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Entrepreneur, Goal Getting

How To Set Employee Goals To Help Everyone Grow

Written by Aytekin Tank
Founder and CEO of JotForm, sharing entrepreneurship and productivity tips at Lifehack.
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With companies around the globe transitioning to in-office or hybrid workplaces, employees are bracing themselves for new (and maybe some familiar) challenges. During these times of transition, buoying employee motivation is critical for an organization’s continued growth. So, how do we ensure our employees’ well of motivation runs deep? It begins with employee goals.

But before we dive into strategies for setting them effectively, let’s take a closer look at why regularly setting employee goals is indispensable.

The Importance of Establishing Employee Goals

It’s well-settled that writing down your goals increases the likelihood of achieving them.[1] The simple act of committing an objective to paper helps to encode that objective in your brain. As a result, you’re more likely to actively work toward accomplishing it.

In the workplace, clear goals give employees a means of objectively measuring their progress. That way, if a task or project isn’t advancing fast enough, the employee can step back to determine how to get back on track and, if need be, management can intervene.

But you might be wondering: why is employee motivation so critical right now?

The year 2020 was a turbulent year, to say the least. More recently, many people are experiencing what bestselling author Adam Grant calls “languishing”—a sense of stagnation or emptiness. You’re not completely burned out, but you’re not exactly thriving either.

As Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, explained in the Times,[2]


“Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.”

The risk of low motivation at the workplace looms larger than ever. For your company, that can mean higher turnover, low engagement, and a drop-off in productivity.

With those considerations in mind, here are some expert-backed strategies for setting employee goals and recharging motivation.

1. Connect Them to the Larger Mission

You know the phrase: can’t see the forest for the trees. This notion—that we become so focused on our own tasks that we forget to pause and consider the bigger picture—is not uncommon, especially in fast-paced, growing organizations. In fact, before I launched my webform company, JotForm, I experienced it firsthand. Working as a fledgling developer, management rarely stepped in to remind us how our work contributed to the larger mission.

Employees siloed in their own personal missions run the risk of losing a sense of purpose—and when that happens, motivation is bound to take a nosedive.

On the other hand, when employees understand how their day-to-day contributes to an organization’s larger mission, their motivation to help achieve that mission is continually replenished. This, in turn, helps the entire organization to grow and hit new benchmarks.

So, how can managers connect the dots?

Routinely discuss your organization’s goals and elaborate how your employees’ objectives contribute to those goals. As Amy Gallo writes for Harvard Business Review, “No matter what level the employee is at, he should be able to articulate exactly how his efforts feed into the broader company strategy.”[3]

The keyword is “routinely” because as your company grows and business needs change, your company’s goals will inevitably evolve in tandem.


2. Be More and Less Specific

You’ll often hear leaders talk about taking a hands-off approach—that is, giving employees the autonomy to figure out how to achieve their objectives. And while that is true—research has shown that autonomy increases engagement—there is a caveat to making this strategy even more effective.[4]

Specify less, but also, specify more. What does that mean? Go ahead and give employees autonomy but first, spell out explicitly (i.e., specify more) their targets.

Harvard Business Review authors elaborate:[5]

“This means we need to be very explicit with employees about how we measure success and the metrics that drive it.”

That’s what we aim for at JotForm—being highly specific about our targets and then getting out of our employees’ way so they can figure out how to get there. More times than not employees wow us with their innovative thinking.

How to Specify More and Less?

To succeed at this paradoxical state of more/less, the HBR authors recommend encouraging exploration—experimenting and risk-taking—and connection. Create a physical and social workplace where employees are regularly interacting and exchanging ideas.

For example, to encourage exploration, a leader might applaud failures and underline the teachable moments. That’s not to say that poor or lazy work is acceptable but sometimes, well-meaning failures hold valuable lessons.


At JotForm, we hold weekly demo days—similar to the idea of hack weeks, demo days are creative sprints during which our employee teams are welcomed to explore their boldest ideas without necessarily churning out a work product.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously said,[6]

“Okay, is this going to destroy the company? Because if not, then let them test it.”

To encourage connection, you can reimagine the office to make it more conducive to casual interactions—an open office layout or an onsite cafeteria with communal tables.

By exploring and connecting, employees are more likely to find creative solutions to achieve their goals.

3. Enforce Accountability

Speaking of failures, when employees fall short of their objectives, it’s important to peel back the next layer of the onion and determine where they went awry.

Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and co-author of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, tells Harvard Business Review:[7]

“Hold people accountable. You can’t say ‘Gee, that’s too bad.’ You need to figure out what went wrong and why.”

It’s important that employees understand that there are stakes involved in goal-setting. Otherwise, the entire practice will be going through the motions with little or no impact.

4. Consider Reframing Objectives

It might seem surprising, but subtle changes in the way we spell out a goal can have a big impact. According to recent research, how you frame a goal can affect the likelihood of whether you reach that goal. Specifically, framing a goal in a way that seems inconsistent with that goal can lead to setting more ambitious targets.[8]


What does that look like in practice?

Let’s say an employee wants to reduce their distractions at work. Framing the goal as “I will not web browse or use social media,” will be more effective than “I will work undistracted for 6 full hours today.” It turns out that the negative feelings like guilt and shame associated with failing to live up to the goal-inconsistent framing are even more powerful than the same for the consistent framing. This will ultimately lead the employee to set higher goals.

What’s more: we know that employees are responsible for creating their own goals. But managers can be proactive about helping them in the goal formation stage.

A little language tweak can lead to significant results, pushing employees to go the extra mile, and on an organizational level, the impact can be exponential.

5. Recognize Significant Goals Achieved

While it would be impossible for leaders to offer a pat on the back for every objective met, accomplishments that move the needle for your company—breaking into a new market, reaching a new sales target, etc.—merit recognition.

According to Hiver founder Niraj Ranjan Rout, leaders should spread employee feedback and recognition democratically, rather than showering it on select “star” employees. Rout writes:[9]

“Reward performers modestly and reward them all! People who are recognized and appreciated perform better.”

That means rewarding everyone from the intern to senior leaders. And recognizing employees doesn’t require a formal banquet either. Even informal recognition, like congratulating an employee via a company newsletter or offering a “job well done” at the water cooler, can give a colleague a much-needed motivational push.


Final Thoughts

Setting employee goals helps not only the employees but the whole company as well. Employee motivation is a driving force toward a company’s success, and that’s exactly the aim of setting employee goals. Hopefully, as your company navigates the coming months, these strategies will help your employees to set and achieve goals that boost momentum for the entire organization.

More Tips on How to Motivate Your Employees

Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com


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