The Definitive Guide to Setting Goals at Work

The Definitive Guide to Setting Goals at Work

Table of Contents

Despite the benefits of setting goals at work, the stats surrounding such initiatives are grim. Studies show a whopping 93% of employees are unable to tie their actions to organizational goals.

And this affects more than just employees. Widespread confusion about how to set, track, and measure goals can stop managers and leadership teams in their tracks. There’s a lot that goes into the art of goal setting that can be difficult to grasp, including its impact on employee engagement and your bottom line.

But don’t worry — WorkTango’s got you. We created this guide to ensure everyone at a company from executives to employees can understand why, how, and when to set goals.

What is a goal?

According to Merriam-Webster, a goal is defined as “the end toward which effort is directed.” But anyone who’s ever tried to set and achieve a goal knows there’s more to it than that.

One of the biggest mistakes we see in goal-setting is a failure to move past the higher-level vision. Truly actionable goals have four distinct components:

1. Goals and objectives are the end-point, the desired result of your work.

2. Strategy is the “how,” the high-level approach needed to achieve a goal.

3. Tactics are the actionable steps needed to pull off your strategy.

4. Results are the specific indicators that you’ve achieved the goal.

When you and your employees are sitting down to draft your goals for the coming quarter, strive to define all four of these components. How are you going to achieve your goal? How will you measure success? Get specific — that’s the key from transforming a dream to a goal based in reality.

Goal frameworks (SMART goals and OKRs)

There are several frameworks to choose from to help you effectively write goals. But SMART goals and OKRs are the most popular picks for leading enterprises, like Google and LinkedIn. Let’s take a hard look at each:

What is a SMART goal?

SMART is an acronym. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. Incorporating each part of the SMART acronym into your goals increases the likelihood you’ll reach them.

Infographic defining SMART goals -- specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based

  • Specific goals are direct, detailed, and meaningful.
  • Measurable goals are quantifiable and can be tracked to monitor progress or success.
  • Attainable goals are realistic and require employees to have the tools or resources to attain it.
  • Relevant goals align with your company mission and will push a business forward.
  • Time-based goals are time-bound and have a definite completion date.

Recommended reading: How to Set SMART Goals →

What are OKRs?

Invented by Andy Grove of Intel, OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results. As the name suggests, OKRs are made up of two parts:

  • Objectives are the desired goals or end results you want to achieve.
  • Key results are time-specific measures on how you will achieve your objectives. On average, each objective has three to five key results.

OKRs focus on top priorities. You should set, track, and update these quarterly. They’re designed to be ambitious stretch goals: Hitting 70% of your OKRs is considered a success.

OKRs are designed to be ambitious stretch goals: Hitting 70% is considered a success.

OKR exist at several levels in your company. For full alignment, these OKRs should directly support each other:

  • Personal goals identify what the person is working on
  • Team OKRs set priorities for the team
  • Company OKRs are the big picture, top-level focus for a business

So what’s the difference? At a high level, SMART goals are a method for writing effective goals, while OKRs align these goals to organizational and departmental goals.

Are they mutually exclusive? Not at all. In fact, these two goal types work best when used together. This section of our article How to Set SMART Goals tells you how.

Recommended Reading: How to Set and Measure OKRs →

Want OKR examples?
OKR Examples by Industry and Team


See examples

Six types of goals

All goals are not created equal. When setting objectives for yourself or your team, consider these 6 goal types, and how they can help drive both employee and business success.

Performance goals vs. development goals

Simply put, we set performance goals for the job we have. These professional goals should reflect the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in our current role.

Development goals help us advance to the role we want and should be part of your overall career path planning activities. Example KRs for these goals can include professional development milestones, like completing a certification, reading industry texts, or taking your public speaking to the next level by presenting at a conference or meetup.

Public goals vs. private goals

Public goals are shared. The benefits of public goals is that employees can celebrate achievements together. This can create camaraderie between employees, and build company culture.

Private goals serve a different purpose. Some things, you don’t want to share. Employees may choose to make these goals private between themselves and their managers, such as working on specific skills or addressing performance reviews.

Individual vs. shared goals

Individual goals provide an objective way to evaluate one employee’s success. These let you create clear paths to professional growth and promotion.

Shared goals can help teams work better together. They also help employees understand how their own work affects their peers.

Learn how to track individual, team, and company goals with WorkTango →

Tips for setting effective goals

Use goals to drive employee engagement

Goals can make or break an employee’s dedication to their work. The simplest way to think about the relationship between setting goals at work and employee engagement is to remember this formula:

aligning personal goals with company goals to increase employee engagement

The more aligned an employee’s personal goals are to their company OKRs, the more engaged they will be.

Align company, team, and individual goals

As we illustrate in our Employee Experience Manifesto, alignment is key to a thriving employee experience. Aligning employee goals with company OKRs makes employees feel more connected to the company, and helps them understand the meaningful impact of their work.

Here are some action steps you can take to drive alignment:

Set goals frequently

Sometimes, our goals lose meaning as business priorities change. WorkTango’s solution? Create short, meaningful quarterly goal cycles.

At this cadence, you’ll either take your goals to the next level, refresh, or retire them every quarter. This also gives your managers greater visibility into their reports’ successes and challenges, and helps them help their team.

How to drive goal accountability

A surefire way for managers and their teams to miss goals is to set them and forget them.

It takes a lot of time and energy to hold all parties accountable for hitting milestones, no matter your company size. That’s why we recommend a solid employee success solution.

To truly keep all parties accountable for hitting milestones, businesses need to invest in the time, culture, and technology to do so.

32% of employees want to see the progress they’ve made toward goals set by their manager. It makes sense there’s no point in goal setting if you don’t track your goals. When companies recognize and celebrate goal achievements in real-time and see missed goals as growth opportunities, not as failures, that’s when the change happens.

Are you ready to take your goal setting to the next level?

Ultimately, effective goal setting is a skill that combines tactical business insights with emotional intelligence and project management.

Learn more