SMART Goals Are Not Enough to Manage Performance

A quick review here before I start this article about SMART goals and better hiring decisions:

SMART goals are goals which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. Sometimes people use other, similar words for the letters but in general it refers to goals which are specific and clear to all parties involved, objective and able to be measured, realistic and able to be reached, important to moving a project or strategy forward and are expected to be completed within a defined time frame. They are most often used to objectively define expectations and as a tool to manage employee performance.

So today I’d like to start out by asking a question.

Have you ever had a direct report who initially seemed to be a good fit for the company and who was meeting all of his/her SMART goals but this person was still not performing according to your expectations?

Most likely, if you’ve managed people for any length of time, you’ve found yourself in this position.

It’s frustrating because it seems like you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do – you’ve hired the person with the “right” skill set and experience for the job and you’ve properly defined SMART goals for the position. Nevertheless, things still aren’t right and it’s turned into one of those people issues that you hate to deal with.

Clearly then, SMART goals, by themselves, really are not a complete way of measuring performance. And even though they are often used as a benchmark, it’s an incomplete picture of everything you are looking for. It’s a fairly common situation and one that I deal frequently with when coaching my clients.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for SMART goals and I love them. Compared to the way we used to look at managing performance, implementing SMART goals was a huge step in the right direction in terms of clarity and objectivity. The problem is that you can run into a situation where someone can be achieving their SMART goals and you can still be unhappy with the person’s performance.

So you sit back and scratch your head and wonder… well, if the person is meeting everything I’ve asked from a metrics standpoint, why isn’t the person a crackerjack? Why isn’t the person an “A” player, a top performer?

Often, the answer is because there are other things the person is doing that is keeping them from being truly successful in your eyes. And for you as the boss, it’s very likely that these are the very things that are driving you crazy.

How does this happen?

Well, when you ask a typical boss to define success for a particular position or new hire, the person will usually rattle off numbers which must be reached or projects which must be completed. Many managers have been trained to define success in this way because these tend to be things which can be measured objectively. Most of us have heard the phrase “what gets measured gets done” and so we dutifully make our lists. The person has to make so many new contacts, reduce errors, improve quality, achieve a particular number in sales, etc.

But there’s a problem here because, as I said before, it’s an incomplete list – it’s only half the story.

In my experience, I’ve found that just establishing goals isn’t the best way to give a new employee an idea of what you want from them because you’re only giving them half the picture.

What you need to do to complete the picture and get better results is define what failure looks like for this position. That’s right, you heard me correctly. You need a fail list. Sometimes things are easier to understand when you look at the flip side of success. I firmly believe that by defining failure you can better ensure success with both your management team and employees alike.

How to Create the Fail List:

Whenever I’m coaching someone who is hiring or creating a new position, one of the first questions I ask is: What does failure feel like to you, as the boss, regarding this position?

Put another way, what is the person doing or not doing and how is the person behaving if the person is failing in this position?

Does the person speak to others a certain way or bully? Is the person not bringing in enough new business or exaggerating expenses, leaving early without telling anyone, annoying customers, not communicating well or talking about people behind their backs? Not turning in reports on time? Indecisive? Too aggressive? Not aggressive enough? Slow to implement?

Think about some of your bad hires from the past. What was it about them that drove you crazy?

Write them down. It’s an important exercise because these are often the very issues that cause people to get under your skin.

Every boss and situation is a little different but everyone can come up with a failure list.

In fact, I’ve found that it’s usually much easier for people to come up with a list of what failure looks like to them vs. a list of what success looks like.

Of course, for any given position failure can be defined by not achieving SMART goals; also, some people are just not able to fulfill required roles and responsibilities. But if you take a few moments to do this exercise, look at your failure list and see what else shows up: behaviors. Bad or irresponsible or unpleasant-to-you behaviors. Behaviors that drive you crazy.

So your failure list should definitely define behaviors which are the opposite of your values and the kind of culture you want in your business. This is what’s missing when we manage performance and set goals and expectations using only SMART goals. By their very nature, SMART goals are numbers oriented while failure lists involve behaviors – behaviors which prevent people from being successful when they are working with others or with you.

SMART goals + desired behaviors + failure list = Future and current employees better understand YOU and how YOU define success

So when you’re interviewing someone, without tipping off how you feel about things, really drill down and make sure that the applicant’s definition of a particular failure is the same as yours.

For example, if you do not want to hire a micromanager, ask the applicant how he/she defines a micromanager:

  • Ask if they have ever worked under someone like that.
  • Ask for examples of situations where he/she was micromanaged.
  • Ask how the person decides what should be delegated and to whom.
  • How did they deal with the situation when a project was delegated and did not go well?

Make sure you go through every item on your fail list in this manner to make sure that the person you are considering hiring is on the same page as you are. This kind of open communication can also help provide direction to underperforming employees who are being counseled for one reason or another.

As you clearly define your SMART goals and reinforce your values every day, you will find that you will attract and retain people who are a much better fit for your your company.

Image Credit: sleddogtom1

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