Where to Set the Bar: How to Create High Standards for Employees

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Goals guide us. They help us prioritize our efforts and know when we’re successful. They help to motivate us—driving us forward. But, set too high, seemingly unattainable goals can be demotivating. Too low, and they can hold us back.

Setting meaningful targets—the right expectations, high standards and goals—for employees can take time and be a challenge for managers. But getting it right is worth the effort.

You may personally have experience with a goal that’s been set too high—sales goals, customer satisfaction targets, efficiency, retention, results. If you’ve had this experience, you know how demotivating it can be knowing right out of the gate that you can’t get there, that no one will be happy with your results (e.g., the sales rep whose new sales project comes with hidden obstacles and unexpected competitors, the customer service professional who handles packs of customers unhappy because of a vendor’s shortcomings). Your best effort seems almost pointless. And if the expectations are consistently over-stretched, failure becomes acceptable and expected, suggests Ted Harro for huffingtonpost.com.

Conversely, a target that’s too low, leaves you unchallenged. Having or setting low expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies (also know as the Pygmalion effect). We get the outcomes we expect. “Where we aim has less to do with what we are actually capable of achieving than what we believe to be attainable,” suggests Linda and Charlie Bloom for psychologytoday.com.

setting high expectationsSetting challenging, motivating employee goals and expectations even when you have all the information can be tricky. Hidden obstacles and a quickly evolving business environment can make it even harder.

Performance expectations usually fall into two specific categories suggests a University of California – Berkeley HR article. One of these is goals related to results (i.e., measures of goods or services sold, produced, etc. The other is expectations of actions and behaviors, i.e., the way things are made and the values demonstrated during that process).

Umn.edu and hbr.org offer advice (some new and some you may have heard before) on how to set effective employee goals:

  • Make goals SMART. Specific, measurable, aggressive, realistic and time-bound.
  • Understand the resource needs. Make sure employees have access to what they need to reach the target.
  • Begin with a specific plan. If a goal is large, help the employee break it into smaller tasks and set checkpoints with specific objectives. Consider potential obstacles, key contacts and other pertinent details before the employee gets started.
  • Include progress checks. Regular status update meetings enable you to identify problems or obstacles early so you can shift course if necessary. Goals shouldn’t be set in stone. If it becomes clear that unanticipated factors are affecting progress, make adjustments.
  • Align expectations with the abilities of an employee. An employee who doesn’t have the skills to do a job well may feel frustrated or helpless.
  • lead by exampleInclude employee input on the frontend. If you want an employee to be committed to achieving, get his or her input. “Stretch targets emerge as a process of negotiation between the employee and the manager, “ suggests Srikant M. Datar professor of Accounting at Harvard University.
  • Connect goals to larger company goals. This will help keep priorities aligned. “In discussing performance expectations an employee should understand why the job exists, where it fits in the organization, and how the job’s responsibilities link to organization and department objectives,” suggests berkeley.edu.
  • Consider the consequences of not achieving. Accountability is important. Allow for mistakes, but encourage an employee who misses the mark to troubleshoot and try again.
  • employee reaching goalSet your own high personal standards so you lead by example. This is effective with highly motivated, competent and experienced workers. It’s less effective when development, coaching and coordination are required, Rosalind Cardinal noted in huffingtonpost.com.

When employees are able to reach challenging goals and high standards on a regular basis, it builds motivation. Help employees soar by setting the bar within reach—achievable, but challenging. Know what obstacles are ahead. Schedule progress checks so you can make adjustments. Be flexible. And also remember the purpose of setting these targets is to motivate.


Related article: Can You Abandon Goal Setting … and Still Achieve?

Related article: Expect More … From Low Performing Employees

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