Goal Setting

Common goal-setting mistakes every manager should avoid

12 min read

Goal-setting can be hard. That's why we've put together a list of goal-setting mistakes to watch out for to ensure your team is able to set and hit goals.

Team goal-setting is an art. It differs from how we set personal goals and think of our resolutions. While personal goals tend to focus more on individuals and their personal or career development, team goals focus on achieving company-wide objectives.

Unfortunately, most managers are prone to making common goal-setting mistakes when planning and working towards team goals. These mistakes cost the team time, money, and can negatively impact the team’s overall performance.

In this post, we’ll walk through the importance of setting goals for teams, along with 11 common goal-setting mistakes managers make:

  1. They go far from company-wide objectives
  2. You set too many goals
  3. You don’t have one goal-setting system
  4. Your goals are vague or negative
  5. You set them based on feelings and not data
  6. You underestimate time and distractions
  7. You don’t allow for failures
  8. You set them without the team’s input
  9. You forget about schedules and deadlines
  10. You set them and forget them
  11. You don’t write them down for the whole team to see

Let’s dive in!

Why setting goals is so important for teams

Goals are crucial to the success of any organization and team. They provide guidance and direction to the team. Goals also offer leaders and employees alike the opportunity to understand how each individual on the team is performing.

Beyond that, there are many reasons why goal-setting is such an important practice for any team.

Let’s walk through a few.

Goals ensure that the team is aligned

When employees lack information about company-wide (or, at least project-wide) goals and how their work ladders up to them, chances are, they’ll get confused and won’t understand how their particular tasks influence the overall success of the company.

With a lack of clear goals and ownership, it’s likely that employees will:

  • Interfere with one another’s work
  • Overlap work with their peers, making the team less productive
  • Be confused around what their responsibilities are (and are not)

Goals provide clarity around roles for better performance

According to research from Leiden University, teams with clear goals experience  20–25% improved work performance. That’s because it helps team members focus efforts in the right direction, get more self-confidence, and, as a result, become more productive at work.

By setting goals for your team, you’ll give them a clear sense of direction and purpose for the work they’re doing. Once they clearly understand what’s expected of them and the team, they’ll be able to organize their time better throughout the goal period.

Goals promote better accountability and collaboration

Not only do clear goals allow you to come up with specific KPIs for each team member (increasing accountability that way), but they also help promote collaboration within the team. Knowing each other’s goals, colleagues will have a better understanding of what they can do to support their peers to hit the team goals.

More than that, clear goals will motivate employees to search for creative ideas and alternative strategies to deal with all the KPIs the best they can.

Common goal-setting mistakes managers make

Now that you know the influence of goal-setting on the team’s motivation and overall performance, it’s time to walk through some goal-setting mistakes to avoid.

#1. They aren’t aligned with company-wide objectives

One of the worst goal-setting mistakes a manager can make is to set goals that don’t align with org-wide objectives. Misaligning your team’s efforts with company objectives will cause so many challenges, including:

  • Proving the team’s value to the company, and in turn, making it harder to secure budget, promote individuals, and grow the team.
  • Giving your team a clear vision of the why behind the work they’re doing. Without this, it will be harder to keep employees engaged and motivated.
  • Slowing down the company’s overall growth. When your team is focused on things that aren’t relevant or don’t contribute to company objectives, it can stifle growth.

As you build your future team goals, it’s important that they stem from org-wide objectives. If they don’t, it’s back to the drawing board for you.

#2. You set too many goals

It’s great to be a goal-oriented person, but, as a manager, you should understand the influence of multitasking on a team’s overall performance and mental health. (As we know, the human brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.)

In fact, studies found that just 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively. For the other 97.5% of people, doing more than one thing, like texting and driving, seriously compromises our ability to complete the tasks well.

Use the same rule of thumb when setting goals

According to Andy Grove, the pioneer of OKRs, leaders should think of setting no more than three to five goals at a time. He says that more objectives can lead to over-extended teams and effort diffusion.

To avoid this goal-setting mistake with your team, focus on 3-5 objectives for any given time period, be it quarterly or annually. As you build out these objectives, attach measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) to each. These KPIs need to be measurable milestones that will help you achieve your overall objective. Think of outcomes, not activities, including the credible and discoverable evidence of their completion.

Bad OKR example: 

Objective: Increase marketing-attributed revenue this quarter

Key results:

  • Write more blogs
  • Run a webinar
  • Improve relationship with sales

Good OKR example:

Objective: Increase marketing-attributed revenue this quarter by 150%

Key results:

  • Produce and publish 10 bottom-of-funnel blogs
  • Run 3 webinars with an attendance rate of 40%+ 
  • Achieve a Sales and Marketing meeting rating of 80%+

#3. You don’t stick to one goal-setting framework

Beyond just your team, it’s important that your company follows one goal-setting framework across all teams. Not only will this make cross-functional collaboration easier, but it will also ensure that every team can easily access and understand how other departments are tracking against their goals.

Take GitLab for example. They follow the OKR framework and make their goals accessible org-wide within their own platform, but also publicly accessible (to an extent).

As a manager, you should ensure that you’re not only setting goals within the same framework used by the company but that you also stick to it. If you prescribe team goals with the SMART framework today but then OKRs tomorrow, you’ll confuse your team.

#4. Your goals are vague or negative

To avoid any confusion or misunderstandings, it’s important that your goals are clear and measurable. It’s not enough to say, “We need to attract more customers this month.” Instead, think of the SMART and OKR goal-setting frameworks.

The SMART framework intends your team goals to be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

For example: Increase conversion rate between sign-ups to pro customers by 5% this month.

All these criteria make goals more actionable.

