Checklist: How to set challenging but realistic goals for employees

Goal setting can be a tightrope act for supervisors. Set the bar too low and you end up with an unmotivated, unproductive employee. Set it too high and you’ll create frustration and the possibility the person will do something unethical to achieve the goal.

To make sure you’re setting goals correctly for employees, ask yourself these eight questions derived by the Harvard Business School:

1. Are the goals too specific? In the race to meet a specific goal, Ford created a car that had serious flaws—the Pinto. Be sure your goals include all critical components for success (both quantity and quality). 

2. Are they too challenging? Offer training if skills are lacking. And avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach an unrealistic goal.

3. Who sets goals? Get the employees’ input first. People who set their own goals are more committed.

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4. Is the time horizon appropriate or does it foster short-termism?

5. Have you articulated acceptable levels of risk?

6. How might the goals promote corrupt behavior? Example: When Sears set challenging sales goals of $147 per hour for its auto repair staff, it prompted staff to overcharge for work. Set up multiple safeguards to keep employees from rationalizing unethical behavior.

7. Can they be tailored to individual abilities? Strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation.

8. How will they affect culture? If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based goals.