What’s the best thing a manager can do to start the new year in a constructive and productive way? It’s nothing fancy, but it’s fundamental and foundational: Set clear and meaningful objectives for all of your direct reports.
Establishing thoughtful, carefully conceived job objectives at the year’s outset is an important but sometimes overlooked managerial function. Often, not enough time is devoted to it. Yet clearly defined and agreed-to objectives can make all the difference between a year of collaboration or contentiousness, productivity or discontent.
Here are five suggestions for setting objectives to help optimize employee performance. Objectives should be:
Clear – First and foremost, job objectives need to be clear. If objectives aren’t clearly defined and understood, it sets the stage for trouble later in the year. Absent such clarity, when it eventually comes time to evaluate employee performance, troublesome “he said, she said” scenarios can easily develop.
Measurable – Objectives should be as specific and measurable as possible. Again, this helps remove subjectivity from future evaluations. For example: Respond to all client inquiries within two hours. Make 37 widgets a day. Tame three wolverines each month. Point being, regardless of the nature of your business, ensure that the volume of expected activity and time of completion are clear.
Agreed-Upon – My own experience is that objectives are most successful when employees are closely involved in the objective-setting process. A collaborative process – rather than a unilaterally imposed one – tends to promote greater employee engagement. This is naturally not to say that employees get to decide how much work they do – management of course is always the final arbiter of the goals that are established. But being closer to the actual work, employees may have more accurate assessments of how realistic goals are, and may have insights into more nuanced measures. And there’s also very practical value in having an employee take an active role in the goal-setting process. Put simply, as a manager you want employees to have this added level of responsibility for their performance… skin in the game, so to speak.
Meaningful to the organization – It’s important that goals are not developed in isolation, but are closely aligned with organizational objectives. Thoughtful job objectives frequently take time to develop, requiring back-and-forth dialogue among employee, manager and senior management – to ensure that effort is being expended in the right strategic direction. (No point training wolverines when management really needs antelopes!)
Ambitious yet attainable – Lastly, the bar should be set at the right height. Set it too high and it can result in frustration and burnout. Set it too low and you’re not doing your job to get all you (reasonably) can out of your employees. Ideally, you want to establish goals that talented individuals can reach with strong, sustained effort.
It’s worth emphasizing, as noted above, that it generally does take time to develop such objectives properly. Often I went through three or four drafts with a direct report before all the language was as finely tuned as desired and we were in full agreement. But I never for an instant thought this process was a waste of time, but rather a worthwhile investment.
Lack of clarity is the enemy in this game. Confused, muddled expectations are the shoals on which manager-employee relationships too often founder.
But get these beginning-of-year objectives right, and management becomes a considerably easier task.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
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