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Is This Simple Mistake Resulting in Missed Goals?

Years ago I heard the late Zig Ziglar ask his audience:

Are you a wandering generality or are you a meaningful specific?

It turns out that a lot of us tend to be wandering generalities: In the work we do. In the way we learn. In the goals we set.

And the way we develop people.

Where We Go Wrong

One of the more apparent examples of this is in the goals that I’ve seen written on professional development plans over the years. I’ve selected a few below that highlight the problem of leading as a wandering generality (and I’m preserving original spelling and grammar issues too):

Communicate more effectively.

This goal is far too broad to be meaningful and opens up too much room for interpretation. Communication where? In person? On email?

Do I need to smile more? Listen better? What’s not working? Even if this is explained well verbally, the written goal is completely unclear.

Develop leadership skills.

It’s rare that I’ve sat in a meeting with a customer in the last decade and this hasn’t been a goal. When we then ask the follow-up question, “Tell us what you mean by leadership skills?” we hear different answers almost every time.

If everyone has a different view of what this means, so do all the people who see this goal on their development plans.

Communication skills to be improved (writting) and get your point accross more clearing and concisely.

Read the above again so you can appreciate the full irony.

Improve quality and completion of assigned duties.

Improve by how much? How are you measuring it? Of course this is a goal for everyone, but virtually meaningless without more information.

If I had 39 irate customers last month and only 37 this month, would you really call that a success? According to this goal, it would be.

Begin working outside of their comfort zone towards new opportunities and/or subject areas.

Which subject areas? Who do you define comfort zone? You get the point.

The Fallout

I wish I could say the above were exceptions, but more often than not, goals are framed too general and non-specific to matter much.

Sadly, goals written like this tend to generate stress for everyone later. When one party thinks that “develop leadership skills” meant attending a class on leadership and the other party thought that it meant reducing turnover on the team, three things tend to happen:

  1. It’s exceptionally hard to navigate what to write in the final review.

  2. Both parties lose trust with each other.

  3. You’ve both lost a year (or however long the review period was).

The One Question to Ask

While we all can (and probably should) read entire books on effective goal-setting, here’s the central question I often coach people on when they are crafting goals for the people they lead:

At the end of the performance timeframe, will it be obvious to a neutral, third party whether this goal was achieved or not?

Let me explain:

If the goal is something like one of the earlier examples, such as, “Develop leadership skills,” that’s not something a neutral, third party could ever determine. If they came to a final review at the end of the year, knowing nothing of the situation, they’d have no idea whether the goal was achieved.

Let’s instead say that the goal was something like, “Reduce annual turnover rate in the department from 13.1% in 2014 to 10% or less by the end of 2015.”

Setting aside whether those numbers are realistic for your team, it’s easy to see how a neutral, third party could easily assess if that goal was achieved – even if that third party happens to be a new manager who assumed the job ten months into the year (which, of course, happens all the time).

Everybody Wins

When goals are specific, they become a lot more meaningful and drive the correct actions. It’s better for the employee, the organization (especially when transitions happen), and the manager, who’s now made it very clear on how they will assess success.

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