Leadership Strategies

How to Set Objectives for your Team

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If you want a team that performs well, you need to set objectives. This isn’t a paper exercise. It’s not something to be completed because ‘somebody in HR’ told you that you had to. If you’re committed to treating team members fairly and you want them to perform well (and demonstrate your skills as a team manager) then you need to set objectives.

In a well-developed organisation, objective setting should be the basis of a management cascade. That is, the board should agree the strategic objectives for the business or company and each level of management and staff beneath this should have personal objectives that underpin and/or contribute towards these strategic objectives. A board director might have responsibility to deliver an increase in market share, but he needs the staff members that are actually interacting with his customers to manage the customer journey that delivers this objective. Think of it like several rows of horses pulling a cart. If one of those horses is harnessed on a different side of the cart, he’s going to pull things in a different direction, limiting the progress of the cart overall.

Trade unions don’t always like objectives. They see them as a tool to harass, bully and intimidate staff members and, in the wrong hands, they can be misused in those ways. But that’s a bit like banning forks because one person decided to stab somebody in the eye. The purpose of the fork remains unchanged and is still vital to the effective process of eating a meal. An objective is vital to the progress of team results. It’s also a commitment of honesty and sincerity. It’s about an organisation (and its managers) agreeing with its team members what they will be expected to deliver and what the rewards might be. Nobody should be frightened of this process.

One of the most established and best-known principles for setting objectives is called SMART. It has, sadly, become a bit of a buzzword over recent years and is frequently mocked, but if objectives are agreed according to the SMART process, then the chances are that they’re really good business drivers.

SMART stands for:






The SMART objective setting process effectively begins when your manager is awarded his/her objectives for the year – but if that doesn’t happen, then he/she can still set SMART objectives for you.

Objectives must be SPECIFIC. There can be no ambiguity over what it is that you are expecting the staff member to do.  Language here is extremely important. There should be lots of strong action verbs here that really outline what is required in a small number of words. ‘Develop a process for managing customer complaints’ is a fairly robust, specific thing to be achieved. ‘Keep customers happy’ is not. Based on a SPECIFIC objective, you should be able to explain what is required, when and why.

Objectives need to be MEASURABLE because all parties need to know what good looks like. ‘Develop a process for managing customer complaints’ is not necessarily measurable. How will you know how much progress has been made? ‘Develop a process for managing customer complaints such that 85% of customer complaints are resolved according to this new process.’ Can you see how that is now measurable? The individual knows what to do and knows what the measure of success will be. But it’s still not complete. How would this objective apply to a business that has 100 complaints a year versus one that has 10,000? There’s no indication of scale.

That’s where the need to be ACHIEVABLE comes in. Is it realistic for one staff member to implement a process to manage ALL new complaints via this new process, if there are over 10,000 of them a year? It could be, but consider this in the objective. It might be more achievable if the objective is ‘Develop a process for managing customer complaints received via the sales call centre such that 85% of sales complaints are resolved according to this process.’ Now the individual has scope that means that they can see that the objective is achievable. That doesn’t mean easy by the way! Objectives should be demanding and once achieved, should represent significant effort, but you want people to stand a chance.

That’s why they need to be REALISTIC. If we go back to those complaints, it might be that three teams of people are involved such that there are 30 people to deal with. That might mean crossing over into somebody else’s span of control. So now consider making the objective fully realistic. ‘In conjunction with the two other senior complaint handlers, work collaboratively to develop a process for managing customer complaints received via the sales call centre such that 85% of sales complaints are resolved according to this process.’ This has increased the span to three people (which actually adds the new complication of collaborative working) but ensures that the objective is shared equally.

Of course, so far the objective has no measure of time. When do you want it done by - next week, next year, in the next ten years? That’s why the objective must also be TIMEBOUND. You must state clearly when something must be delivered. So our current objective might change to ‘In conjunction with the two other senior complaint handlers, work collaboratively to develop a process for managing customer complaints received via the sales call centre such that during quarter 4 85% of sales complaints are resolved according to this process.’

That’s a SMART objective. There’s no doubt what has to be done, by when and that it is realistic and achievable.

One thing that many managers struggle to differentiate between is aims and objectives. Aims are aspirations or intentions. They tend to be less clearly defined (and often part of a broader thinking). The objectives are the targets that will help deliver these aims, hopefully strategically.

Another mistake is to set contractual obligations as objectives. You cannot set objectives that simply require a staff member to do what they are paid to do. Things like attendance, sick absence and punctuality are not objectives. They’re performance management issues and should be treated entirely separately. Remember also that there should be a framework of behaviours in place (in the individual’s job description, ideally) that support HOW they should support these objectives. Without this, a staff member who simply bullies others into doing things his/her way will have a strong case to say that he/she achieved his objectives as stated.

In any team, you may decide to have a number of core objectives, shared by everyone and then some individual objectives that are targeted at key individuals. This can be a very effective way of recognising individual strengths and ensuring ongoing team building. As a target, aim for at least three shared objectives and two individual objectives.

This is a management skill that develops over time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or read around for further advice. You’ll KNOW when you have set SMART objectives through the business results delivered – so don’t underestimate the merits of investing a reasonable amount of time to setting them.

More about this author: Philip Lop

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