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How to set SMART performance goals with employees

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Sometimes setting goals for employees seems like an afterthought tacked onto the performance review process. If the employee seems to be doing a good enough job, it’s tempting to just let them keep on doing what they’re doing and avoid rocking the boat. There’s one major problem with that line of thinking: a lack of clear, achievable goals is a quick way to cause otherwise great employees to burn out or disengage with their work.

Since burnout and turnover plague growing companies and cost a lot of productivity and money, waving away goal-setting and performance management as a formality can be a costly mistake. It can also prevent strong, bright team members from reaching their potential. Clearly, it’s pretty important for managers to nail this part of their jobs.

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Setting useful goals— the kind that encourage your employees to do their best work and contribute to the company’s overall success— requires working collaboratively. Your staff knows the ins and outs of their own work better than anyone from the outside. Simply handing down a goal without taking their interests or perspective into account can be incredibly demoralizing.

When working with an employee to write their objectives for the next month, quarter, or year, it’s always a good idea to follow the SMART framework. You’re likely familiar with it, but in case you need a refresher, a SMART goal is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. Here’s what that means:


Make sure employees know exactly what they need to do to meet your expectations. This means spelling out what they need to do, when, how much, and— when relevant— why and with whom.


Your goals should include milestones that allow you and your employee to track their progress and encourage them to reach their targets.


This factor will differ for each employee. Make sure your employee will feel challenged by their goal, but not deflated and exhausted thinking about it. It should be realistically achievable with a comfortable amount of challenge and effort.


Tie each employee’s goals into the overall company vision and strategy. Seeing how their achievements help the organization as a whole motivates employees and gives their goals context and meaning.


A deadline should provide enough time to achieve the goal, but not enough to lose focus. Without a deadline, big-picture goals can be shoved aside by the everyday tasks that crop up unexpectedly.

If you happened to have rushed through this process during performance review time last year, it’s not too late to course-correct. In fact, the new year is a good excuse to revisit any unrealistic, vague, or ill-defined objectives you may have set at the end of the year.

Give your reports a heads-up that you want to meet with each of them to clarify their goals and coach them toward achieving them this year. Encourage them to take a few minutes to write their own personal SMART goals for their work to bring with them when you meet. This will give you an idea of where they see their work going in the coming months, and what tasks and metrics matter most to them in their jobs. It may also give you an insight into the skills they’re interested in developing so you can point them to the appropriate resources.

Setting clear objectives with employee buy-in is a great way to motivate your staff to contribute to company-wide success, and it can improve morale for the whole workforce. While it may feel burdensome to create custom targets for each individual employee, this practice is an important investment in each person’s unique skills, and it helps move the needle on bigger-picture tasks.

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