Performance Management

How to set sticky goals for your employees

February 7, 2019
March 8, 2024
Lattice Team

Most goal-setting “tips” for managers focus on putting time frames on goals, setting the right level of difficulty, and checking in on progress. If these are the only factors you are thinking about, your goal-setting process is missing the stickiness element. According to Edwin A. Locke's paper in Applied & Preventive Psychology, there are two key ingredients to effective goal management that keep them in an employee's mind:

  • “(a) the individual is convinced that the goal is important; and
  • b) the individual is convinced that the goal is attainable (or that, at least, progress can be made toward it).”

Part of the performance management process is goal setting in a way that aligns the organizational goals and business objectives of your company with the individual goals of your employees. Making employee goals sticky means crafting and presenting specific goals in such a way that employees become invested in their set goals, embed them into their work in a useful way on a daily basis, and would have difficulty leaving them incomplete. Meaningful goals are imperative for employee engagement at a company, help you and your employee build development plans for effective talent management through a collaborative process, and makes it easier to track progress on both.

In other words, you need to make the types of goals that are important to your employee for a reason other than this was assigned to me by my manager. The best way to do that is to:

  • Make goals relevant to your employee's career goals.
  • Shift your focus from results-only goals to developmental ones.
  • Present your goals in a way that resonates with your employee.

1. Tie assigned goals to an employee's own professional goals

Knowing your employees means understanding what they're striving for, professionally. This is knowledge you can get from regular 1:1s, from performance reviews, and from listening to their feedback. (A manager should find time to regularly check in with what employees want in their professional future.)

While you can't necessarily set a goal for every professional aspiration an employee has, sticky goals will be relevant to an employee's long-term professional goals and development. Understanding your employees' goals will help you integrate them with their team members' goals and business goals into stickier goals. This way, each one becomes part of a long-term vision for the employee -- smaller goals that will help them achieve their ultimate goals.


  • Helps an employee stay engaged by making the goal an opportunity for a professional stepping stone rather than just another check box.
  • Helps the employee shape their goals and feel like the company is investing in their personal goals rather than giving them short-term busywork.
  • Gives an employee a chance to talk about the strengths and weaknesses that might be holding them back and to work on those areas constructively.

Research shows that people are motivated by “[a] deep-seated need for growth and achievement.” This means that your employees want goals that will help them work towards the next step in their professional lives.

When you are setting goals for your employees:

  • Think about their long-term trajectory and how to get them there. Think big picture.
  • Then, when presenting goals, directly tie in what you're asking them to do to key points on their professional journey.
  • For example: if an engineer wants to run product development, talk about using a feature launch as a chance to coordinate a team, for example, rather than simply framing it as a product addition that must be pushed out solely for the sake of the company.

2. Focus on development in addition to results

Goals need to be tied to the actual workings of your company, and this often means goals for individuals end up looking like “hit X sales next quarter” or “finish project Y” or “implement program G.”

Measurable goals are a highlight of SMART goals, but defining what the right goals look like for your employee might need a bit more finesse. To make these types of goals sticky, tie them into skills and knowledge that your employee is gaining rather than just emphasizing a bottom-line metric. Academy of Management Journal reports that “a specific learning goal led to higher performance than did either a specific performance goal or a vague goal.”

Tying a goal to an employee's professional development, rather than just an end result, not only shows that you care about employee development—it actually makes employees perform better. That's sticky.

This can also curb fear of failure. European Psychologist reports that goals with a “learning orientation” caused people to view errors as “inherent in the learning process” rather than as failures. So when you're presenting stretch goals or need an employee to break out of their comfort zone, emphasizing learning can help them be more fearless and creative. This will help you and your employee make better goals that'll give them the motivation and self-confidence to accomplish the goals you want them to achieve in the first place.

When discussing goals with employees:

  • Relay the areas you expect them to strengthen alongside the expected outcome.
  • Make it clear that their development should happen in tandem with the task they are set.
  • And, crucially, give them the tools they need to succeed. Suggesting a meeting with an expert at your company, an online course, or an e-book can be a great starting point.

3. Motivate individually

Understanding what motivates an employee will help you make their goals sticky. One may be hell-bent on the “fast track” to management; another is excited about pushing the future of robotics.

Everyone's different, so motivating people to reach their goals should be approached differently too. Motivation is a key people-management skill and one that all managers should be prepared to implement when talking to employees about goals.

When it comes to discussing goals, motivating individually means the framing of the goal is just as critical as the goal itself. Connecting a goal to what excites people about their work and their field contextualizes it and signals to an employee why it should take up their time and attention. Motivation can also positively affect employee performance goals, in that employees will see the goal as something they can integrate into the flow of their everyday work rather than a something they have to force themselves to get through.

This builds stickiness into goals because it connects the goal to what emotionally motivates them at work.

When discussing goals with employees:

  • Explain why these goals have been chosen for that employee, even if employees have similar goals across positions.
  • Connecting people to their goals means understanding why they're working, what they want to get out of their work, and how satisfied they are with their job, according to Harvard Business Review.

One size fits none

Sticky goals make employees more excited about their work and improve their performance. This, in turn, encourages professional development and helps employees achieve the goals you are setting for them.

Your goals may cater to a standard set of positional requirements, a particular company career path, and a business OKR. But making them sticky means connecting them to employees as individuals.

People management means treating people like the individuals they are and making sticky goals builds up your employees through your people management program. A focus on sticky goals means more goals hit, more engagement, and better work from employees.