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Talent Management During the COVID-19 Crisis—Part 3: Are Your Performance Management Goals SMART or DUMB?

By Mark Allen, PhD

When I mention the term "performance management," most people immediately think of annual performance reviews. This is an annual ritual that is typically despised by both employees and managers. In fact, while reviewing past performance (which should certainly be done far more frequently than once a year) is a part of a performance management process, most of what performance management should be about is managing performance. While that might sound obvious, it is not how performance management is typically practiced. Here are some ways to optimize your organization’s performance management during the coronavirus pandemic.

The true goal of performance management should be to improve future performance. Simply changing an organization’s mindset to thinking about performance management as a future-looking exercise instead of a backwards-facing one can have a huge effect on how performance management is viewed, practiced, and has an impact. 

And while, once again, talent management practices are probably not top of mind during the current crisis, I would once again argue that performance management practiced correctly is more essential than ever when much of your workforce is working remotely.

When telework first started coming in vogue, a common question nervous managers would ask me is, “If they’re home, how do I know if they’re working throughout the day?” My answer was always the same: “Who cares?” 

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t care if our workers are getting the job done. What I mean is that we shouldn’t necessarily care about when they’re getting the job done. The whole key to performance management is to give employees specific measurable goals and then to gauge performance based on achievement of those goals. Put simply, it’s impossible to measure performance or have a good performance management system without clear-cut goals.

SMART vs. DUMB Goals

Fortunately, we’ve had a tool for doing this for nearly 40 years. In 1981, George Doran gifted us with SMART goals. Doran told us that the job of managers is to give employees goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based. However, when I ask people about the goals they’ve been given, they are typically neither SMART nor smart.

This disconnect between a known best-practice and actual practice has led me to come up with an acronym of my own. It turns out, most employees report to me that the goals they’ve been given are DUMB: Demotivating, Unclear, Misaligned, and Bewildering. Think of the goals you’ve been given throughout your career and ask yourself which acronym is more descriptive.

While so many of us are discovering that working remotely is different in so many ways from our traditional work patterns and rhythms, managing remote workers is also quite different. More than ever, making sure employees have goals that are, at a minimum, specific and measurable is a necessary ingredient to success. If you manage people, one of your most important tasks is to make sure employees have specific and measurable goals. Remember, about half of the respondents to Gallup’s Q12 do not answer favorably to the question “I know what’s expected of me at work.”

Don’t get me started on the practice I keep hearing about in which managers ask employees to set their own goals. This is a complete abdication of managerial responsibility. Employees can and should be involved in a dialogue about goals, especially about the achievability and timing of the goals, but managers are the ones who are in the best position to determine what is most relevant and needed.

So performance management isn’t only possible during the COVID-19 crisis—it’s absolutely necessary. Rather than getting yourself into a sweat at 10 AM worrying about whether your employees are working or working out, simply provide your remote workers with SMART goals. And, since we’re not talking about an annual process, the time-based part can be short-term. Give employees goals that are specific and relevant. Once the appropriate time has come, measure their performance based on previously agreed-upon metrics. It’s the best way to not only measure performance, but to improve it and to ensure that the right work is getting done at the right time.

As you assign work to your employees, ask yourself if the goals you’re giving them are SMART or DUMB.

Learn More About Talent Management During the COVID-19 Crisis

This article is part of a series on talent management during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.