Setting goals is important when times are good, but it’s just as — and possibly even more — important when times are challenging. A recent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) showed that the economy has contracted two quarters in a row leading to speculation of a recession, and top companies have started to cut costs and jobs.
Organizational goals provide direction, purpose, and focus from the top down, and when macroeconomic factors are in constant flux, it’s important to adjust your goals to help navigate through this uncertainty. A company can’t expect to stick to the goals it set during a boom when the economy is slowing; it’s simply not possible to achieve the same key results with lower budgets or fewer resources and people, or when your employees may be worried about the future of their careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended how we do business. A 2020 Lattice Research Report surveyed over 1,7000 HR professionals about how they were responding to the global COVID-19 crisis: Some 45% of respondents reported that they were adjusting team goals, and 43% said they were adjusting company goals. A possible economic downturn will force companies to rethink their plans yet again if they want to be set up for long-term success. The importance of setting goals still remains high, but the goals and targets themselves may — and should — change and adjust to reflect the new reality.
Ahead, learn why you not only need goals during times of uncertainty, but also how to adjust them accordingly.
Why Goals Are Especially Important During Times of Uncertainty
With individuals and teams spread across countries and time zones and hybrid work models becoming the norm instead of the exception, goal-setting has become even more essential for creating employee engagement. Goals align employees behind a clear and common purpose, tie individual work to larger company priorities, reinforce company values, and create opportunities for development and growth.
When there are multiple factors outside of a company’s control (e.g., an ongoing global pandemic and fears of a recession at the same time), the solution is to bring teams together by focusing on what is controllable — like setting clear goals. During times of uncertainty, this could mean revisiting everything from company to team to individual goals.
Goals will vary by company, but goal-setting frameworks can help create clear, measurable, and trackable goals at every level. Two common frameworks are:
- Objective and Key Results (OKRs): Objectives create aspirational goals and key results are milestones, or the steps that will be taken to reach those objectives. Because they connect individuals and teams to shared company objectives, OKRs help create operational alignment and transparency across the board.
- SMART Goals: SMART goals break down big objectives into smaller, achievable tasks within a given timeframe. These goals are structured to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.
Regardless of which goal-setting framework makes the most sense for your organization, the Lattice OKRs & Goals tool allows employees at all levels to set goals, schedule check-ins with managers, track progress, and see how their work connects to organizational success.
4 Steps for Adjusting Goals in Uncertain Times
1. Create team and shared goals collaboratively.
Goals can help create focus during uncertainty, but they can also help energize and inspire employees who may be feeling unmotivated, disconnected, or burned out. Instead of having goals set at the leadership level and handed down, creating team or shared goals collaboratively can help bring employees into the planning stages, which can make them feel more engaged and invested in both the process and the outcome.
Gallup research found that employees whose managers involve them in creating goals not only have a clearer understanding of what’s expected of them at work, but are also 2.3 times more likely to say that their goals are realistic. This gives employees a greater sense of ownership over their goals and work, which can lead to increased employee engagement and retention.
In addition to collaboration on goals, People teams should continue to focus on performance management in tracking those goals and driving engagement. The economy naturally ebbs and flows, and the best way to survive dips is to provide feedback, recognition, and opportunities for future growth.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen how changing economic climates cause employees to reconsider their job priorities and options (see: the Great Resignation), so committing to employee engagement during downturns can pay off in the future. When companies invest in engagement and development when times are tough, employees are more likely to pitch in and do their part to ensure the company can stand up to any challenges and obstacles, and are more likely to stay at the company even when the economy picks back up again.
2. Use a mix of both short- and long-term goals.
It’s difficult to plan long-term goals in any situation, and uncertainty compounds that even more. How can companies set goals for the next year or two when they don’t know what new challenges will arise in the next few months, or even weeks? Using a mix of short- and long-term goals can help companies be both flexible and have a roadmap for the future.
Long-term goals help steer the direction of the company toward a specific mission or outcome. This could be things like hitting certain revenue or sales numbers, becoming the industry leader or gaining market share, getting acquired, going public, empowering customers in certain aspects of their lives, and increasing customer satisfaction. Long-term goals take time — depending on the company, goals, and larger economic environment, they could take three, five, 10, or even 15+ years — so they are strategic and vision-driven, and require a lot of planning.
