10 February 2020

Performance Differentiation starts at Objective Setting

Harvest Learning Specialist, Eamonn Eaton

Our highly experienced Learning Specialist, Eamonn Eaton, provides his wisdom on setting effective objectives to allow team members to deliver exceptional performance.

One of the key roles of a team leader or manager is to achieve results through other people. Successfully motivating your team to achieve high performance and give their best requires a number of skills, behaviours and capabilities and effectively managing and harnessing the performance of your team is often what sets great managers apart from good managers.

While we are all aware of this, in reality, I often meet managers who fear the Performance Management Framework and Cycle in their organisations. Many managers end up going through the motions and follow the steps outlined in the process, rather than seeing it as the platform for them to have authentic and beneficial developmental conversations with their team. Conversations that build a strong common bond and mature relationship that benefit everyone. When they reach the end of the performance year, they have difficulty in differentiating between the levels of performance on their team and this in turn, can lead to challenging and difficult conversations with some individuals team members. I believe the secret in performance differentiation starts at objective setting and if you get this step right, then the rest of the cycle falls into place.

Most people just want to know what’s expected of them, how they are doing, ways to improve and that someone appreciates what they are doing well. Using the performance management framework as a positive developmental tool can help a manager:

  • Ensure that individuals on their team are clear of what’s expected of them in terms of both business results and team behaviours
  • Coach and support individuals to ensure they reach their potential
  • Develop and grow the capability of individuals to help them build new skills that underpin their future career, while also making a positive contribution to their team and organisation
  • Continually provide feedback to team members so they know how they are doing, what talents they bring to the team and areas they should strive for improvement

While many managers understand the theory and agree with this in principle, they often still find it difficult to help their team grow and develop through the performance management cycle. Spending time at objective setting and getting the foundation right is really the best place to start. If you get objective setting right, you give individuals space to be ambitious, the chance to excel and the opportunity to grow.

Setting effective objectives not only provides the opportunity for individuals to deliver exceptional performance, it also guides your team in terms of the organisation’s expectations of them, so it’s critical for you as a manager to get this right. Well-constructed and formulated objectives create an environment where people can thrive; badly formulated objectives will steer individuals and the organisation in the wrong direction. Managers often view the end of year review conversation as the most important stage in the performance cycle. They focus on trying to differentiate performance outcomes for their team and then dread discussing these outcomes with individuals on their team. I believe that investing time in meaningful conversations at the start of the performance cycle sets the tone and context for the rest of the year and should underpin authentic coaching and development conversations right throughout the year. Putting the effort in up front delivers rewards for both the manager and the individual team member in the end.

Why not consider the following tips on how to set objectives that support performance differentiation and see which ones will help you as you set goals for your team members this year?

Think about the difference between objectives and aims, goals and targets before you start writing objectives. Aims and goals relate to your vision or aspirations, objectives should be focused on your battle-plan. Set as many objectives as you need for success. This may appear obvious, but it’s often the first area of confusion. If the manager and team member have different interpretations of what’s expected, then a performance-limiting factor has been created at the outset.

When starting to formulate an objective, focus on the success measures first. Ask yourself ‘Am I thinking of a quantifiable measure that will validate ‘what’ I want achieved and a behavioural measure of ‘how’ it should be achieved?’ Getting the measure right creates clarity for the manager and the team member and sets the expectation around what constitutes exceptional performance. In many instances, what differentiates performance at year end is the manner and style by which something was achieved. To be fair to individual team members, this should be factored into their objective to clarify up front that both ‘what’ and ‘how’ contributes to good performance. In many cases, this does not happen and the objective can be achieved, even if the individual leaves a trail of broken relationships, offended colleagues and a frustrated manager in their wake.

The next important factor I consider is the language used in objective setting and the performance expectation it creates. Every objective should have an action word that creates the energy in an objective. In my experience, the choice of word can have a significant influence on the energy, power or sense of movement required to achieve the objective and therefore has the potential to shape the performance outcome from the outset.

Taking time to draft objectives and choosing ‘Active’ rather than ‘Passive’ action words, in my experience, has the biggest impact on setting the bar on expectations and the potential outcome achieved. The ‘action’ word in an objective helps create the space for the individual to achieve. Think of the difference between:

Provide… Deliver…Maintain…Support…Ensure



Let’s assume you are working with a 5-point performance calibration scale that looks something like this:

  1. Does not meet acceptable standards
  2. Falls short of acceptable standards on some dimensions
  3. Valued performer meeting all standards across all dimensions
  4. Exceeds standards on a number of dimensions
  5. Exceptional performance consistently exceeding standards on all dimensions

I believe that Provide… Deliver…Maintain…Support…Ensure describes the minimum benchmark standards for a role. As a result, a set of objectives fully achieved with these types of passive action words are aiming for a 3 outcome on the scale.

On the other hand, Maximise…Create…Build…Collaborate…Activate create space for creativity, ideas, improvement etc. and are aiming for 3 to 5 or above benchmark minimum standards for the role.

I would much prefer to have an objective of ‘Create a management information pack’ each month than ‘Provide a management information pack’ each month. Creation would inspire me to try different approaches, strive for continuous improvement and make me feel more empowered. Performance differentiation has already commenced, and expectations are set from the beginning. Getting one word right can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome and align manager and team expectations right through the performance cycle.

How do you know you have it right? If you apply these techniques to even one or two key objectives for each team member, you should have created a stretch objective for them. When someone says ‘OK let me think about how I will do that, and I will come back to you next week’, then you have created space for them to differentiate their performance. If they just accept all objectives without discussion, then you have failed as their manager to create challenge, stretch or space to exceed. Not everyone wants this, and we also need valued performers who are the bedrock of our team. The important thing is to do things by design and not by accident.

As people managers, we have a responsibility to create the space, encouragement, support and clarity that an individual needs to succeed. Investing time to differentiate objectives is a demonstration of your commitment to helping your team grow, develop and be at their best every day at work. This year don’t ‘write’ objectives, try and ‘compose’ them instead.


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