Learning & Development

Can You Set Too Many Goals?

Setting goals for employees is important. It helps establish clear expectations and guidelines, keeps the employer and employees on the same page, and is a major component of appropriate communication.

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As such, some employers try to be as detailed as possible with employee goals. They provide high-level goals, as well as individual components that act almost as to-do items within a goal. They try to clearly communicate expectations.

However, it’s important to note that goal setting can get too complex and end up being counterproductive. When there are too many goals or there is too much detail, it can end up backfiring. For example:

  • Even if the goals or list is well-intentioned, it can feel overwhelming for employees. Employees may give up if they feel they cannot meet all of the goals. In other words, if they can’t meet them all, they may no longer have the motivation to accomplish any of them.
  • Those who try to accomplish everything are likely to suffer from burnout.
  • Employees may feel they’re not trusted to accomplish the broader company goals without having their hand held, meaning trust is eroded. This can feel like micromanagement, which is likely to drive employees away.
  • It can make employees feel like there’s no time to do anything other than ensure checklists are met, which can be frustrating.
  • It may create a situation in which employees lose focus on other items—anything that was not delineated—but those other items may have been just as important.
  • Employee morale suffers when goals seem too difficult or unrealistic.

An employer may think it’s being helpful by being prescriptive, but it can come across as micromanaging and showing a lack of trust. It erodes employees’ autonomy and doesn’t allow them to do the job in the way they see fit.

This can also be a risk for some positions that are exempt from overtime pay; if they no longer have sufficient control over how the job is performed, it could be problematic because some exemptions have the requirement that the employee “exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.”

Performance Problems: Alternative Solutions

If you find yourself in a situation in which employees aren’t accomplishing tasks you’d like, there are better ways to remedy the situation. For example:

  • Ensure the big-picture goals are being communicated clearly and concisely without resorting to being prescriptive.
  • Outline how an individual’s goals fit into the organizational goals and vision.
  • Handle performance concerns as a disciplinary issue, not with giving more detailed requirements. (This will allow employees to keep autonomy.)
  • Have frequent check-ins with employees to see how things are going, and course-correct if necessary.
  • Get employee input on what is keeping them from accomplishing their goals.
  • Give employees recognition for a job well done, which can motivate them to continue to meet expectations.
  • When setting goals for individuals, ensure they’re framed in a way that makes the overall objective clear. When the company objective is clear, it illuminates why the goal is necessary and allows employees to feel they’re accomplishing something important for the success of the organization.

What has your experience been when employees are not meeting objectives? How have you remedied the situation?

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

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