The bane of objective setting

Friday 13 January 2023

Second week of January. It is that time of year again when people are trying hard not to let their new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside. Some people have similar gnawing feelings about personal objectives within the company they work for. Not necessarily so much about meeting the ever-changing objectives but instead about the process of getting them down on paper.

Those of us who have worked for large organisations are familiar with the dreaded, time-consuming task of writing one’s work objectives. The lucky ones in senior roles get to do it numerous times over with their direct reports.

It is an exercise that costs time and money. Lots of it.  

As a very crude example, let’s imagine each staff member of a corporate spends a very conservative average of 10 hours per year thinking/writing/previewing/re-writing/submitting/reviewing (yawn) their individual objectives. Do the maths based on the head count of your organisation and think whether the aggregate man-hours (yes, you read correctly) could be spent doing something a bit more productive such as serving the existing client(s) or pitching for the next project – anything that is actually going to bring in some revenue?

The objectives come in all sorts of weird and wonderful acronyms. One of my friends told me recently that she was in the process of writing her work objectives. One desired attribute was ‘curiosity’. Here is a person who has worked for the same company for the best part of 20 years, knows her job like the back of her hand and is by all accounts very good at it. Why is she required to provide examples of how she’ll be showing curiosity as she goes about her daily duties? Surely, if she had not performed well her employer would have got rid of her a long time ago. Needless to say, I co-cringed with her as she was telling me the story. What is this patronising approach doing to peoples’ motivation? Could it in fact have the opposite effect to the one that is desired?

What is worse about work objective setting within corporates is that the ink has barely dried on the signed and sealed version of the previously set objectives when the reminder comes in saying it is time to start the process all over again, reviewing and re-writing – yet again – something that had been set just a few short months ago.

Compare that to start ups. Do they spend endless hours setting, discussing and reviewing individual staff members’ objectives? No. They focus on what arguably every single business – wherever they are in their lifecycle – should be doing and that is – hustling and bustling – working hard to survive.

There should of course be a formal structure in place that facilitates a fair way of assessing who deserves the next promotion, pay rise or bonus but surely there must be a way of doing this in a much more streamlined manner that saves both time and money.

You can wax lyrical about it, but the reality is that the majority of workforce across the board works for the simple reason of earning a living. No sentimental stuff – just a simple exchange of the worker’s most precious commodity – time – for money. The more of it the better. It then follows that, for the most part, the objectives should be linked to an opportunity to earn more. After all – increasing earnings is exactly what for-profit companies are aiming for first and foremost.

In the interest of keeping the company and individual objectives aligned, perhaps the objective setting process could adopt a far more top-down approach than what is currently being done. A clear set of objectives would be set for the year ahead for each team and for specific roles within them. If you hit the set targets you will get that pay rise, bonus, promotion or all of the above. A simple, fair and straightforward way of assessing performance against a common set of objectives without making such a meal out the whole process.

Think about professional footballers. Everyone within the squad knows what is expected of them on and off the pitch, given their role. They perform their best and if they hit certain targets they get bonuses on top of their already handsome financial rewards. If they don’t, they will be benched or got rid of.  

I somehow doubt Cristiano Ronaldo was asked to set SMART objectives after joining the Saudi Arabia side Al Nassr a few weeks ago. Why would it need to be any different within a corporate work setting where everybody belongs to a team in the same way he does? Whether you are a world class footballer or a corporate workhorse, you are all professionals and should be treated as such.