Short-term goals, on the other hand, are time-bound, and break down long-term goals into smaller, more achievable segments. They help you focus on what you can do now to continue to move the company in the right direction. Short-term goals could include things like building internal tools to optimize processes, cutting or expanding marketing budgets for a given quarter, and hiring or pausing hiring for certain teams. In most cases, Lattice Advisory Services recommends that companies set goals quarterly because this keeps companies agile, allows for more frequent employee recognition, and encourages higher employee engagement.
Think of long-term goals as the destination, showing you where you want to go, and short-term goals as the steps you’ll need to take to get there. Especially in times of uncertainty, it’s important to leverage both in tandem. Long-term goals should be in the background to help keep the company pointed in the right direction, and the focus should be on short-term goals to let leaders, teams, and employees take immediate action to set — and achieve — attainable milestones. Short-term goals also allow you to pivot and shift priorities more quickly in response to unpredictable external factors, giving companies and workers a better sense of control.
3. Communicate transparently.
Transparency builds trust within organizations, and when companies are facing new and challenging business conditions, one of the worst things that People teams and leaders can do is keep their employees in the dark. Communicating what goals are changing — and why they’re changing — helps keep employees aligned and equipped with all the information they need to do their jobs well.
This doesn’t mean that leaders always have to have all the answers or the perfect way to share information. Simply having an open line of communication, acknowledging challenges and unpredictability, and setting the expectation that the company will move forward together can go a long way in maintaining a positive organizational culture.
There is no such thing as overcommunication; if and when goals need to be adjusted, you need to inform employees at all levels — usually more than once to reinforce the information — in order to keep everyone aligned. Again, context is important; if short-term goals have changed and priorities have shifted, providing high-level insight into those leadership decisions gives employees the information they need to succeed. This needs to flow from the top down. Not only do leaders need to practice open communication, but managers need to be trained in having these kinds of open conversations with their teams as well.
Just as important as communicating is listening. Encouraging feedback and using engagement surveys can help organizations manage uncertainty by getting timely input from employees on how economic factors are impacting them and their jobs, and also identifying areas where workers may be struggling. This two-way communication builds clarity and shared accountability, and ultimately creates stronger teams. Once feedback is collected, leaders need to create actionable plans based on that feedback. This helps employees feel heard and encourages them to continue to be engaged and give honest feedback.
4. Revisit and adjust goals as needed — but not unnecessarily.
We never have all the information we need at any given time, so it’s only natural to expect goals to shift and adapt to changing circumstances over time. However, changing goals just for the sake of changing them can signal a lack of focus or weak strategy. Knowing when and how to revisit goals can help prevent unnecessary confusion within an organization.
Are you making changes to goals as a knee-jerk reaction to economic conditions, or are they intentional changes that will set the company up for success in the future? Are the goals you currently have still important to the company or have priorities changed, either temporarily or permanently? Examining the reasons behind goal adjustments, as well as staying true to your company’s mission and values, can help ensure that you’re making changes for the right reasons and that the results will be effective.
Also note that if company-level goals change, department, team, and individual goals need to adjust as well. After all, you can’t expect individuals to achieve goals they set under one set of assumptions when those assumptions are no longer true. For example, if your company is using OKRs, those OKRs should always be in alignment with organizational priorities, so one cannot adapt without the other. Likewise, teams may need to rethink performance reviews in light of new goals — you may have to shift what you’re tracking and measuring so people are being rewarded according to updated company priorities and the new global reality.
Leveraging a performance management platform allows employees and managers to stay on top of changes, progress, and priorities. For instance, recruiting teams may have to lower hiring goals, sales teams may need to focus on building relationships instead of closing deals, and new initiatives may have to be shelved in favor of focusing on business-as-usual programs. By tracking how goals shift according to business and economic needs, companies can better understand how effective these adjustments are over time.
In times of uncertainty, goals — primarily short-term goals — can and should adjust in response to internal and external factors in order to stay achievable and relevant. When goals do change, leaders need to communicate clearly both the changes and the reasons behind them, encourage feedback from employees, and ensure that the changes trickle down to team and individual goals. In both good times and bad, goals are the most important tool organizations have to achieve organizational alignment and purpose, and allowing for some flexibility in them can pay off in the long run, strengthening employee engagement and retention over time.