The American View: How Do We Make S.M.A.R.T. Goals Credible in the Modern Workplace?

It’s getting towards the end of calendar year 2021 which means it’s time for most corporate folks to start planning their annual performance goals for 2022. It’s a joyous time of year, where the days become shorter, the weather turns colder, and co-workers are unsurprisingly difficult to reach despite their IM status saying they’re “available.” It’s also the season where supervisors give up trying to figure out what detailed objectives they should assign to their direct reports for the next year and delegate goal-writing to their subordinates. Just as trees shed their leaves into the rain choked gutters, so too do printers shed reams of copy paper covered in aspirational goal statements for the coming winter. Mmmmm … the holiday season.

Of course, it’s gauche to state the obvious in one’s performance goals. You can’t just tell your boss “I’ll grimly swallow my outrage and passively let you abuse me with pointless busywork for another year whilst I long for the sweet release of death.” HR won’t allow it. Firstly, because end-of-year employee ratings require more than one performance goal (three is usually the bare minimum). Secondly, because stating the naked truth isn’t smart. Or, rather, isn’t S.M.A.R.T.

Most of you know what I’m on about. For those readers that don’t, is your organisation hiring? Please DM me.

Back on track: every non-military organisation I’ve worked in over the last 25 years has mandated that all employees use S.M.A.R.T. goals in writing their individual performance standards. This is a model that’s been around since November of 1981, when George Doran’s article There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives took the business world by storm. You can distil Mr. Doran’s idea using this excerpt from his article:

I urge everyone to read the original so you’re not just taking my word for it. It’s the S.M.A.R.T. thing to do.

Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

Specific – target a specific area for improvement.

Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.

Assignable – specify who will do it.

Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.

Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

As such, a good S.M.A.R.T. goal might by phrased thusly: “Starting on 1st January 2022, I will make a concerted effort to laugh at your feeble attempts at ‘humour’ no less than 3 out of every 4 opportunities during group interactions involving at least one additional person beyond you and me so that other people might be persuaded to believe that you’re actually funny and not a pretentious gasbag with delusions of adequacy.” Who does it? The tasked worker. How often? No less than 3 out of every 4 opportunities. Et cetera.

At the end of the year, presumably, either the employee or the supervisor (preferably both) would be able to produce detailed records to prove that each S.M.A.R.T. goal was met; if it was, the employee should be rewarded appropriately. If not, the goal should ideally be re-evaluated and adjusted. In reality, there are only two outcomes: if the supervisor likes their subordinate, then the unmet goal is ignored, and the supervisors assigns whatever rating they were inclined to before the goals were measures. Likewise, if the supervisor doesn’t like their subordinate, the unmet goal is highlighted as “proof” of why they won’t get promoted or get their full bonus.

Most people aren’t working for “spiritual fulfilment” so the threat of withholding cash compensation at year’s end is wielded like a spiked club by weak supervisors.

In theory, S.M.A.R.T. goal setting should be a collaborative effort where both supervisor and subordinate negotiate each goal’s criteria, thereby ensuring that both sides of the evaluation will agree with the standards. That said, in theory everyone at every level would just know what they must do and would do it spectacularly so there would be no need to write performance goals.

I’ve heard it said that Mr. Doran was trying to build on Peter Drucker’s famous “management by objectives” concept from 1954. That tracks with what I know of Drucker’s life and legacy. The idea of S.M.A.R.T. goals fits right in with Drucker’s concept of giving workers small amounts of power over inconsequential activities – like letting the employees run the company canteen – to teach them management skills and make them feel personally invested in the organisation.

To be fair to Mr. Doran, I believe his idea was a good one. I’m goofing on the idea because of how his idea was warped over time, not because there were any glaring flaws in the idea itself. If anything, I like what Doran proposed just for his “R” component. I’ve had far too many “goals” in my working life that were completely out of my control. Wild objectives like “guarantee that all projects over which you have zero control will be delivered on time and under budget.” [CENSORED] that for a game of soldiers. Insisting that goals be “realistic” is a godsend.

Nonetheless, that’s not the part that new managers focus on; the R is usually ignored in favour of the M … how do we measure this? Metrics-obsessed people salivate over the idea that complex human behaviour can be reduced to tally marks or spreadsheet entries.

This is probably the main reason I bristle every time someone deigns to “explain’ S.M.A.R.T. goals to me. It’s not the unnecessary complexity of the exercise that gets to me; it’s the naiveté. The notion that is management and labour agree to a performance standard that it’s achievable relies on assumptions about both human nature and organisational culture … assumptions that most businesspeople get wrong.

The most egregious sin most leaders commit is assuming that everyone else in the office thinks, feels, and acts just like them. They see “their people” as lesser clones rather than as complex individuals with wildly different values and worldviews.

I argue that far too many corporate workers have unrealistic ideas of how office culture, power dynamics, and group behaviour work. This isn’t because people are stupid; I submit it’s because we don’t teach social science as a core component of primary education in America. The problem is made worse because – and again, this is my opinion – that American secondary education oversimplifies organisational behaviour concepts the way junior high physics classes oversimplify complications like “friction.” I’m sick to death of rookie managers insisting that if they put a ridiculous rule in a policy document that all the workers will immediately and completely obey the new rule as written. People don’t work that way. Goals written using fantastic assumptions are often worse than having no goals at all.

To counter this, I suggest implementing a modernized version of Doran’s S.M.A.R.T. goals to pre-empt the inevitable complicating factors that make most S.M.A.R.T. goals useless at best and damning at worst. Consider adding my C.R.I.M.E. model as a supplement to every goal:

Pragmatically speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should declare their:

Commitment – the supervisor must affirm how much of their own power and influence they’ll commit to supporting the employee’s efforts pursuing the goal. For example, “I will refuse calls from upset stakeholders to fire or discipline you for your actions in pursuit of this goal up to (but non including) you committing physical violence in the workplace.” The supervisor must define how much “skin” they have in the game; if they fail to live up to their promise, the employee subject to this goal gets a pass.

Realism – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources and (more importantly) given the organisation’s unique culture and power structures. Just because a course of action is achievable at another organisation doesn’t mean it’s achievable here.

I blame the Harvard Business School for teaching generations of managers that “best practices” are universal and that all office cultures are effectively identical. I’ve seen more leaders fail catastrophically from blithely assuming their new office culture was indistinguishable from their previous office culture’s work culture and walking off the proverbial cliff than from any other preventable mistake.

Investment – the supervisor must declare how much of their own organisational and political power they’re willing to delegate to the employee to help accomplish the goal. A goal where the employee isn’t allowed to make decisions or act on their own isn’t their goal. Either delegate power properly or do it yourself.

Malleability – no battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy, and project plans are no different. How much freedom does the worker have to improvise or make command decisions when assumptions turn out wrong, when critical support doesn’t arrive in time, or when political factors cripple the core requirements?   

Evidence – what will the supervisor accept as incontrovertible proof that the goal was achieved when all’s said and done? This needs to be set up front. There are fewer antics more likely to get a supervisor defenestrated than to declare after a year of work that their subordinate can’t “prove” that they accomplished a goal.

There you have it. I truly believe that S.M.A.R.T. goals aren’t bad; they’re just too academic for the real world. To compensate for bad leaders, flawed organisational cultures, and the modern notion that employees are disposable serfs deserving only abuse and contempt, we need to seriously consider adding C.R.I.M.E. factors to S.M.A.R.T. goals as a pragmatic augmentation.

I’ll be happy to chat with you about in more detail. Just hit me up over IM. Trust me, I’ll totally be available during office hours until January. You can trust me … constant availability is factored in one of my 2021 performance goals.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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