What to do when an employee doesn’t accomplish a goal

An annual performance review process provides a supervisor the opportunity to ask questions that can prompt change in an employee, the supervisor and the institution.

Most institutions have in place performance review processes that have as a central component the creation of goals to guide an employee’s work in the months ahead. Managers have learned to help their direct reports craft, in the language of Paul Meyer, S.M.A.R.T. goals (goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound), which ideally become both the frame for and the substance of supervisory conversations across a year.

One of the managerial challenges related to performance review is how to respond to an employee’s unaccomplished goal. Assuming that this is an otherwise successful employee, this situation provides the manager with a wonderful opportunity to ask substantive questions that can prompt growth and change in the employee, in himself or herself, and in the institution itself.

First, when an employee has not satisfied a goal successfully, his or her supervisor is in a great position to learn more about that employee.

The supervisor can ask questions about professional capacity, personal qualities and ongoing development:

  • What skills did you need to meet this goal that you didn’t have?
  • When you realized that you weren’t going to meet this goal, what was your reaction? Who did you talk to about this situation along the way?
  • What will you do differently in the year ahead to ensure that you meet your goals?

The answers to these questions enable the supervisor to craft a more robust performance evaluation and development plan for the future.

Beyond that, though, the unaccomplished goal provides the manager with an opportunity to step back and ask questions about his or her own leadership.

  • If the situation came as a surprise, what might that suggest about supervisory style?
  • Is it necessary to touch base with employees (at least this one) more frequently, or frame supervision conversations in a different way so as to assess ongoing progress?
  • If the situation was not a surprise, was there something that the manager could have done differently to resource or assist the employee toward greater success?
  • And what might this suggest about helping employees create and craft better goals for future years?

Finally, a single unmet goal can provide valuable information about institutional culture when it prompts the leader to pose questions about those very things.

  • Do our employees understand how their individual performance goals contribute to the overall success of our institution?
  • How do we continue to motivate our employees to make progress across a year?
  • Are there resources or continuing education opportunities we should make available?
  • Do institutional priorities shift rapidly or frequently and thus confuse our employees about what matters?

Between the paperwork involved and the conversations required, performance review processes can feel like time-consuming distractions for an institutional leader. Yet, they can also be times to learn about institutional life, about the people who give of themselves for the success of a mission, and about our own leadership.

And that is time never wasted.