The power of making a difference at work

Disengaged employees cost companies millions each year. Here's how can you utilise individual goals to do something about it, and while doing so let go of the time-consuming practice of cascading goals.

I occasionally hold talks on goal setting and general motivation, and the first thing I usually do is to ask the audience how they feel about personal goals they’ve set for themselves. I go around the group and the response is inspirational, bringing up personal achievements from participating in some major cross-country competition to spending 7 years in Budapest to complete a veterinary degree.

I then ask – ”But, what about your goals at work?”

And the response is, well – not as inspirational. ”Controlling”, ”not relevant”, “they are set up by my manager and me, but we never follow them through” are answers I hear a lot.

Why are goals such an inspiration in our private life, but not at work? I think we often miss one huge opportunity in driving engagement through inspirational individual goals.

“Companies should be hyper-focused on continuously establishing the “shortest possible way to individual purpose”, and remove all practices that are harming this quest.”

Further, finding the drivers for engagement at work is not only important from a personal point of view but in fact, a critical business topic. Linkedin made this calculator for the cost of disengagement, and if you apply that calculator to the Fortune 500 average, you end up with a yearly cost, for each company, of $456,000,000. That sure is a lot of zero’s. But there are also big opportunities here, according to recent research from Aon, increasing the engagement with just 5% is linked to a 3% increase in revenue.

As one of the most famous models in motivation theory, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs defines what motivates us into 5 levels; Physiological, Safety, Belongingness, Esteem and Self-actualisation. So if the need we have for Esteem and Self- actualisation is on the top of the pyramid, and if personal engagement is so central for personal motivation and company performance – what can we do to create a workplace that fulfils these needs?

We’ve developed a simplified pyramid, acting as a checklist to see how your employee engagement is fulfilling the human motivation needs on an individual level. It tries to answer three questions; What made the person join the company, what makes the person stay at the company and what makes the person want to grow the company.

A simplified version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramide looking at the intrinsic drivers of each employee’s decision to join, stay and grow at any organisation.

The Join level checks that the physiological- and safety needs are met for the employee. Is the pay ok? What are the risks of me joining this company? In looking at the risks of joining the company, the employee also assesses the higher levels of the company, in practice examining the whole pyramid as a forecast to see if this is the career path the person wants to go for.

The Stay level checks that the needs for belongingness are met such as ”I enjoy working with my colleagues”, or ”I enjoy working with my manager”. Leadership should focus on assisting their team members with networking, relationship building and introduction to colleagues, partners and customers, with the objective to make sure each team member feel they ”belong” at work.

The Grow level is the top level and the goal for leadership to help each individual reach. It checks for the two top needs of the pyramid – the feeling of accomplishment (Esteem) and achieving one’s full potential (Self-actualisation). Leadership should focus on establishing trust within teams, and the purpose of it should be to drive a quest for connecting the organisation’s mission with the team’s purpose and make sure each team member becomes autonomous enough to form their own purpose within this context. Famous author Dan Pink has his own three steps to motivation which are Purpose -> Autonomy -> Mastery. How would your workplace look if everyone there was motivated to achieve Mastery?

To at least have a chance to get there companies should be hyper-focused on continuously establishing the “shortest possible way to purpose”, and remove all practices that are harming this quest.

Leadership is not enough

As a leader, you could and should maintain a mindset of growth (personally I am a big fan of the Growth Mindset). But mindsets will only work as a standalone solution as long as your team is the company (6-10 people). As soon as your organisation grows beyond that – you also need some sort of structure and tools in place. Or as I like to phrase it ”Mindset is not enough – you need plumbing.

Maybe you even work in an organisation with hundreds, or even thousands, of employees. In a 4,000 people company, an average span of control would have somewhere around 500 managers or more, all having the same duty to communicate the company’s purpose to their team and convert it into something that makes sense for their specific team to create activities around. +500 ongoing versions and interpretations of something that was initiated at corporate leadership, and that are connected through highly diversified structures such as monthly email reports consisting of powerpoint- and excel documents creating the perfect storm. What is that practice doing to one’s understanding of the company’s purpose, and in this, your own purpose within that context? Although we have great leadership at many organisations today, the connection to purpose and strategy is still really hard to achieve. According to Kaplan & Norton, only 5% on average knows the company’s strategy. 5%!

”align the individual’s purpose to company purpose, so that the individual can create autonomy and make a difference.”

