Setting Realistic Employee Goals for the New Year

Goals to SuccessDon’t ever let yourself confuse an employee goal and a New Year’s resolution for your business. One is an abstract idea and the other can make the difference between a productive workforce and an aimless bunch of employees.

And no matter what industry you’re in, having your employees set goals is a crucial part of getting the most out of them. Need proof? A famous study on Harvard MBA students in 1979 asked them if they’d written down goals. Only 3 percent had, and ten years later that 3 percent was making on average ten times as much as the other 97 percent.

So even if your employees think it’s corny, it’s always in their best interest.


You’ve probably heard at some point about setting SMART goals. That’s an acronym, in case you thought we were getting a little carried away with the caps lock. It stands for:

    • Specific – As in not some far-out abstract concept like “be a better waitress.” It needs to be specific like “Get 100 percent positive feedback from all my guests.”


    • Measureable – This means quantifying the goal in some respect. Financial ones are easy, but it can also be something measurable like “get ACE certified.”


    • Attainable – It’s always good to push yourself. But telling sales people to quintuple their production over last quarter in a flat economy will just discourage them.


    • Relevant – Aiming to learn how to fly fish is never a bad Just not particularly useful if you’re running a hair salon.


    • Timely – Because if you’ve got forever to achieve a goal, you’ll take forever to achieve it.

This all looks simple enough, but how do you ACTUALLY go about setting goals with your employees that will meet these criteria?

It Starts With You

The first step is setting goals for your business that align with the SMART principals. Once you’ve done that, you can give them to your employees and challenge them to find goals that fall into line.

It’s important you let them set their own goals, though, so their motivation will be internal and not a misguided effort to impress a boss.

Your employees may even use the SMART methodology to establish concrete goals that align with their job function. For example, your marketing department may decide to align your business' digital marketing efforts with SMART goals. If so, there are a variety of tool like this free SMART marketing goals excel template to help you set and measure your new goals.

Then, set some goals for yourself – as in you, personally - and share them with your employees. It’s part of leading by example. Once you’ve set the framework, give them a specific date to get back to you with a list of their goals for the year.

How Do You Determine If The Goals They Set Are Effective?

Not that your staff is going to come back to you with a list of stuff like “eat less carbs,” but they may not always get the hang of it the first time around. So, here are some ways you can guide them.

    • First, ask them to write out a brief job description, so each employee can focus on different areas of what he or she does to set specific goals.


    • Then, make sure the goals don’t contradict each other. For instance if you have a waiter who wants to turn 20 tables a night, but also wants to focus on giving personalized service, those two may not go hand in hand. Tell him to pick one, preferably the one that aligns more closely with what your company goals are.


    • Third, if someone has a large, long-term goal like developing a new training manual for employees or creating an entirely new inventory system, set small benchmarks for each one so your employee doesn’t feel overwhelmed or rushed.


    • Also, see which goals might depend on other people or other departments. For example, if you have a salesperson aiming to sell a set volume of a certain product, you’ll need to make sure that product has enough inventory to meet that demand. If not, you may want to recalibrate.


    • And by no means is this the last criteria to look at, but you must make sure your employees are stretching themselves just enough to better the company, but not so much to stress themselves out. If a goal seems too easy, ask your employee if there is more he can do. If he explains why he can’t, then leave it as is.

Setting Rewards

Remember: Not everyone is motivated by money. Also, your business may not have the funds available to motivate your employees. A goal reward of straight up cash might not always be feasible. When determining rewards, first ask employees – each one personally – what kind of reward they’d like to see for their goals. Then reconcile that with something your company can offer.

You may also want to tier your business' employee reward system, so employees don’t feel goal setting is an all-or-nothing proposition. Tripling your sales is a much loftier goal than being on time every day, so try assigning a value to each goal, as well as the goal set as a whole.

Monitor And Adjust

As a small business owner you know by now absolutely nothing goes as planned. So an employee who set a goal of missing no days of work - then suffered a broken leg in January - is going to need to adjust that goal. About once a quarter, ask each employee to report on how he or she is doing on each goal, and if they still seem realistic and relevant.

Just remember, slacking on your goals is not an excuse for changing them. Often things happen – the economy slips, customers leave, people get sick – and goals that seemed realistic in January are ridiculous by June. Make sure you account for that at regular intervals.

And finally, give intermittent rewards and praise. That’s not to say you set up a star chart in the break room like your 5th grade teacher, but if employees are making progress and/or achieving their goals, recognize that publicly. It’ll motivate the rest to catch up, and give that employee a real sense of accomplishment.

Serious goal setting is probably more important for a small business than others, since individual accountability is so much more immediate. Following these guidelines won’t guarantee a more productive workforce, but at the very least it will get them moving in the right direction, and not just thinking about some abstract resolution that they have no idea how to reach.

Image courtesy of bplanet |

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