Five tips for writing killer performance objectives

By Stuart Hearn

Employee engagement and morale are not always easy areas to navigate. There are countless books, articles and resources dedicated to the improvement of the employee experience, but at the heart of the matter lies performance objectives and organisational goals. Before an employee can truly care about their role, they need to know what they are doing, what they are working towards and why it matters to the organisation.

According to Fast Company, employees need to have the answer to the following four questions before they can feel comfortable and contribute to their company:

1) What am I trying to accomplish?

2) Why am I working towards these goals?

3) How well do I need to perform?

4) How am I progressing?

Employees can answer these questions by creating clear, definitive performance objectives with their supervisors. Below, we cover five tips to help you and your employees construct solid performance objectives that will boost productivity and cause your workforce to achieve and excel expectations.

  1. Objectives should be written by the employee

Ownership is a critical consideration when it comes to the creation of objectives. Time and again, it has been shown that self-determined goals are the best way to give employees true commitment to their outcomes. This is because the employee is given the freedom to fulfil their innate desire for autonomy, rather than asking them to follow someone else’s orders.

  1. L. Gore, the American multinational manufacturing company, attributes its years of success, employee engagement, innovation and profitability to the fact that employees determine their own objectives. Gore’s focus is on “self-commitments”, rather than assigned goals. Only the employee can undertake a commitment to complete a given task or assignment, but the result is that they are far more dedicated to the outcome than they would be otherwise.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the manager has no role to play in the setting of objectives. They need to be present to guide the process and to sign off the objectives. They should provide background information on organisational objectives, keep the goals of the individual and the company aligned and encourage the individual to challenge themselves. The manager plays a critical role, but ultimately, performance objectives should be decided by the employee.

  1. Make sure objectives are stretching, but not intimidating

When setting objectives, employees should be encouraged to challenge, but not overburden, themselves. When objectives are slightly out of our comfort zone, they demand our attention and prompt us to work hard to reach our potential. This prevents us from getting bored, motivates us and provides room for development.

We enjoy the sense of accomplishment we receive when we complete a given task. But when our tasks are unchallenging and tedious, we are unlikely to feel that same sense of pride. Science confirms this, demonstrating that when we set ourselves particularly challenging goals, our performance is much higher and our sense of accomplishment is much greater. If we perceive a task to be difficult, we put more effort into completing them.

Although challenge is a critical component of setting objectives, managers should be cautious of employees who try to assign themselves objectives that go beyond challenging and appear completely unrealistic. This places an undue burden on the employee and will more than likely result in employee burnout over time.

  1. Objectives should be as specific as possible

Problems arise within an organisation when objectives are not specific or measurable. Employees can’t be told to simply “improve sales”, for example; they need to be told to improve sales by a definitive percentage. They also need to be given a date to work towards. Unless these specifics are agreed upon, the parties collaborating on the objectives are unlikely to have a unified idea of what to expect.

When goals and objectives lack clarity, employees can’t be blamed for having no idea about what is expected of them. Unfortunately, this is a problem that is all too common. According to a Gallup study of more than 1,000 employed adults, only approximately 50% of them had a clear understanding of what they were doing at work and what is expected of them. This is a performance management issue that is fairly simple to address, but will produce visible results.

  1. Keep context in mind

In order for an employee to feel truly engaged, they need to know how their role and objectives fit into the organisational structure and corporate goals. Without this information, they only have half the story.

According to one source, organisational goals provide guidance and direction, facilitate planning, motivate and inspire employees, and help the organisation to evaluate and control performance. This is particularly true in relation to individual employee performance objectives. Employees should be aware of where the company is going, so they can determine their own objectives.

As stated in a Harvard Business Review article by Amy Gallo, “For goals to be meaningful and effective in motivating employees, they must be tied to larger organisational ambitions. Employees who don’t understand the roles they play in company success are more likely to become disengaged”.

  1. Remember the importance of flexibility

Objectives shouldn’t be set in stone. Every modern organisation needs to be agile and adapt their objectives accordingly, due to rapidly changing market conditions or unexpected hurdles.

Performance discussions should be continuous, scheduled once a week or fortnightly. During this time, employee and manager can discuss the development of objectives, pertinent issues or a change in strategy. This is the only way objectives can be kept relevant and both employee and manager can be kept up to date with important information. This is why leading corporations such as global tax firm Ryan have been moving towards regular performance discussions. They have found this process keeps employee goals aligned with company objectives and encourages a heightened degree of trust between employee and manager.

Certain managers might find the organisation of these performance discussions overwhelming, but they are ultimately beneficial in terms of company-wide productivity and performance. It should be noted that employees should be in the driving seat during these meetings. They should be proactive in organising them and directing the discussions. This gives them an increased sense of ownership and pride in their career.

Stuart Hearn co-founded plusHR and previously worked as International HR Director for Sony Music Publishing. He is currently CEO of Clear Review.