The same is true for OKRs, aka Objectives and Key Results. By specifying what they need to achieve and what 3-5 key results are necessary to achieve your objective, you’ll encourage your team to take the actionable steps towards each goal you set.

Remember that objectives should be your “North Star” and key results should be written using the SMART framework.

For example: 

Objective: Attract more customers this month

Key results:

  • Increase average monthly inbound leads from 250 to 350
  • Improve lead to demo-booked ratio by 10%
  • Increase demo-booked to closed-won ratio by 15%

To make team goals even more actionable, it’s important that you also avoid negative language when setting them. Negative connotation makes people focus on what they don’t want, making it hard to concentrate on how to change that.

Think of “give the team more constructive criticism this quarter” versus “provide the team with continuous feedback this quarter”. One neglects to share positive feedback with the team, while the latter includes both constructive and positive feedback sharing.

Reframing goals so they would sound positive can make a big difference.

#5. You set them based on feelings and not data

Some managers are prone to setting so-called ego-based goals, guided by personal preferences or gut feelings. Despite the numerous tests and experiments, and the data the comes with them, some leaders keep returning to prior initiatives in the hope of progress to come soon.

Not only does such behavior set back the company’s growth, but it also damages the manager’s reputation and trust in the eyes of their teams.

Learn from your past

Before you plan your goals for the quarter or year, it’s important that you run a quarterly planning and retro meeting to:

  • Understand how your team felt about the past quarter, from how roadblocks were handled to the overall workload
  • Learn about what went well (and didn’t go so well) 
  • Gather ideas from the team on how you can crush your goals next quarter, whether it’s around improving existing processes or testing out new ideas

It’s also important that, before every retro meeting, you analyze your data. Try answering questions like:

  • What campaigns or projects performed well? Can they be repeated?
  • Were your goals impossible to achieve? Too easy? How can you be more accurate next time?
  • Have you identified any gaps that need to be filled? (I.e. Marketing to Sales hand-off, funnel metrics, retention, onboarding experiences, etc.)

Repeat what’s worked

If one particular customer segment converts more for your sales team, maybe it’s worth focusing on that demographic more. If one specific channel drives the most leads and revenue, why not reframe team goals a bit to double down on that?

When you’re able to guide your goals and decisions with data instead of relying on your emotions and “gut feelings”, not only will your predictions be more accurate, but you’ll be more likely to achieve the hockey stick growth most companies aim for.

#6. You underestimate time and distractions

As a manager, you need to stay realistic about time constraints, real life, and your team’s abilities when setting goals for them. Some leaders assume their direct reports will be ready to give up free time and sleep for work on your ultimate goal, but that’s not a healthy expectation to put on your team. It’s also a surefire way to burn your team out.

Assume that things are going to come up, be it emergency bugs, employees getting sick, or a global pandemic. Things are going to happen that you will have little-to-no control over and that’s okay.

As a leader, you need to leave room for mistakes, setbacks, and vacation time when setting goals.

#7. You don’t allow for failures

As a follow-up to the previous goal-setting mistake, some managers “forget” about possible failures that may come up here and there. They go too big and set unrealistic goals. They seek perfection, then point fingers when it isn’t reached.

Remember: All the goals you set for a team should be challenging yet achievable. If you’re following the OKR framework, 70% is considered a success. And yes, they’ll fail from time to time. What’s important is that you fail fast, document your learnings, and apply them next time.

#8. You set goals without the team’s input

Goal-setting should be a two-way process. From the top-down, board members and senior-level staff (typically C-suite) define and validate the overarching strategy and plan for the business.

From there, teams should work collaboratively to set their goals. When employees are able to participate in the goal-setting process, they’ll bring a fresh set of ideas to the table while building a stronger sense of ownership of their goals.

More than that, it will allow you to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, understand what roles and responsibilities to outline for them, and tie back their professional development goals with the team’s ones.

As you plan goals, be sure to involve your team in the brainstorming process.

Brainstorming meeting agenda template

#9. You forget about schedules and deadlines

Allowing time flexibility is fine — 90% of employees admit that a more flexible schedule boosts their morale and helps deal with work better — but some schedules and deadlines should be present anyway.

Deadlines help teams:

  • Set clear expectations with one another around workload and timelines
  • Prioritize their time better
  • Stay on track to hit goals that line up with company-wide objectives

#10. You set them and forget them

Make it a habit to discuss goals and their progress at the start of every week during your one-on-one and team meetings.

When you start your recurring meetings off by talking about goals, you:

  • Ensure that everyone on the team is up-to-date on progress towards goals
  • Give the team more opportunities to share and address roadblocks as they come up
  • Increase the likelihood of your team hitting goals

Discussing team goals at the end of the quarter or year only, you risk missing the opportunity to make necessary adjustments for better results. Think about it this way: if you talk about your goals every week, you give yourself 52 chances to correct the ship, whereas you only have 4 if you talk about them quarterly.

#11. You don’t write them down for the whole team to see

According to psychologists, “you become 42% more likely to achieve your goals and dreams, simply by writing them down.” By acting this way and encouraging your team members to do the same, you build a group of accountability partners for everyone on your team.

But, beyond just writing down your goals, it’s important that they’re accessible to everyone as well. This way, your team can follow along for reference and better self-organization.

Hypercontext’s goal-setting software enables you and your team to write down collective goals in an accessible place for everyone. Plus, your goals will automatically appear in your meeting agenda so you never forget to talk about your goals!

Hypercontext Goals

lesley vos

Lesley Vos is a seasoned web writer who helps peers develop the confidence and skills for better content creation and promotion. Don’t hesitate to read her works on the Bid4Papers blog to discover the world of college writing, and feel free to get in touch on Twitter.