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3 key concepts for successful goal setting as a leader

4 min read


Guy Harris is a master trainer and coach with the Kevin Eikenberry Group. He specializes in workplace conflict resolution and team dynamics issues. He writes The Recovering Engineer Blog and co-authored “From Bud to Boss: Secrets to a Successful Transition to Remarkable Leadership.”

For many leaders, January marks a time filled with conversations related to performance expectations and goals for the coming year. Most of the leaders that I work with say they want to set goals that will motivate and inspire their teams to higher performance and better results.

I fully support the desire to motivate and inspire teams to higher performance. And I offer this caveat: poorly set goals run the risk of discouraging, rather than encouraging, and disengaging, rather than engaging, employees.

Here are three concepts to remember as you set goals with others so that you create motivation rather than despair.

Set different types of goals

It is OK to set minimum performance expectations. In fact, that’s your job as the leader. Goals, though, should be different. Ideally, goals are above and beyond the minimum acceptable. When the goal and the minimum get confused, you only have punishment tactics available to you to drive people toward accomplishment, and you invite minimum performance rather than high-level performance.

To address this challenge, you can use a strategy I learned from my friend, colleague and co-author Kevin Eikenberry. You can set three different performance expectations. We call them A goals, B goals, and C goals.

The C goal is the Comfortable goal. It doesn’t take much extra to achieve it. In fact, it’s pretty close to the minimum acceptable level. In some cases, it might be the minimum acceptable, and the reward of achieving it might be the chance to remain employed.

The B goal is the Believable goal. It’s what you really want to see. It is above the minimum, and it is still believable. It takes some extra work, and you might have to do some things differently to achieve it. You can offer some rewards for achieving it. You do not punish for failure to achieve it.

The A goal is the Awesome goal. This would be what some people call the stretch goal. To achieve it, you will definitely have to change some things. You might need new processes, new tools or additional people. This goal can have some pretty big rewards attached to it, and, like the B goal, no punishment if you fail to achieve it.

Ask more questions

In the end, you want the person pursing goal accomplishment to feel ownership for the goal. One way to accomplish this outcome is to set goals with people rather than for them.

Question, probe and investigate during the goal setting process. What do they think is achievable? What barriers do they see? What outcomes would they like?

When you work to surface your team’s frustrations with the current situation and vision of what is achievable before you state your vision, you lay the foundation for better communicating goals that move people to action.

Make it safe to fail

You don’t want people to fail in ways that will destroy the organization. You do want people to learn and grow in order to get better. Trying new ways of doing things and learning from small failures are important parts of building a climate of goal achievement.

When you apply the first two ideas, this third idea becomes easier to accept. A clear distinction between minimum acceptable and what you would like to achieve creates the space for small, learning failures in pursuit of the bigger goal. Engaging in dialogue rather than monologue during goal setting creates a safe environment where people can engage with and learn from you and others on the team in the interest of getting better and achieving more.

Apply all three ideas during this goal setting season to position yourself for a fantastic 2012.