Going for goal—a dependable approach to setting 2024 objectives

Goal-setting best practices proliferate in the new year. We often see the same tips, whether it’s sticking to 3-5 objectives or making them sufficiently challenging and SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, results oriented, and time bound). Although this is good advice, there are challenges that are less widely discussed yet perhaps more critical to success.

By addressing the following four pitfalls—with recommended antidotes—employees, managers, and organizations can get the most from the goal-setting process.

Pitfall 1: Goals feel mandated and disconnected from organizational strategy.

Employees often feel demotivated and disengaged when their goals are assigned and the connection to organizational priorities is not clear. The pitfall is not that goals are cascaded down by leaders but that employees are not involved and they lack necessary organizational context that links their work to the company’s strategy.

The antidote: Goal setting should inspire a productive discussion about how an employee’s work tracks to their individual purpose and fits into the organization's strategy. According to our research, 70 percent of surveyed employees said their sense of purpose is defined by their work, and the leading driver of performance and productivity is the sense of purpose work provides.

The goal-setting conversation can be a powerful unlock to bring purpose into work and connect the individual to something larger than themselves. Rather than exclusively cascading goals down the ladder, involve employees in the process through frequent discussions about business objectives and purpose, then partner to develop measurable, motivating targets in which they have direct say.

Pitfall 2: Goals are made in a silo without consideration of interdependencies.

As work increases in complexity, collaborative and cross-functional teams are needed more than ever to address the company’s biggest challenges. Whether developing a product, rolling out a process, or delivering a service, there are always critical cross-functional stakeholders on whom employees may be dependent. However, individual goals continue to be developed in a silo, focused on what they can do to drive an outcome.

The antidote: When establishing goals, consider the key stakeholders and collaborators who will be necessary for success. Inviting these individuals to discuss or weigh in can help identify interdependencies and align or reinforce goals.

For example, every leader at one pharmaceutical company sets a meeting with peers and collaborators critical to their team's success to share goals, discuss interdependencies, and ensure integration to achieve their objectives as part of the process.

Pitfall 3: Goals are set at the top of the year, then become irrelevant and forgotten.

Many employees work hard to set goals then immediately forget about them until the year-end review, only to realize they are out of date and not what was prioritized. Others make plans for the year ahead, but their projects often span more or less than a year, resulting in goals that feel irrelevant to the day-to-day.

The antidote: Have ongoing check-ins with team members throughout the flow of work and include goal setting as part of the conversation. These check-ins can help drive performance, development, and connection for greater engagement by focusing on the following:

  • Performance: Discuss progress or barriers and adapt as needed.
  • Development: Discuss personal goals and growth aspirations for the year, including skills to build and individual purpose.
  • Connection: Connect with the person, focusing on who they are as an individual, what they value, and how they are doing.

Pitfall 4: Goals emphasize short-term successes more than long-term outcomes.

Goals direct behavior and signal what the organization values. When set poorly, studies suggest they can lead to short-term gains at the expense of the organization. In attempting to make a goal measurable and achievable, employees may focus on tasks and processes rather than outcomes, ultimately targeting what can be achieved in the short term instead of what’s best for the business.

The antidote: Clarify whether the work requires a performance goal or a learning goal. A performance goal focuses on achieving a specific number or target. A learning goal centers on the process of gaining understanding and the application of knowledge and skills. For example, a performance goal could be to increase sales in the APAC region by 10 percent. A learning goal might focus on developing and applying three new innovative growth strategies in APAC.

Performance goals often narrow focus and drive a target outcome in a short period of time. They work best when the team is familiar with the work and is required to perform the function, and when there is a shorter-term need. These types of goals can be detrimental in the early stages of learning or applying a new skill, or when new and innovative ways of working are required to succeed in the long run.

If someone is aiming to grow, innovate, or disrupt ways of working, a learning goal should be used. Learning goals can be outcome oriented, but they shift an employee’s mindset away from the task and focus more on the process required to achieve long term impact. They have been shown to better support complex business environments where innovative solutions to new problems are the key to value. They also are a great way to build a culture of learning and innovation and instill a growth mindset.


Despite an abundance of resources on goal setting, we still do not see effective goals used at work. The science is conclusive on what great goals look like—but common pitfalls still get in the way. Implementing the above antidotes can help managers, employees, and organizations increase motivation and performance and drive more value throughout the year.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice