Most People Are Bad at Setting Goals. Here's How to Do it Right.

May 29, 2017

It's smart to use S.M.A.R.T. acronym when setting goals.

There’s been quite a bit of research into the importance of goals. The findings: goals can vastly increase motivation, persistence and ultimately achievement – if they are set correctly.

The problem is many people don’t set good goals, which is as ineffective as not setting goals at all.

For example, Harvard and Sam Houston State University both did extensive research into the importance of goals, and both came to the same conclusion: setting goals can be incredibly beneficial, if done correctly. The problem is too many people set vague goals or don’t get meaningful feedback on their goals (or a million other mistakes), and that makes their goals ineffective.

Bringing it to the world of business, managers should work with each of their employees to set goals and set goals for their whole team as well, as that can really help performance. But, if those goals aren’t set effectively, they might as well not be set at all.

Okay, so how do you set effective goals? Well, in his LinkedIn Learning course Managing Teams, LinkedIn Learning Instructor Todd Dewett gave an acronym for setting strong goals: S.M.A.R.T. If managers consistently set S.M.A.R.T. goals for both their employees and their overall team, they will see improved performance, Dewett said.

So what are the aspects of a S.M.A.R.T. goal? Each letter stands for a key attribute of a goal. They are:

1. Specific

Here’s where a lot of goals fall apart. Too often professionals make vague goals – I want to be a better public speaker, I want to makes more sales, I want to become a better writer – without really defining what that means.

“Great goals are not vague, unclear or otherwise ambiguous,” Dewett said in his course. “They strive to be very concrete. For example, instead of telling an employee they could provide better customer service, you might set a goal to increase customer satisfaction survey results by 10 percent over the next two quarters.”

2. Measurable

You need to have some metric you are shooting for when setting a goal. Perhaps your goal is to make 50 sales calls a day, instead of 40. Or to reach 15 percent more people with your content.

“It has often been said if you can't measure it, you can't manage it, and that's true,” Dewett said. “We don't monitor goals through intuition. Measures matter.”

Here’s a caveat Dewett warned about though – don’t make the metrics overly complex. Yes, you want to measure the goal effectively, but you don’t want to make the measuring process so burdensome it becomes a time suck that limits creativity.

3. Aligned

This particularly applies when setting multiple goals. When setting them, you want to make sure they all align with each other, as opposed to competing with each other.

“The classic example here is to demand a strong increase in work output or quantity while also asking for an increase in work quality,” Dewett said. “These two goals might not be mutually supportive.”

For managers, each of your employee's goals also need to make sense when put together. Say one employee’s goal is to become more efficient, whereas another employee might want to expand into a new market – those goals are competing. That’s because expanding into a new market requires testing and therefore is less efficient than mastering a known market, and those two goals will work against each other – not a good solution.

4. Realistic

You want to set goals that are neither too easy nor too hard. Here’s where collaboration matters, Dewett said – by having an honest conversation with an employee, you should be able to set a reasonable goal.

A good rule to follow when setting goals: you should accomplish around 70 percent of them. Any less than that and the goals are likely too hard. Any more, and the goals are too easy.

5. Time-bound

Finally, you want to put some sort of timeline on your goal. Not that you are going to increase your customer service rating in the sweet by-and-by, but that you are going to accomplish it in the next two quarters.

Often, people underestimate the time it’ll take them to accomplish goals, Dewett said. So he gave a way to avoid that.

“Here's a great rule of thumb,” Dewett said. “Make your honest estimation, then add a little bit more to be safe. Trust me, adding a little room to complete a goal can make all the difference.”

One last point

There’s one final point Dewett made in his course – goals need to be adequately resourced as well. Giving an employee a goal without the tools or the time to accomplish it can lead to frustration very quickly, he said.

That’s why it’s so important for managers to realize these goals aren’t just the goals of the employee. They are also your goals, and you are just as accountable for them as your employee.

If they succeed, great. If they fail, it’s easy to point the finger at the employee – but it’s also a good time to look at yourself too, to see what you could have done differently.

*Image from Nick Youngson

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