How to Set Clear Goals for Employees

Recently, my company Jotform rounded the one-year-mark since beginning to work remotely. During our weekly video conference, I gave the team a walking tour of our updated San Francisco headquarters. It was a fun way to shake up our virtual meetings, but my real objective was to reconnect employees with the nucleus of our company — in normal times, the hub for work and collaboration.

Similar to bringing employees together and reconnecting them with our physical workspace, I think it’s essential to periodically remind our teams and ourselves of our company’s far-reaching vision, and to lay out our strategy for achieving that vision. As it turns out, having clear objectives can be critical to your company’s bottom line and, not to mention, ensure that you’re working on the right problems. Here’s how.

Clear goals increase productivity and motivation

As CEO coach Dave Bailey writes, “Great founders make their vision seem inevitable.” And it’s not just dumb luck or charisma. According to Bailey, what sets apart successful founders is their ability to spot emerging trends and extrapolate them by five years. This is important because it shows why the world needs your new product, service or update right now.

For example, with so many people working remotely right now, the time was ripe for our latest product, Jotform Approvals, which streamlines form-related approvals (HR requests, job applications, etc.) and ultimately contributes to our larger vision: making users’ lives easier.

Regularly clarifying goals can actually boost your and your team’s productivity and motivation. According to psychologists Locke and Latham’s seminal research on the goal-setting theory, the act of consciously setting goals can affect what and how much we achieve. For the most effective performance, goals should be both specific and challenging (as opposed to vague goals like encouraging employees to simply “do their best”). What’s more, creating group goals helps to cultivate a sense of belonging, meaning and overall satisfaction.

Whether you’re clarifying your goals or mapping out your startup’s vision for the first time, here are some simple tips to keep in mind.

Best practices for goal-setting

1. Spell it out

Committing your goals to paper can increase your likelihood of realizing them. Studies have found that people who go through the physical act of writing down their goals accomplish significantly more than those who don’t, and it may have something to do with accountability. The same research found that sharing your written goals, can push you to accomplish even more, in effect combining personal and external accountability,

So jot down your goals and then make them known — to your partner, your team, and whomever else is invested in your progress.

2. Make it timely

We all know someone who claims to work best under pressure; who sings the praises of pulling an all-nighter. As it turns out, research shows that people do in fact work faster when faced with tight deadlines rather than loose deadlines or no timeline at all. But rather than generating pressure by putting off projects until the last minute, try setting timely deadlines instead. If you’re working on a long-spanning project, break it up into short-term benchmarks.

To highlight one real-world example, in 2015, the US National Science Foundation got rid of its usual twice-yearly deadlines for grant submissions in geoscience in an attempt to alleviate the overburdened vetting system. As reported by the BBC, annual submissions fell by a whopping 59%. Removing the deadline essentially destroyed the would-be applicants’ motivation.

Creating your own deadlines will add a new dimension of challenge to the work, which in turn boosts motivation. Chances are that you and your team will rise to the challenge.

3. Work backwards

When setting goals, it’s tempting to focus on the lowest hanging fruit, or closest objective, without stepping back to consider whether that goal is the most important. To overcome this tendency, Dorie Clark recommends working backwards. Think of your far-reaching goal and then map out the various steps along the way.

As she explains in Harvard Business Review, “If your primary objective for the next three years is growing your B2B sales, your goal for this year should almost certainly advance that somehow — for instance, through building relationships with potential customers or pilot testing a new offering that would appeal to the B2B market.”

Afterward, create a goal timeline and force yourself to work on a specific goal for a predetermined amount of time — Clark recommends at least 6 months. That way, you won’t throw in the towel if things don’t pan out right away, but neither are you working with no end in sight.

4. Celebrate small wins

Some would tell you to set your sights as high as possible — if you reach for the moon, you’ll at least land on the stars, the thinking goes. But the danger of setting unattainable goals is the risk that not reaching them will lead to a sense of devastating defeat.

That’s why Harvard Business Review recommends not changing the goals we set, but rather, how we react to failure. First, remember that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones most comfortable with failing sometimes. Focus on the long-term objective but remember to celebrate the small wins along the way. That way, when we suffer the occasional setback, it won’t feel like a crushing blow.

By continually clarifying your long-term goals and how to get there, you’ll ensure that you’re at least heading in the right direction, even if you inevitably stumble along the way.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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