Even if your company operates on a fiscal year, there’s something about the start of a calendar year that encourages thoughts about the future.  As a business leader, are you making it easy for your employees to focus on the goals that you’ve set? 

There’s plenty of advice on how to set S.M.A.R.T goals (those that are specific, measurable, achievable, results-driven, and timely).  In fact, many organizational leaders use this framework to set their strategy and operational goals. 

But crafting goals using the S.M.A.R.T. framework isn’t enough.  The efficient and effective execution of the action steps to achieve those goals only occurs if each individual employee understands his or her role along the journey. 

In other words, every goal needs to address the WIIFM (or “what’s in it for me”).  We’ve all heard about the importance of WIIFM for a long time – and effective leaders make a conscious effort to help employees answer this critical and highly personal question. 

So, to follow the logic of coupling S.M.A.R.T. goals with WIIFM, it would appear that organizations have found the secret to be adept at goal setting and goal getting. 

However, the sad reality is that many organizational goals fall short for a variety of reasons: 

  • The newly set goals are not aligned with organizational strategy, values, or purpose. 
  • The goals insufficiently address the constraints of resources (human, financial, or technological). 
  • 100% of the goals are deemed as “URGENT!” – which only confuses employees as to what is critical, what is “nice to have,” and what is (quite frankly) irrelevant. 
  • Managers set them and forget them (at least until they are brought up in annual performance reviews). 

So if S.M.A.R.T. formatting plus WIIFM isn’t the “magic bullet” for goal setting, it’s not surprising that many managers constantly search for better “new and improved” methods (OKRs, KPIs, and even BHAGs).  But after intensive training (often with little reinforcement), many organizations find that they still aren’t achieving the goals that they’ve set. 

After desperately searching for the errors in the goal setting methodology, they often revert to placing blame fully on the shoulders of the employees who were charged with turning the goals into reality.  After all, if we’re using the so-called “best” or most “cutting edge” methods to set goals, it must be that the employees aren’t sufficiently motivated or engaged to achieve them. 

This is a faulty and dangerous assumption. 

While I agree that not all employees will perform as “A” players (those innovative go-getters who have a solid record of success and achievement), organizations still need the “B” players to fill the often tedious but necessary “routine” tasks that typically bore the “A” players.  And, yes, levels of intrinsic motivation vary greatly throughout the workforce. 

But such an alphabetical categorization and comparison of employees is frequently based on assumptions about their performance, level of motivation, and even the context in which they are working.  It’s dangerous because it alters the manager’s expectations of individual workers, thereby overlooking the “a ha” moments and flashes of brilliance that characterize every employee at some point. 

Even worse than going into the goal setting process with preconceived expectations of who will or won’t meet the challenge is creating a convoluted laundry list of priorities, benchmarks, and flow charts.  When workers are inundated with massive amounts of equally urgent information, they quickly become overwhelmed and the inherent power of priorities is greatly diminished. 

Goal achievement is much more than effective time management.  There are workers in every organization who have beautifully budgeted their time and resources in order to complete their portion of the project in a timely manner.  But they become frustrated when these well-developed plans are torpedoed by others (often through no fault of their own) who are unable to deliver the preceding task.  As a result, a cascade of missed deadlines and extensive overtime to “catch up” is created – and employee frustration, anger, and resentment build. 

Communicating goals can be also problematic.  To avoid the necessity of reading dozens (if not hundreds) of pages regarding this year’s strategic goals, charts are often used as a shortcut to visualizing what needs to be done and (hopefully) how they relate to the organization’s multi-year strategy.  Unfortunately, these graphics are dense with information and often require detailed legends, descriptions, and even training in order to be useful on a daily basis. 

How you present goals to your workforce is just as important as what you present to them.  Without communicating them in a way that is inspirational and energizing, all the long hours spent toiling to create the “perfect” goals that will catapult your organization to the next level of growth and prosperity are wasted. 

Is it any wonder that many organizational leaders dread the planning process? 

To Motivate Employees, Keep It Simple

But there is an alternative – one that often appears to be counterintuitive to organizational leaders: 

Sophisticated business goals are best created and executed through simplicity.

We’re all aware of the K.I.S.S. formula (i.e., “Keep it simple, stupid”).  But somehow in practice there is a belief that “business” requires incredible levels of detail supplemented with corroborating arguments and intricate partnership relationships.  If it’s “too simplistic,” then it might not be sufficiently vetted to reduce potential risk to the organization.  This results in greater levels of bureaucracy, direct and dotted line relationships, and a workflow that is anything but “simple.” 

But there is a unique sophistication in that which is simple and unconvoluted. 

Words matter.  When creating and communicating organizational goals, choose words and phrases that are rich with connotative meaning.  Despite their unrelenting use in business, people will not be motivated by Gantt charts and Excel spreadsheets.  Nor will they be motivated by a lengthy manifesto.  Keep it simple and keep it short – in other words, a mantra that motivates and inspires. 

And speaking of motivation, remember that motivation is an emotional state – not a state arising out of intellectual reasoning.  Logic and rational thought are important in business, but the tenacity necessary to move through obstacles in order to achieve a noble, worthwhile goal relies on emotions. 

Remember all the time you spend crafting your company’s elevator speech?  Goals should be presented in a similar manner to this 15-30 second snapshot of what your company does to serve its market better than any other competitor or option.  It may have taken a long time to come up with this short and (in the end) “simple” description.  But think about it:  would a potential customer really be interested in all the charts and spreadsheets when they simply wanted to know more about your product or company?  More importantly, would they even remember all the information contained in those charts and spreadsheets? 

You don’t want to confuse a potential client with extraneous detail, so why would you introduce goals to your workforce in a way that confuses them?  Complication leads to mistakes and even errors of omission. 

Simplifying your business goals leads to greater clarity and less confusion: 

  • Simplification helps employees see the big picture as well as their role in advancing toward it. 
  • Concentrate on the important details that will clarify and streamline the employee’s goal-related work processes. 
  • Don’t be afraid to address the emotional connection that arises when an employee questions their WIIFM – if suitably answered, this will be transformed into motivation and resolve to do what is necessary to achieve the desired goals. 

Perhaps most important is creating a rallying cry that fully captures the essence of your goals.  This can be a very short phrase or even a one-word mantra that keeps everyone focused on the same outcome and on the same page.  Sports teams do it all the time.  Even though there are complicated playbooks used in their strategy, the goal is never the creation of the playbook.  Instead the mantra might simply be “Super Bowl!”  It’s emotional.  It’s forward moving.  It’s targeted.  And it’s inspirational. 

Remember:  complication and intricacy are not necessarily signs of astute planning or business acumen.  And remember Leonardo DaVinci’s sage advice, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Try eschewing the complicated for the simple.  You might just be able to create a business masterpiece of your own. 

© 2021 G. A. Puleo.  Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on transforming the world of work by eradicating burnout.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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