Are You Too Ambitious? How to Keep Your Employee Goals High Yet Attainable

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Managers must walk a fine line when setting employee goals. Aggressive stretch goals can produce high rewards for both the company and the employee when achieved. When team members reach a goal into which they have all poured significant time and effort, they feel inspired and motivated to take on even more new challenges. The confidence boost unites the team, strengthening bonds between members and steeling their resolve to push on.

With such tempting rewards, it’s no wonder managers often strive for aggressive goals. However, the flip side of setting such goals is worth considering. If the goal is too high — if it is, in fact, unattainable — the team will actually lose motivation and confidence. The effects of this failure could be more wide-reaching and long-lasting than you might think. Employee morale and camaraderie could suffer, which could cause the team to consistently fail to reach future goals, creating a vicious cycle of falling short.

Many leaders and managers struggle to find the balance necessary to set high, yet attainable, goals. Finding the right fit for your team will take time — and likely some trial and error — but good goals are well worth the effort.

Start With SMART Goals

Most HR professionals, company leaders, and team managers are familiar with the SMART goal system. If this concept is new to you, that may be why you are struggling to set the right goals for your team.

Here’s a basic breakdown. SMART goals are:

  1. S = Specific = Must have a clear, articulable target
  2. M = Measurable = Must have some metric by which it can be assessed
  3. A = Attainable = Must be within the team’s reach
  4. R = Realistic = Must be achievable considering the team’s current reality
  5. T = Time-bound = Must be reached in a given time frame

Attainability is literally at the core of a SMART goal. In fact, a goal can only be attainable if it has the other qualities demanded by the SMART system. That is, attainable goals are necessarily specific, measurable, realistic, and time-bound.

Say your team has set itself a goal of “becoming a leader in campus recruiting this year.” This goal is destined to fail, because it is not a SMART goal. Among other shortcomings, this goal does not define how you will measure your campus recruiting leadership.

Instead, the SMART version of this goal would be: “Recruit X number of students from [local university] by the end of May this year.” This is truly an attainable SMART goal, as it offers a specific outcome, a means of measuring success, and a built-in deadline.

Consider Past Performance

Closely tracking employee performance has many benefits, one of which is assistance in setting future goals. While people can surprise you, generally speaking, an employee’s previous efforts are indicative of their future efforts. Growth does not happen all at once; it happens incrementally.

When setting goals, then, it is best to start by taking a hard look at an employee’s or team’s past performance. This information will furnish you with benchmarks you can use to create new SMART goals.

For example, if you’ve been in business for 15 years and have never seen an employee’s average number of sales increase by more than 10 percent a year, then you know setting a goal of a 20 percent increase in sales is a recipe for failure. Surely there will be exceptions, but those situations are just that: exceptions, not the foundations for attainable goals.

Set Employees Up for Success

As a leader, you should aim to provide your employees with the tools they need to reach their goals. This could mean offering additional training, new technology, or other tools and resources to support employee performance.

Presenting employees with the right resources is only part of the picture, however. As a leader, you must also get actively involved in the process. Both the setting and the reaching of goals need to be two-way conversations.

Listen to your team’s needs and concerns ; this will help ensure goals are attainable and the right supports are in place to reach those goals. Provide timely, detailed feedback to keep employees on track toward their goals, and create channels for employees to share their own feedback upward. Don’t hesitate to make adjustments along the way based on employee feedback.

Finally, it is important to celebrate milestones on the path to achievement and recognize the extraordinary work of the team members who contributed to the goal.

Setting ambitious goals is important for a team’s growth. When teams are not challenged, they settle for mediocre work and make costly mistakes.

However, you have to be sure your goals are not too ambitious. When you’re setting goals, remember to be critical of them. Ask yourself, “Is this goal truly a SMART goal?” If not, adjust as needed. Draw upon past performance data when creating new goals, and give your team members the tools they need to be successful. These simple tips will help you craft ambitious but attainable goals your team can crush.

A version of this article originally appeared on the ClearCompany blog.

Sara Pollock is head of the marketing department at ClearCompany.

By Sara Pollock