Incentives, Engagement, and Achievable Goals

September 8, 2014
Big goals are a great thing, but the people who are expected to deliver on those goals need to know it is possible to achieve them. When employees believe they are bound to fail, they probably will. Recently, I’ve watched a friend become increasingly miserable at his job. He has been working on a project with unreasonable goals. Even his boss agrees that it’s impossible to hit the unrealistic deadline set by the client, but that doesn’t stop the pressure he puts on the team to somehow, miraculously make it happen. Everyone is working long hours, taking any shortcuts they can find, and trying to overlap tasks typically done sequentially for quality control reasons. The result? They are still going to miss the deadline and disappoint the client. The team is demotivated and their boss is not satisfied with their efforts. The client is oblivious to the problem stemming from their demands, which may actually compromise the quality of the work. Everyone involved is losing. The first issue is really one of corporate responsibility. While we may like to think it’s always possible to do more, faster and faster, there are physical and practical limitations. Despite the pressure to make clients happy, business leaders must set realistic expectations or they risk damaging the brand’s reputation and having a negative impact on employee trust in the organization. As the ACAS whitepaper, “Placing Trust in Employee Engagement” notes “Employees who trust the organizations they work in tend to demonstrate behaviors such as sharing information and working well in teams. These employees also have higher levels of job satisfaction, are more likely to recommend their employer to others, and are less likely to leave the organization.” Employees will consistently deliver their best effort when they know everyone at the organization is playing on the same team. One solution would be to implement an incentive program for the project. To do that, it would be necessary to create achievable goals. In the field, we view achievable but challenging goals as essential to success. The Hay Group explains that, incentive programs “motivate when an employee has a direct impact on the goal the incentive’s based on, when the goal is achievable, and when they know what they need to do to get there.” In the case of this project, an incentive program rooted in how to succeed and deliver work to be proud of would go a long way to keeping the team on task and increasing the employees’ commitment to the outcome. In their Harvard Business Review article, “Small Wins and Feeling Good,” Teresa Amibile and Steve Kramer write, “When you have a daunting mountain to climb, it is often best to break it into molehills.” They explain that “small wins” in our personal and professional lives help us keep going. The boost that we get from the acknowledgement of incremental progress gives us the emotional energy and commitment to keep it up. They quote Stanford professor, Bob Sutton, saying that “big, hairy, audacious goals are not only daunting, but they are usually too obvious and too broad to provide useful guidance for day-to-day work.” On a project such as my friend’s, rather than hammer home the end deadline – almost as some kind of professional doomsday – the manager would achieve better results by laying out a timeline which requires real effort but is actually possible and by rewarding employees for their achievements. By providing incentives and celebrating successes along the way, they might gain ground on employee engagement and deliver on the brand promise. It’s the only way that the client, the employees, and the organization can all come out on top.

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