Robey’s Blog: Give People Targets

There’s a lot of cynicism out there, about management.  The men and women placed into positions of leadership over us are easy targets for complaint and attack (quietly and out of ear-shot if we value our jobs, admittedly), and from the Peter Principle to Dilbert cartoons there’s no end of people ready to take a shot at the ones how have to carry the burden of leadership in organizations and companies all over the world.  And when one of the big, high-profile CEOs makes a misjudgement, the laughter from the peanut gallery is loud.

But in my day-to-day work, a huge part of my role in HR is trying to help these people to do their jobs.  So if they are failing to engage, inspire and guide their teams, who’s really at fault?

Well, them, obviously, for failing to listen to my wise and salient advice.

But let’s imagine for a second – it is still, sort of, Christmas after all, which is very much the season of magic and wish-fulfilment – that I could reach out and place a single idea into the minds of managers all over the world that I thought would help everyone – from the most passionate and charismatic leader to the most plodding and lumpen middle manager – do their job better in a way that would make their subordinates, themselves and their own superiors happy then it would be this:

Give people targets.

Now, a lot has already been written about how to set objectives and how to frame goals.  From my early training as a military officer through to learning SMART principles in my CIPD courses and beyond that, I’ve read and written plenty about the art and science of how to effectively explain what it actually is you want someone to achieve.

But I’m starting to worry that this is part of the problem: when we start talking about performance standards and appraisal methods; when we get into acronyms and nine-box tables and the semantics of clear objective setting, we make complicated something that, fundamentally, should be simple.

When we are dealing with people who, for all their strengths, may, as leaders, be only just about managing, it’s like making someone run an 8-mile obstacle course through mud, freezing cold water, swamps and hills and then presenting them with a ten-foot wall[1].  It’s just one more thing that’s too hard, too high and too much trouble.

We’ve got to approach good management in increments, like the proverbial frog in a pan of water, if we drop them straight into boiling, they won’t stick it.  But if we raise the tempo of management in small steps, we can raise the bar gradually, pushing engagement, satisfaction and – most importantly – performance up step by step[2].

To go back to my earlier metaphor, if we present the ten-foot wall early in the race, they’ll scale it more easily but still won’t want to do it again at the end.  But if we present ten one-foot wall throughout the full distance, they won’t even notice they were there.

Give people targets.

Just one, per person.  Don’t worry too much about SMARTness or anything else.  One one-foot obstacle at a time, remember?  Just give people targets.  Don’t even worry too much about following them up.  Just give people targets.  You don’t need to link them to pay or bonuses or anything.  Just give people targets.

Is my point coming across here?  Just give people targets.

Pretty soon, it will become a habit.  You’ll have noticed that some targets are achieved and some aren’t without needing to make notes about it.  You’ll see that some people accept targets without question while others want to discuss them.  You’ll notice that some people hit their targets every time; some people hit them occasionally; others never do.  But don’t worry about it.  Just give people targets.

Then, once the giving people of targets is a habit, think of one thing that will make them better.  I could give you a list of ideas, but I think that will mess with the overall message here: give people targets.  Let everything else flow from this simple idea.  Don’t try to mess with it.  Don’t try to over-think it.  Don’t try to make it more complicated.  Just hold it in your head like a Christmas fairy has reached in and nailed it there.


Give people targets.

[1] Yep.  Doing this in March.  Expect to be hassled for charity donations soon.

[2] The frog thing isn’t true, by the way.  Frogs aren’t stupid.  They’ll get out of that water way before it starts boiling.

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