals and plans. By setting reasonable goals with each employee, a supervisor can truly bridge this communication gap. After all, the employees actually perform the required work and such a lack of communication can leave employees feeling frustrated, not understanding their roles within the organization.

It assists the supervisor in employee reviews. Goal setting provides necessary foundation for employee performance appraisals. There can never be a really equitable appraisal review for any employee unless clearly defined goals have been mutually set several weeks (or months) prior to the review. By establishing both reasonable and achievable goals with an employee, the supervisor lays the foundation for meaningful reviews in the eventual performance measurement.

It provides a realistic assessment of manager expectations. The goal-setting process provides an organization with a “reality check” of a manager’s attainment of both short-term and long-term objectives. This process can measure a manager’s ability to be specific, detailed and thoroughly communicative to employees. Merely conveying a broad idea of goals to employees will not automatically insure that the goals will be met. It must be carefully explained and thoroughly understood.

It insures the goal’s own achievement. Effective goal setting provides a platform for the continuous coaching process that necessarily follows it. By using a clear-cut and measurable goal as a starting point, the techniques of coaching are greatly facilitated. If a supervisor follows the well set goal in progress, he can quickly catch any errors that may endanger or stall the goal’s completion. To put this idea in a different perspective, it is far easier for a supervisor to perform a good coaching job when both the employee and the supervisor know in advance what is expected in the way of performance.

When properly executed, goal setting provides an array of valuable benefits to any organization. This process does not always come easily, and a supervisor must face the reality that there will definitely be times when goal setting becomes an extremely difficult task. The bright side of the picture, however, is that once everyone recognizes the fact that goal setting is the first step toward successful performance, the process is well on its way.

In order for any stated goal to be truly meaningful, it must meet various criteria. In most applications, a criteria holds true regardless of the environment in which the goal is actually set. For example, goals determined for an assembly-line worker in an automobile manufacturing plant may be completely different than those set for a telephone installer—yet they both must meet the same general criteria in order to be effective.

Goals Should Be Quantifiable: It must be possible to analyze every goal in terms of specific quantifiable objectives. Naturally, for certain tasks, measurement of objectives will be more difficult to attain; the key is to make every effort to reduce each goal to its most quantifiable form. For example, a customer service department might have the following general goals:

  1. To increase output on customer acknowledgments.
  2. To boost the number of customer telephone inquiries that are handled.
  3. To distribute mail in a timely manner.

As described, the above goals are completely immeasurable. It is almost certain that the manager’s expectations will not be met. The solution: Quantify these goals in a realistic, feasible fashion that will also insure departmental productivity:

  1. To type 10 customer acknowledgment letters per hour.
  2. Handle a minimum of 15 telephone customer inquiries per each two hour shift.
  3. Open, sort, and distribute all mail for the third floor before 10 a.m. each working day.

Goals Must Be Set in a Proper Climate: A conducive climate (where the employees do not feel threatened and are encouraged to ask for clarification) provides the possibility of two-way feedback. Such a setting insures that a transmitted goal or objective will leave no room for doubt as to what is required. Consider this example: the department head of inventory-control specialists who approaches all the specialists at once. She presents a department goal and in front of all the specialists, identifies how each will participate in the goal. Unless this is followed up with individual meetings with each specialist to discuss his or her role, it is likely that none of the specialists will approach the department head for any sort of discussion and,consequently, the goal will never reach fruition.

Avoid the Vague and Ambiguous: Objective: “To increase the output of sales training programs for international personnel.”

To almost any listener, some or all of the following questions may come to mind in response to this goal.

“What does output mean?”

If there is no room for measurement, how will we know when the goal is met?

What is the time period involved?

In addition, there is the vagueness of the term “international personnel.” Does it mean all personnel now based overseas, or could it include home office people based in the United States who are responsible for overseas operations? Ambiguous wording leads to such confusion, jeopardizing the success of what might be an otherwise reasonable, attainable goal.

In contrast, here is the same goal re-written and clarified:

Objective: “For the 1989 calendar year, to increase the frequency of existing sales training programs for all sales personnel based in the Far East and European offices. An increase of 20 percent over the current average of one program per month will be considered an acceptable increase.”

There is no question as to what the specific goal is.

Goals Should Be Challenging: When examining goals, it is only natural for most people to view them as challenging. What happens, however, when a goal is easily attained? At first glance, this would appear to be a very comfortable position for any employee! After all, if a goal is easily met, then goal accomplishment is assured without any additional effort. An ideal situation — or is it?

Consider this example: A landscaper is assigned to maintain the same three condominium developments over a six-month period. Although he becomes familiar with each site’s problems and differences and the job requires less and less effort, the landscaper becomes bored. He becomes careless and unsuccessful in his performance. His interest is lost and he and his assignment supervisor are unhappy and dissatisfied. The landscaper’s assignment needs to be either diversified or increased in volume.

Goals Must Be Realistic: From a reverse viewpoint, while goals must be challenging, they must also reflect a realistic estimate of the time and effort needed to accomplish them.

Obviously, there will always be a fine line between “challenging” and “realistic,” “possible” and “impossible,” plus several additional “shades of gray.” Moreover, with two given employees of equal talent and ability, a given goal might be viewed as entirely possible by one and utterly impossible by the other! It is the astute supervisor who thoroughly knows the individual capabilities of each employee and carefully sets each goal within the employee’s “comfort zone” — that is, sets a goal that is reachable, provided additional effort is directed towards its ultimate achievement. That is not an easy target for the first-line supervisor to always hit exactly, but one that is certainly worth aiming for.

