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Traditional Goal Setting Won't Work in 2021!

The beginning of the year is always busy for organizations. This is typically the time when leaders plan out their new year, and then cascade the plans from the executive level to the frontline level through the goal-setting process. The beginning of 2021 will mark a new era for workplaces: leaders will be consumed by tasks such as refreshing business strategies, satisfying customers’ changing demands, setting policies for employee vaccinations, creatively managing budget shortfalls while preserving cash, just to name a few. Then how does employee goal setting fit in?

What is wrong with traditional goal setting?

Managers and employees are not unfamiliar with the concepts of goal setting and performance review. However, when speaking with them, many say that the process rarely works well. In my blog last January “Goal Setting, Why Bother?”, I re-capped the importance of this process for both the employers and the employees. I also pointed out the reason why many intentional goal settings are not effective is: there is a misalignment between employees’ goals set and the organizations’ strategies.

Typically, goal setting works favourably in well-established organizations where changes from year-to-year are less expected. However, in the year 2021, many workers will be concerned about their job security. Sustaining their optimism and confidence regarding their jobs, especially with an uncertain year in view, can be taxing. Organizations’ objectives will also be profoundly impacted by the state of the pandemic. Leaders will likely be in the mode of “don’t know what we don’t know”; hence they may struggle with setting clear objectives. Therefore, traditional goal setting: i.e. filling out paperwork and not looking at it again until 2022 will not be advantageous and will be a simple waste of time and money that organizations cannot afford.

So, what should we do in 2021?

Setting Shorter Term Goals

First, if an organization is not heavily impacted by the pandemic and can still plan out the year’s objectives as usual, then by all means. However, for many organizations, given the “unknowns” of the year, setting shorter term or interim goals would be more realistic. Divide the year’s work into smaller chunks and project phases; thus, turning employees’ attention from worrying about their job security to finishing tasks on hand. This will also encourage more frequent and deliberate conversations at project intervals between manager and employee, allowing adjustments to the work plans with flexibility. Furthermore, the ROI (return on investment) of employees’ work will also be easily identified.

Opening Up Two-Way Communications between Managers and Employees

Second, many leadership training resources encourage managers to become better listeners and collaborators so that their teams can work well together. However, this misses the true meaning of “two-way communication”. I feel for middle managers: they are accountable for their team/department’s results while facing their own challenges due to the epidemic. An effective piece of advice that I have been giving to clients is that at the end of each one-on-one conversation between manager and employee, both ask the question: “How can I help you to _____________?”. For example, some managers asked their employees,

“How can I help you to receive adequate information while working remotely?”

Some employees asked their managers, “How can I help you to achieve the $15,000 savings that are expected of our team?”

Just like employees, managers need to be supported to do their jobs effectively. As an employee, use the goal-setting time to ask your managers what keeps them up at night.

Two employees are discussing a business topic
Business Meeting

Making Professional Development a Part of the Goals Set

Third, although Canadian workplaces are going through unprecedented changes, encouraging one’s professional development should never stop. As organizations become “leaner and meaner”, the trends of expecting workers to do more with less will only be more prevalent. Many people confuse professional development by taking more courses. Receiving training constitutes only one small part of one’s growth, especially when businesses are facing budget constraints. The most needed post-COVID soft skills such as resiliency, fresh thinking, and leadership can be built through personal sharing, mentorship, coaching, researching, etc. Hard skills such as digital literacy, problem-solving, and project management can be refined through taking on a special project, presenting new expertise to the team, mentoring junior staff, etc. Take the goal-setting opportunity to explore the employee’s professional interests and needs, and understand what activities will benefit both the employees and the organization.

Don’t get me wrong, goal setting is an important tool. It provides a clear sense of direction and aligns employees’ efforts with those of the organization. Although 2021 may be filled with unknowns, let us take this time to assess our situation and have a game plan ready to battle the challenges.


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