Employee performance goals

It’s not a goal unless there’s a number

Pablo Picasso once said, “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”

Goals help employees understand what is expected of them, they give something to aim for and can help in training, development and pay discussions. Without goals it can be difficult to measure performance. But how do you set goals that encourage individuals and are fair to everyone? And how do we help employees reach those goals?

Evaluations can be extremely difficult for everyone concerned.

We all have certain people at work we get on with better than others. Those we look forward to having a chat with at the coffee machine, we have things in common with, or we may even see socially. Just as there’s bound to be someone we only ever talk to about work.

We’re only human, after all. And that’s the problem with most employee evaluations. As hard as we try, it’s very difficult to be completely objective.

Most of us don’t mean to let our personal feelings get in the way, but we may have preconceived ideas that affect our judgement.

At best this is unfortunate, at worst it may be illegal. In research for their forthcoming book on gender bias in the workplace, Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio and Kim Kleman found that women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback). 1

Giving the people responsible for these evaluations the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that the bias against women was unconscious, but that doesn’t make it any less acceptable.

Subjective evaluation doesn’t have to become downright discrimination before it’s dangerous. Psychologist Edward Thorndike first wrote about the Halo Effect as long ago as 1920.2 Officers were asked to rate soldiers on characteristics including physique, leadership and character. He found that if officers ranked the servicemen as good in one respect, they’d rate them as good in all areas. And it worked the other way, with soldiers perceived as bad being unfairly marked down for everything. A number of other prejudices have since been named, including the spillover effect, which causes managers to rate people based on their past evaluations rather than actual performance.

All these prejudices could threaten your organisation’s future because they can affect moral, cause employees to be disaffected and leave people confused about what they need to do to improve. Rather than leaving employees motivated, you could easily demotivate or lose your best staff.

So, what’s the answer?

According to Deloitte, “Innovative new performance management models are now becoming an imperative as businesses modernize and improve their talent solutions. Companies leading this transformation are … looking for new technologies to help make performance management easier.” 3

Of course, technology still needs human involvement. But provided that your organisation agrees on a set of clearly defined performance metrics for each role, it will enable you to put a numerical system in place which will help remove the subjectivity from the evaluation process and provide clear goals for each employee.

Goals will always be easier to set in some areas rather than others. Setting targets in areas such as sales is obvious, but it might be a little less clear for roles in careers such as engineering or education. However, it should be possible to put together a list of criteria and performance levels to create a numerical appraisal system. 

Numbers are easily understood by everyone.

A scale of one to ten is even used in hospitals to measure levels of pain – admittedly, it’s impossible to remove subjectivity from this, but even a person in pain can understand how to grade his or her discomfort. Obvious benefits of a numerical system include enabling employees to see whether they are on target or underperforming at a glance, as they can immediately see how they compare to expectations. If they don’t agree with their evaluation for any part of their role, it makes it easy for them to take it up with their line manager or HR. It could also give them a reason to begin a conversation about pay or promotion, rather than feeling they need to look elsewhere to further their careers.

In 1995, Stanley B. Malos, J.D., Ph.D., set out six recommendations for an appraisal rating system, in Current Legal Issues in Performance Appraisal. The fact that it includes “legal issues” in the title shows the importance of getting evaluations right, but it doesn’t detract from the usefulness of these suggestions as a basis for building a motivational appraisal system.

An appraisal system should be:

  1. objective rather than subjective
  2. job-related or based on job analysis
  3. based on behaviours rather than traits
  4. within the control of the ratee
  5. related to specific functions, not global assessments
  6. communicated to the employee

The terms goals and objectives are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference: a goal is where you want to be, and an objective is what you do to get there. If you want your organisation to reach its agreed goals, your objectives could include putting in place one or more objectives, including a numerical evaluation system with personal goals, and using an HR suite to enable easy access to data and accountability for evaluators and employees.

Get this right and you could take your organisation’s performance rating up to ten.

  1. https://hbr.org/2017/04/how-gender-bias-corrupts-performance-reviews-and-what-to-do-about-it
  2. https://www.britannica.com/science/halo-effect
  3. https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/human-capital/articles/performance-management-redesign-human-capital-trends-2015.html