Managing People

Like a Boss: “How do I set 2021 goals without stressing everyone out?”

December 16, 2020
March 8, 2024
Jennifer Romolini
Lattice Team

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.

Dear Boss,

We’ve reached that time of year when I need to set annual 2021 goals for employees, and we’re being asked to submit a list by December 18th. With everything that’s happened this year so far and with so much uncertainty about (at least) the near future, I’m feeling a bit stuck about how to proceed. Last year, I got push back when I gave out goals and I’m afraid that this year they’ll demotivate my staff, who already seem kind of burnt out. How do I message realistic goals that don’t overwhelm the team or leave them feeling bummed? I know this is my job, but feeling nervous to rock the boat.  

Not-so-goals-oriented in 2020

Dear Not-So,

Like so much in life, effective management often comes down to not only our intentions but our execution. For example, one’s intention may be to make a delicious holiday pie, but if the execution includes poorly-chosen ingredients and/or skipping instructions, you’ll wind up with little more than a tin of sad trash (a situation which may or may not have just happened to me — RIP raw pumpkin pie 2020). 

Point is, most of us are just one or two small mistakes away from turning well-meaning projects into sloppy disasters. Your intention is to set goals that engage your team, fulfilling an HR/company requirement, without bumming everyone out. Let’s discuss how to execute this! But before we explore how to go about this, let me share a bit about why you should want to. 

Goals are one of the most — if not THE most — valuable tool you have in your management toolbox. They’re the superfood of leadership! When set thoughtfully, goals provide focus, boundaries, alignment, clarity, and a sense of security and purpose for employees. Goals should never be punitive as you suggest but instead, be presented as a map for working, something that minimizes confusion, encourages collaboration, and makes everyone’s jobs (including yours as a manager) easier. 

Creating quality goals for any team is an opportunity to make their working lives better. Here’s how to get it right.

Understand the big picture first

What’s happening in the big picture for your company in 2021? Do you know your boss’s goals? Your department's?  Your company's? Human nature is to want our work to have value and impact, to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. To that end, at least one of each employee’s goals should connect to the larger priorities of the organization. This means, if you don’t know already, you need to find out. If your company is putting pressure on you to set goals, hopefully, they have rolled out those high-level goals company-wide, and have a structure or process for goal-setting that you should follow. 

Another idea is to add a shared team-performance goal, one that several staffers can work toward together. This will encourage collaboration, community-building, and self-directed accountability and lead to better performance overall.

Let your employees be a part of the process

Any good people-first management strategy includes transparency, consistent communication, and collaborating as often as you can. It sounds like you may have come up with your team’s goals last year on your own (I get it! Managers are busy!) which may explain the poor reception. 

This year, why not try something new? Before you submit them, I’d suggest sharing the company goals, your department goals, and then getting your staff’s buy-in on both their shorter- and their longer-term team and individual goals. In fact, even let them come up with an initial list themselves, and then work on finalizing them together. This won’t guarantee success, but it will be a motivating factor. 

When it comes down to the actual act of writing goals, keep in mind the SMART framework: make them Specific, Measurable, Actionable or Achievable, Relevant or Realistic, and Time-bound. And if your company follows the OKR system, make sure you’re setting objectives (O) on the basis of what end result you want to accomplish, and key results (KRs) describe the tasks and outcomes that need to happen to achieve the objective. Share these tips with your team if they're getting hung up on how to get started with writing.

The list you submit should include stretch goals, goals for the company and team, and also at least one item that’s more personal: professional development goals that can help them in any job, over the long haul.

If your company uses Lattice Performance, you can easily input and track all your goals and OKR into the Lattice Goals tool, which gives your company visibility your team’s goals and also lets your team get a view into goals across the company. And if your company also uses Lattice Grow, you can also set career development goals right alongside company goals.

Know that nothing is forever

You’re right when you say that we’ve all experienced a great deal of change and uncertainty over the past year and even the best-laid plans can’t guide us as circumstances shift.

Communicate your openness to being adaptable and shifting focus to both your team members and your own manager. The goals you set together now are simply your best guesses for what to do with the information you currently have; they’re the best you can do. They are not fixed and should be updated and change when and if realities change. You may even want to consider setting goals quarterly instead of annually to make them more timely and manageable.

Goals are a benchmark and a guide, part of an ongoing dialogue between you and your employees. If you communicate and check in regularly; if your team feels supported and you can model nimbleness, understanding, and flexibility; you’ll soon see the goals system you dreaded is actually helping them thrive.  

For more, check out Lattice’s guide to How to Use Goals to Inspire and Energize Teams After COVID-19.

Lattice’s people management software helps you build feedback and recognition into your team's everyday routines. We bring employee engagement surveys, performance reviews, and employee career development together in one platform, giving your company an edge in retaining top talent. To learn how Lattice helps over 1,850 companies keep employee turnover at bay, watch a product tour or book a demo today.