Developing A Goal-setting Checkpoint: The process of developing meaningful goals and objectives can be a challenging task for any manager. There is a method to make this process easier, however, and it involves following a few general guidelines. The Goal Setting Checklist for the first-line supervisor has been specifically designed with two main objectives in mind: (1) for specific use in translating general (or possibly unclear) goals into a workable structure; and (2) for use as a worksheet (or checklist) to write meaningful goals and objectives for employees.

This two-step process must enable the supervisor to translate ideas, “rough thoughts,” and wishes into goal statements of a much more practical nature. Over the years, experience has shown that while it is relatively easy to teach the concept and theory of goal setting, many supervisors and managers have found it quite difficult to translate the theory into actual practice. Step-by-step use of the goal setting checklist must provide a constructive aid in this regard.

  1. How Will This Goal or Objective Be Measured? This question places immediate focus on the measurement side of accomplishing the goal or objective. It puts the spotlight on whether the goal or objective to be assigned is easily measurable in terms of quantity (output), whether there are also qualitative factors involved. Just as important, it automatically addresses the criteria that will be used for measurement — something which can be easily overlooked, even with the best of intentions.
  2. What Is to Be Accomplished? It is possible for a supervisor to have a generally clear idea of the way a goal or objective is to be measured, but fall short in specifically identifying what is to be actually accomplished. Nothing can be more demotivating to an employee than never being certain when goal accomplishment is actually achieved. An employee’s motivational level has a direct link to accomplishing a stated task; where this crucial element is missing in a person’s performance, job satisfaction will usually suffer.


  3. When Should It Be Achieved? While everyone usually agrees that a supervisor must be as flexible as possible in goal setting, it is quite easy to inadvertently establish a vague or unrealistic time frame for accomplishment.

    Time frames must be realistic and definite with some flexibility taken into consideration. For example, many times within the work environment, a situation will arise that could not have been anticipated during the time that the goal was actually set.

    Suppose a new office employee is given a goal of operating a telex machine. The goal meets all of the requirements of effective criteria, and the employee is given three weeks to achieve it. During the first two weeks, great progress is noted, and it is almost a certainty that the new task will be easily mastered on schedule.

    Unfortunately, during the start of the third week, the employee becomes ill and remains out of work for the entire week. Obviously, the goal is not accomplished on time, and in a technical sense a failure has occurred. If, however, there had been a degree of flexibility during the original goal setting process, it would have allowed the employee to quickly resume the learning process without failure upon returning to work.

  4. How Will the Goal Be Achieved? A cardinal rule here is to always recognize the resources required for goal achievement. In some cases, no outside assistance for the employee is required. In other situations, a great deal of coaching and training is necessary. Furthermore, other priorities (for both the employee and the immediate work group) must be taken into account to avoid any possible conflicts later on. At all costs, avoid the trap of having an employee succeed on one particular goal — and by doing so, fail on several others. As with most supervisory techniques described here, a bit of advance planning before committing time and resources is well worth the effort expended.

Always Conduct a Goal Review: At the onset of a goal, a review must be held with all employees involved in the goal. This communication centers upon each employee’s need to know — to be fully aware of all the ramifications involved. During this review, the manager must be clear and discuss why the goal was set, who set it and how it fits into the total department and organization. Make the terms of measurement especially clear and unambiguous.

Retain Flexibility In Your Overview: Recognize difficulties that may be involved. Have a compassionate, but firm attitude. Use encouragement and support wherever possible.Demonstrate empathy at all times.

It cannot be overemphasized how truly delicate this goal review stage really is. It is precisely at this point that the employee begins to form initial impressions of the new goals being assigned— and much of the future success (or failure) dependent on those impressions. A great deal will directly depend on the level of trust that has existed between the manager and the employee up to this point. Unfortunately, even with the best formulated goals, an existing low trust level between the individuals involved will surely sow the seed of discontent and lead to eventual goal failure in one form or another.

It is at this juncture that the employee has the opportunity to fully express his or her d opinions on the proposed goals being transmitted. While all of the principles of effective feedback apply here, the supervisor must be especially alert for any signs of neutral feedback, whereby a noncommittal attitude begins to surface. This type of situation must never be allowed to continue, because it could place the entire goal-setting process in danger of failure. The astute supervisor must always listen carefully and avoid interrupting the employee.

Goal Commitment: Since both the supervisor and employee have just finished working together in a mutual problem-solving situation, it now follows that the employee will formally accept the goal assignment. Granted, this is not always an “automatic” step, but it does stand a good chance for success provided that all of the previous steps have been carried out. Crucial to this success is the mutual commitment that must be expressed (with honest intent) between the supervisor and employee. Both must truly believe that the goals are within reach and that every effort and support from both sides will be given. Once again, the trust level between the individuals will play an important factor. Finally, the employee must clearly see the benefits of goal attainment — both from an organizational and individual point of view.

Plans for Follow-Up: There must be some type of goal commitment form that is signed by both the supervisor and employee and that clearly states: the goal period involved, date(s) that the goal will be accomplished, and the date that goal was set. Regardless of the industry or type of product or service offered by the organization, it is always the supervisor’s responsibility to follow-up with the employee on goal accomplishment.

Likewise, regardless of the specific system used in setting goals, it is fundamental mark of the truly effective supervisor that planning, additional planning, and still more planning are done before taking the first step in the process. In spite of the supervisor’s education, background or experience, there is really no other way around the goal setting structure. By any standard, the process is not an easy one to accomplish; however, at the same time it is one that remains absolutely vital to job fulfillment.