Whether you like it or not, without the right tools to carry out your organisation’s leadership, your organisation will just stay idle, failing to enable the leadership that is there and can be developed. My firm belief is that leadership needs to be, to create a real effect, combined with tools and processes. I think with that, it’s time to talk about how to work with goals to achieve this effect.

Using individual goals to get you there

Here’s how you should implement a purpose-driven, individual-goals-based approach to make sure that your organisation continuously drives each individual to find their ”shortest possible way to purpose”. The following points are written from a corporate leadership’s perspective, so if you are not part of that leadership yourself, share this article with your management.

Get rid of yearly individual goals

Yearly goals will not create energy enough to get going, you need to make sure to get a continuous learning process in place. Do set long-term company goals and describe the plan to get there, but make sure you then execute this in a much more continuous cadence. We have found that quarterly often is the perfect balance between long-term purpose and short-term actionability.

Replace your cascaded command & control goals with purpose-engaging Focus Areas.

Based on your company’s vision (purpose, mission and strategy), create Focus Areas for the current and upcoming period. These focus areas should not be measurable in itself but should be short headlines describing a clear direction of what should be the main focus of the company for the specific period. It is ok to cascade these, e.g. into functional directions, but remember that the overall purpose is not to command & control, it is to create a view for each individual to align their current focus towards current strategy – the stated Focus Areas.

It is possible to use tools that distribute strategy and purpose so that corporate leadership can loosen the need for cascaded top- down command & control and replace it with a continuous performance management that utilizes both the direction of top-down as well as the engagement of bottom-up.

Make company goals and focus areas public and easy to connect to.

Before you can expect teams and individuals to find their shortest possible way to the purpose you need to make sure there is a way for every team member to see not only the company’s goals but also other team leader’s goals. Instead of sending emails back and forth with excel and powerpoint documents, make sure to use a goal-setting tool that helps you solve this in a simple way.

The individual sets the goal, starting with the CEO.

Make sure goals are set by each member in your team, with emphasis on ”by each member”. Research shows that goals are not only more likely to be reached if they are created by the one that should achieve the goals, the goals themselves are actually also set higher. If you start with the CEO and then out through the organisation from there, each individual will have both their manager’s goals AND company’s Focus Areas as context when they set their own goals. This is critical if you want to understand both the company’s purpose as well as your own role’s purpose.

Set individual goals that drive the individual’s purpose.

The goals should align the individual’s purpose to the company’s purpose so that the individual can create autonomy and make a difference. At it’s in the Node we set the individual goals using a slimmed down version of the OKRs method, where we utilise the strengths of individual OKRs but remove the damaging effects of cascaded team- OKRs. We just let each individual connect their OKRs directly to the Focus Areas, and it works great if the individual can easily connect their goals to the Focus Areas they see fit. If they don’t, it should also be ok to set the goal without connecting it to a certain Focus Area as this gives valuable feedback to leadership on how their Focus Areas makes sense to the members of the organisation.

Find your own cadence.

Finally, and most importantly – it is not enough to just set the goals. You need to continuously revisit them and make them part of every-day work. There is a 20/80 rule here that says that 20% should be spent on planning and setting up the goal, and 80% should be spent on follow up and reflection on the goals. An excellent way to make sure goals are not just ”set it and forget it” is to form a cadence around this. We recommend a weekly, monthly and quarterly rhythm.

Each Monday, have a quick meeting with your team where each member names one or two activities that they must achieve by Friday. Use a tool to check this in, and make sure to go follow up on last week’s promises to form ongoing accountability.

Group leaders have a 1-hour meeting with the different team managers on what activities were achieved last month, and which activities should be completed in the coming month to reach the goals. Reflect if the actions are the best way to make the OKRs successful.

Each team leader holds a retrospective meeting with their team on the OKRs that were set and the outcome. Try to think about what you can learn from the period and document it in a tool that is easy to access for everyone. Use these learnings as you set the coming periods OKRs.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t hesitate to reach out to us to discuss further or learn more. My colleagues and I are passionate about hearing your current challenges and see in what way your leadership can be enabled by the tool we have created.

About us

It’s in the Node is a Swedish startup on an exciting mission to help companies strategies and employees motivation to get better along. By connecting individual goals directly to the company’s overall focus areas, every employee can finally understand the company strategy and how they contribute – creating that sense of purpose that will make employee engagement flourish. Want to learn more? Get in contact with us today!

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