Organizations might survive if team members only slog away at daily tasks — doing just enough to get through the routine requirements that keep a business running. But without goal-setting, it’s usually difficult to do anything other than tread in place. 

Studies consistently show that actively setting goals and OKRs makes it more likely that those objectives are met. One study from Dominican University of California found that 76% of respondents who wrote down their goals, committed to take action, shared those commitments with a friend, and sent their friend weekly progress reports accomplished at least half if not all of their goals, compared to the success rate of participants who only thought about their goals but didn’t write them down (43%) and participants who wrote down their goals and action steps and shared those commitments with a friend, but didn’t follow up with progress reports (62%). 

And there is a clear business case for goal-setting as a team, too. According to Gallup, employees with managers who partner with them to create goals are 2.3 times more likely to say the goals are realistic than those with managers who did not include them in that process. What’s more, when managers collaborate with direct reports on creating objectives, it boosts employee engagement: Three-quarters of workers say they strongly agree that they know what’s expected of them when they are part of the goal-setting process, based on that same Gallup research. 

“The best way to get buy-in is for people to feel [like they’re] part of the process,” said Abi Ireland, performance strategist and executive and business coach. “It’s important to get people involved on the journey.” 

But getting every team member on the same page, and driving toward the same objectives and outcomes, can sometimes be easier said than done. Read on for five best practices that will enable you to effectively set goals as a team. 

5 Best Practices for Setting Goals As a Team

1. Get SMART.

From the start, all goals and initiatives should be SMART, said Jennifer Durbin Tuffy, founder of executive coaching practice Scoutenger. The SMART goals formula is a concept, usually attributed to renowned management expert Peter Drucker, that provides a framework for how goals are achieved. 

“That is so critical because if you don’t hit each of those aspects of the goal, you really can set yourself up for failure,” Tuffy said. “I see a lot of teams that say, ‘We need to increase our revenue another $500,000 this coming year.’ Well, that’s lovely, but unless there’s a plan behind it that tells you how you’re going to achieve that goal, it’s nothing but a wish written on paper.” 

The SMART acronym spells out an action plan for goal-setting. Here’s how it works: 

  • Specific: Ensure the goal is clearly defined, detailing why it’s important and who will be working toward the goal.

“A goal is no different than any other project you run within an organization,” Tuffy said. “It has to have an owner [and] it has to have a purpose. People have to understand what the purpose is and why they are working on this.” 

  • Measurable: Set metrics for how the goal will be measured. So, for example, don’t just say “Increase sales,” say “Increase sales by 20% during the upcoming fiscal year.”  

“Make sure the goal is very specific and action-oriented, not just a fuzzy thing that different people can interpret in different ways,” Ireland advised. Provide “as much clarity as possible around what it looks like, what the objective is, [and] why [you] are doing it. Getting all of that right from the start is going to be very important.” 

  • Achievable: Is this goal attainable, and does each contributor have the resources they need to get it done? 

“The dirty little secret is a lot of goals don’t get accomplished,” Tuffy cautioned. Don’t set your team up for failure. 

  • Relevant: How does the particular initiative mesh with the company goals, values, and business strategies, for example? 

Jessica Donahue, founder of HR consulting firm Adjunct Leadership Consulting, recommended that the executive team meet at the end of each year to set annual goals for the company. From there, she advised that leaders share those goals with managers, so they can set team goals and individual objectives with their direct reports. In this way, every goal is clearly connected to an organization’s overarching plans. 

“The idea being that [employees] can very clearly see that this is how their individual goal will help their team’s success and, therefore, help the broader organization, so that they have that line of sight to their job driving success for the business,” Donahue said. 

To ensure team members see the bigger picture, Ireland recommended posting a visual map or diagram that ties goals to company, department, and team objectives and links individuals’ activities to that big picture. “People talk about [goals], but it’s all just words,” she said. “Making it as real as possible, as visual as possible, can help.”

  • Time-Bound: What’s the actual deadline for accomplishing the goal? If there are no hard-and-fast timelines for when company objectives must be met, it’s easy for them to become a moving target. 

“It has to be time-bound in some way,” said Ireland. “We want to make sure we know what success looks like and we know when it’s achieved.”

2. Prioritize and role-model ethical, collaborative behavior.

With so much on the line, goal-setting can sometimes bring out the worst in people. Team members can get competitive, sometimes triggering unethical conduct that could include everything from lying to customers to get a sale to steamrolling a colleague they disagree with. Ireland worked in banking during the 2008 financial crisis and saw bad behavior in action. 

“The goals were to get in as much money as you can or do as many deals as you can,” she recalled. “The behavioral challenges were around ethics and trust and [was what you were doing] in the customer’s best interest?” 

As organizations set goals, they also need to make sure that leaders are role-modeling good behavior. Ensure, for example, that everybody has a voice at meetings and is treated with respect, Ireland said. Squash any workplace bullying. If organizations get this wrong, they risk damaging their reputation for the long-term, prompting a cascade of negative impacts. 

“You could lose customers over time,” she said. “You’ll lose people because of high turnover — people get fed up with going out to achieve the targets, but [seeing others] not really...valuing the team members.” 

3. Celebrate milestones.

Big goals take a long time to achieve, and that’s why it’s so important to mark the milestones — even the little ones — along the way. These celebrations don’t require big expenditures or elaborate gestures. Bringing in bagels, taking the team out for lunch, giving shout-outs during team meetings, sending an email to an executive about a particular team member’s accomplishments, or logging an employee’s good work into a People management system as part of the performance review process may be all it takes. 

“What people forget is how draining every day can be,” said Tuffy. “When you’re talking about large, lofty, year-long goals, it can be really demotivating to think, ‘I’m plugging away all year and I’m not going to win or be successful until the end of the year when this entire goal is achieved.’ Teams can lose a lot of motivation and energy for achieving the goal if they don’t have those small wins. 

“When you celebrate the small wins, you reinvigorate the team, and you give people the opportunity to celebrate what they have accomplished,” she added.

4. Review and adjust.

If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that plans can change very quickly. And those shifts can require adjustments to specific goals and objectives. Donahue recommended reviewing goals every quarter, and asking whether a particular goal is still the right one to move forward with.

“Do we need to become more aggressive with the target? Do we need to pull back? Do we need to move up the deadline or push it out to accomplish other things?” she said. “All those conversations are right to have.” 

Tuffy, who also recommended setting regular goal-review cycles, agreed. “The absolutely worst thing you can do is have people continue to work on a goal that’s no longer relevant to the business,” she said.

5. Learn from failure.

When setbacks occur, which they inevitably will, executive teams and managers must follow up in a thoughtful way. Ireland advised that teams reflect together on whether the target was too high in the first place and whether the challenges were internal or external. 

“The best you can do is learn from [the setback], rather than just glaze over it and rush into the next year’s planning,” Ireland said. “Do a bit of scientific dissection of it and figure out, as a team, what can be done next time even better.” 

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Research shows that high-performing teams have a lot in common. They’re often led by performance-oriented managers who guide their direct reports on goals and help them decide which projects are most important, according to Gallup. And with the right strategies and mindset, it’s possible to attain not just key results that are critical for business growth, but the kind of achievements that ensure an organization — and its people — will flourish and thrive.