Promises to Keep: Productive and Reliable Goal-Setting Strategies

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” — Henry David Thoreau, American writer and philosopher.

Promises to Keep: Productive and Reliable Goal-Setting Strategies by Laura Stack #productivityWorkplace goals are the knots that tie together all the other factors crucial to modern business success: flexibility, agility, engagement, empowerment, hard work, self-discipline, teamwork, cross-functionality, you name it. They shape attention and give us direction in an increasingly chaotic world.

German-American theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote, “Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.” Goals represent a species of promise, and they apply to corporate teams as much as they do to any other human endeavor.

Arendt knew quite a lot about promises, especially broken ones. Born to a family of German Jews in Hanover in 1906, she bore witness to the political and military turmoil that tore Europe apart in the first half of the twentieth century. Many social promises were shattered due to the rabid anti-Semitism of the era; and though she fled to France in 1933, the Vichy French regime eventually turned her over to the Nazis. Fortunately, she soon escaped internment and made her way to the U.S. There she was able to set goals and see promises of her own kept, as she worked tirelessly within the Jewish-American community both during and after World War II.

Team Goal-Setting

As with anything else, some of your team members will have a better understanding of goal-setting than the rest. It’s up to you to bring everyone up to speed and make sure they stay on the same page. These tips have worked for my clients and me in the past.

1. Start with the team member. You’ll find it easier to establish team goals if individual team members have personal goals to reach for. For example, Dick might want to make $80,000 a year by the time he’s 35, while Jane may prefer to move up the management ladder toward CFO. Learn their personal and professional development goals and support them in their efforts. Help them find ways to weave those goals into the general goal-fabric of both team and organization.

2. Explain your position. Decent communication will always profit you here. Tell your people where they fit into the organizational structure, why what they do matters, and precisely what they need to do to move everyone forward. And I do mean precisely. The more detailed you are, the easier it is for them to engage. “Try harder” and “Do your best” don’t work nearly as well as, “We need to improve output by 15%,” or “Let’s finish this project by next Friday.”

3. Empower them to participate. It’s one thing to decide, based on prodding by the CEO, that your division needs to increase profits by 8% next quarter. The hard part is figuring out how. Your superiors may have some ideas on this, so you’ll need to work within their parameters; but otherwise, meet with your people and brainstorm. They may have some great ideas to contribute, and this gives them an opportunity to shine.

4. Clear the way to the target. As the facilitator, you’ll not only have to clarify what the goals are and how to get there, but you’ll also need to help blaze a trail. The father of a colleague of mine worked as a land surveyor in his youth, well before the days of laser surveying or GPS units. To do the work properly, he and his colleagues often had to use machetes, axes, and brush hooks to cut lines of sight through thick forest, sometimes for hundreds of yards at a time. In the white-collar world, cutting metaphorical lines of sight from here to there represents one of your tasks. You’ll also have to do what you can to fill in the potholes and smooth the way if it’s rough. The quicker your team can reach one goal, the quicker they can move to the next—and the more productive they’ll be.

5. Give them something to shoot for. In addition to the target itself, motivate your employees in positive ways—from offering bonuses, to helping them climb the corporate ladder. Explain the nature of the awards system, and always follow it meticulously, without favoritism. If they can’t trust you to keep your side of the bargain, why should they bother reaching for your goals? Trust is an important issue here; in fact, it should be a thread running through your entire goal-setting and team systems.

6. Provide feedback. Let people know how they’ve done, even (or perhaps especially) if their work isn’t stellar. Let them know you appreciate their work, offer encouragement where you can, and tell them what they need to fix. Be sure they know you value them, and they’ll be more likely to intensify their efforts next time around.

Promises, Promises

Like most of the things I write about, these goal-setting tips are basically common sense. But in our stress-filled workaday world, it can be hard to keep common sense in mind, and we all too often let things slip. Don’t allow this to happen to your team goal-setting, though, or you may as well stay home. A team without goals is like an octopus on roller skates—going every which way at once, making little if any forward progress.

Ever felt like that octopus? How did you handle it? Let us know in the Comments, and feel free to point out anything I’ve missed.