"Never adjust goals? Never say never.”

That’s how one HR leader described his recent pivot on goal-setting. Managers don’t want to seem like they’re moving goalposts. After all, what’s the point of setting targets if they’re always subject to change?

Under normal circumstances, clinging to that view marks strength. But during a global health crisis? That view may be way too narrow. We asked leaders how they were reassessing their goals and communicating changes to employees. 

Staying Flexible

“I think any manager with a lick of sense has to be prepared to adjust goals, though not for just any old reason that shows up on the doorstep,” said Nelson Sherwin, an HR Manager at PEO Compare. Companies go through rough patches all the time — but today's crisis is anything but routine. In good times and bad, employees expect their targets to be realistic. Stretch goals are meant to be challenging, not impossible.

“Employees have to believe that the stated goals were arrived at after careful consideration and calculation, and the stark reality is that COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve seen for generations,” Sherwin said. At a time when companies are facing plenty of firsts, his team has had to take an honest look at their second-quarter targets.

Sherwin’s business wasn’t alone. Lattice recently surveyed over 1,700 HR teams on how their companies were handling goals during the crisis. Of those, 45% were in the process of adjusting team goals and 43% were adjusting company goals. But while targets might be affected, the importance of goal-setting hasn’t been sidelined.

“We’ve stayed the course with goal-setting and have encouraged everyone to think through goals with the lens of the current COVID-19 climate and take that into consideration,” said Melanie Lundberg, AVP of Talent Management at Combined Insurance. Rather than disregard goal-setting for the quarter, her company gave employees a few extra weeks to work with their managers and adjust their targets.

Tailoring the Approach

Chris Kaiser, founder of sustainability startup Click A Tree, had to “dramatically” adjust the company’s goals. But the impact hasn’t been uniform across all teams. “Employees are affected in various ways. Our social media team continues with the same goals since online outreach is still doable. But business development goals have been lowered a lot,” Kaiser said.

Recruiting teams, in particular, had to pivot. Lattice survey data shows that only 23% of companies are hiring as normal through the current crisis. “We also had to lower our goals for building the team, and some promising new hires can't be hired for the time being,” Kaiser added. Changes in recruiting have had ripple effects elsewhere. Long term targets across the business are often set with a specific headcount in mind.

Whatever the department, HR teams and managers encouraged teams to pivot from unattainable and potentially demoralizing goals to ones that were fully in employees’ control. For quota-driven roles like sales, that might mean setting targets that have less to do with adding new business and more to do with professional growth. “One thought we have is less focus on KPIs and bookings and [instead] focusing on activities they can do at a flexible time that are still value-adds, like developing tools and strategies,” said one HR leader from Lattice’s Resources for Humans Slack community.

For client-facing roles, leaders recommended setting goals that were focused on relationship-building. Fostering that trust now could serve companies well after the crisis settles. “To facilitate further growth and to prepare for the COVID-19 aftermath, we're currently focused on establishing and growing client relationships, more than on anything else,” said Emma Debeljak, Director at Digital Silk. In a time where budgets are under scrutiny, the focus on personalized service could benefit client retention even after the dust settles.

Communicating Transparently 

Companies handled getting the word out differently depending on their size and culture. But what all agreed on is that transparency was the best approach. Radio silence breeds uncertainty — and in times of high-profile layoffs elsewhere, the last thing you want to do is feed the rumor mill.

“Adjustments are coming from all angles. But by maintaining a consistent level of communication and very clear directives, employers will be in far better shape as they are forced to readjust and examine different paths,” said Janine Yancey, founder of Emtrain. Yancey and other leaders were quick to point out that employees weren’t oblivious to current events. It’s unlikely that they’d be caught off guard by news of a hiring freeze or adjustment in company goals.

“Everyone understands the circumstances, and I think that in this economic climate, many people, including myself, feel we’re fortunate to have a job while we weather the storm,” said Calloway Cook, President at Illuminate Labs. Cook has been scheduling virtual meetings with all of his teams to personally communicate any high-level changes to goals. Leaders at larger organizations delegated team-level communication to managers.

Goals exist to give employees focus and something to be measured by. To that end, their use in performance conversations is likely to come up. While maintaining the importance of goal-setting overall, managers felt it was important to be forgiving if teams do end up falling short.

“I’ve urged everyone to work on what they can, and we’ll buckle down until all of this is over. We already have enough on our plate as it is, without talking numbers. Health is more important at this time,” said Ethan Taub, CEO of Goalry. While goals certainly matter, they aren’t the only factors worth considering in performance conversations — especially in a quarter as unprecedented as this one. 

Teams shouldn’t set goals simply for the sake of having them. Goal-setting is supposed to inspire employees and give them something to work toward. As soon as goals leave the realm of possibility, they can discourage employees and even lead to disengagement over time.

To learn more about how to set specific, measurable, and realistic business targets, read Lattice’s overview of SMART goals.