HR Roundtable: How Do You Make Goals Effective?

The new year took off like a rocket at the January HR Roundtable in Cincinnati. Everyone had gathered to tackle the topic of “Making Goals Effective.”

Companies churn out goals like pennies from the U.S. Mint, but just like pennies, they don’t get used that much. HR people are also goal happy when it comes to the challenge of performance reviews because we think that goals in and of themselves will make people better performers. How well is that working for you?

To get things started, the attendees took on the following three questions:

  1. What are the common misconceptions of goals?
  2. How can goals be truly effective?
  3. What goals SHOULD HR and/or business have?

I warned the group that I was ready to use my pink pen of catch phrases and clichés, and I asked attendees to truly think of new approaches to the topic. They listened !! Here is the great feedback they had:

What are the common misconceptions of goals?

  • Goals drive positive behavior. If this were the case, there would be no need for employee relations. It’s not that goals are intended to drive positive behavior, but the bigger question is – “Does your company culture expect positive attitudes/behavior from its staff?” Goals that are fashioned to change behavior usually means that HR and/or the person’s supervisor is trying to administrate a better result versus taking the time to truly talk to the person face-to-face.
  • A disconnect between upper management and the front lines. This isn’t really a misconception, but a reality. The goals made at each level tend to be “horizontal” – they affect my role and/or level of the company. Senior management thinks there goals are “vertical” and that the reach down into the depths of the organization, but they often don’t translate well between levels in a company.
  • Everyone is “on board” with the company’s goals. The pink pen would have definitely shot out if someone dared to say “on the same page,” because both this term and “on board” don’t usually mean that there is consensus. They honestly mean, does everyone accept the majority opinion that we’re going to follow any way? We don’t take the time to ask the right questions to see if people comprehend and can perform to goals.
  • Goals can’t be changed. Great goals are fluid because they set out in one direction and then are flexible enough to tweak and move as projects/initiatives come about. Goals that are static fail. We could learn more from companies who it milestones, evaluate and then take the next step. Chances are their results are more consistent.
  • Everyone should have them! Now we’re getting into touch territory. There are folks who thrive on goals and are very successful using them. There are some who write books about this and make a career out of showing people how to have goals. The misconception is that goals are a silver bullet to effectiveness. Look at each individual and determine how they best perform vs. following an exact method for everyone.
  • Group think and lip service. This is when people do the hollow-eyed nod that they believe in the goal(s) that have been developed and they are 100 percent behind them. Companies frown on individuality and creativity because it may be hard to control and falls outside the norm so they fall into a group think mode where everyone plods along whether its effective for not.
  • Time. You have to look at goals that are so mammoth that a person would need years to complete them, or goals that aren’t gauged for time, they just NEED to get done. Time is a hard factor for people to come to terms with because a missed deadline may be a real issue to the success of processes. Time leads to a bigger issue of accountability – which we cover later.

How can goals truly be effective?

  • Don’t buy into the acronym (only). This is where people throw out the SMART goals approach, or some other acronym. If people can take them past the acronym to performance, they work. One person wrote in and shared that they follow DUMB goals! This is brilliant and it stands for:

D efinite (specific, and you mean it, you definitely want to go that direction)

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U nderstandable (clear, you can explain it to others and they “get” it)

M eaningful (you care about it)

B old (it’s a little “out there,” otherwise, it’s not very exciting)

  • Follow-up AND follow-through. Goals need more than people checking in to make sure things are getting done. If they also have follow-through you can see if things are getting done, and avoid the “lip service” trap mentioned before.
  • Ensure alignment with timing. This is different than everyone being “on board.” Making sure goals align with staff, departments, across functions or for the whole company gives them the best chance for success because there is less chance for ambiguity. Seems simple, but it takes consistency and effort from those involved.
  • Recognition and celebration. We hate this. It’s true. We hate this. People struggle with being satisfied when things go well or if portions of goals are met. We have an “all or nothing” mentality and people tend to get burnt out or discouraged. Change this. Go crazy when things get done. It works. If you don’t believe this, watch kids. When they are young they lose their minds when someone accomplishes the smallest task. We have forgotten the power in this!
  • Include the right people who can make the goal come to life. This is a varied approach from a “goal for everyone.” Goals that move people and/or companies forward work. Make sure you put people who fit into roles based on skills, ability, willingness, etc., on goals they can affect. If you do this, watch out because work gets done in massive amounts!
  • Allow failure. We hate this just a bit more than recognition. When did we forget that people learn from failure? We should do our best to make sure things are catastrophically bad failures, but companies get silly when there is trial and error. Evaluate this. Don’t punish people. Ask them what they learned about the failure and how they plan to move forward. If we practiced this, think of how many inane HR policies would be eliminated in companies because they never worked in the first place !!

What goals SHOULD HR and/or business have?

  • Realistic goals that have regular reviews. I know this is broad, but you can’t get into specific goals because each company is different. However, the idea that you take the time to ask if things are “realistic” would move HR and business into the stratosphere. Don’t have goals that are senseless and just fill space. Be willing to chop out goals that have been done because that’s the way things have always been done!
  • No surprises. People can’t perform to goals unless everything is laid out for people. Be transparent. (I know this deserves the pink pen, but go with it). HR always has been close to the vest and it’s never worked. Never. There’s a difference between transparency and common sense. The information that is confidential in a company is confidential. Don’t be afraid of people. Educate them and allow them to learn how your business works – warts and all.
  • Share the rewards, share the risk, share the blame. Goals affect others. Too often we think they reside in one person, but that’s never true. The outcome of goals should move the company forward. Therefore, spread the wealth. Have the impact of the goals reach others. Don’t let goals become isolated.
  • Clear, consistent communication. It seems to hit us in the face every Roundtable, but the issue of clear communication is inherent in every session. Goals are no different. When HR doesn’t give people context, people make stuff up to still get things done. HR folks who provide clarity and consistency are amazing!
  • HR needs to be a creator and not a problem solver. Ta-da! What a great comment to wrap up the meeting. Just think what would happen if HR, as individuals and as a field, took this approach. It would be staggering! So, take this point and ponder what it means to you because you need to first see which camp you’re in – creator or problem solver. I hope that you are creators who can solve problems, but also create things that enhance culture, allow your employees to perform and make your company succeed!

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.



1 Comment on “HR Roundtable: How Do You Make Goals Effective?

  1. Really Good Post Steve –

    Thanks for breaking it down – some very simple and actionable ideas.

    A few gems that you discussed:
    Goals Drive Positive Behavior – Such A Misconception, especially if those goals are strictly focused on upper management’s needs and wants and there is no relevance to the employees except that you will keep your job. (Strongly Agree With This Point!)

    And the key to the above point… (and maybe many of the points in your post) A DISCONNECT BETWEEN UPPER MANAGEMENT and the FRONT LINES. How can your goals be effective if your not lock step with your employees? If there is not a clear understanding between the team members? I am not saying that managements goals need to be approved by the team, but if you’re company’s vision and mission is clearly communicated, understood by the team, and consistent in its approach, shouldn’t everyone understand what needs to be done and what the end result looks like?

    Some other favorites are “Follow Up and Follow Through…” I always say if you don’t follow up on an initiative or a goal, than how important is it? I believe as a leader, your involvement in achieving a goal demonstrates the importance of that goal.

    Ensure Alignment With Timing…Absolutely. As you mention, each departments goal in a company should be tied into the company’s overall goal/mission/vision. Simple yes, consistent, no and that is the key!

    Thanks for the info and the education – good post!


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