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How to create SMART goals that work for individuals

SMART goals can work, but they need to be specific for individuals.

4 min read


Goal planning


Having goals is critical to making progress, but it’s easy to believe that strong organizational goals will automatically translate to effective work team or employee goals. Getting that distinction clear can accelerate progress for everyone.

Some of the muddling of these two concepts comes from overapplying the well-known “SMART” — specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-bound — model for goal-setting. That works beautifully for corporate goals, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a work group or individual goal that needs to be more focused on tactical behavioral change.

Instead of applying the original model indiscriminately, try adapting it with an eye toward enhancing employee engagement and aligning with management strategies. This way, you can develop goals that are still SMART — specific, meaningful, agreed-upon, realistic and tracked — but are compatible at these more granular levels.

SMART for work groups

Construct specific goals with an eye toward leading employees to better performance. You might start with goals that measure end results, such as sales figures, and then develop individual or work group goals that measure behaviors that lead to better outcomes. For example, if more prompt follow-up calls or emails increase sales, set your work group goal around that behavioral metric. The more specific these goals are, the more actionable they become.

But don’t let your team member get lost in the details. Chasing specific numbers without context can often defeat the point of progress. Keeping these goals meaningful helps make them memorable and important within the context of the team members’ roles. Seeing progress toward these meaningful goals motivates employees and strengthens morale.

Another boost to morale is that goals are agreed-upon. When team members participate in goal-setting, they are more engaged because they have a greater stake in the outcomes. Doing so also ensures that the goals are more realistic, because employees are positioned to give on-the-ground insights about the challenges involved in any new project.

Work group and individual goals alike should stretch employees’ boundaries without overburdening them. Thinking in terms of a rewarding challenge that can be tracked at regular intervals will motivate and focus work groups.

Setting goals that are specific, meaningful, agreed-upon, realistic and tracked means that outcomes will be achievable and that the process will be galvanizing to employees.

Enacting SMART goals

If middle managers are to succeed in their roles, they must be empowered to set SMART goals. Here are three steps to effectively begin setting strong goals at the work group level:

  1. Establish leading goals and lagging goals. The whole team needs to be able to observe how changes in practices and behavior are improving results. Setting leading goals shows this in action, and companion lagging goals monitor the leading indicators.
  2. Become storytellers. As humans, we tell stories to make sense of our experiences. Storytelling can share experiences that have made a difference and show how the team is achieving goals in real time. Telling the story connects the team to the purpose of their work and increases the commitment to meeting a goal.
  3. Celebrate success. Celebrating success is an important way to reinforce improved performance and best practices. Instead of waiting until something goes wrong to gather as a team, take the opportunity when something goes right to acknowledge the people and processes that made it happen.

The original SMART model is still a valuable component to management. With a little adapting, it can be tailored to help enhance the productivity and performance of your work groups. Organizations that start today with initial meetings to hash out goals for this year will be able to look back on a productive and engaged 2019.


Burl Stamp is the founder and president of Stamp & Chase, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve their customer experience, build brand loyalty, promote a culture of safety, and increase employee engagement. To learn more about Stamp & Chase, follow along on the blog.

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