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ATD Blog

Ask a Trainer: How Can I Help My Team Goal-Set This Year?

Tuesday, March 16, 2021
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In this week’s Ask a Trainer guest post, Julie Winkle Giulioni shares her insight on the importance of setting flexible short-term goals in 2021.

Dear Julie,

I manage a team of four. My direct reports have set their 2021 goals for the year, but some of those goals are already out of date based on how our organization’s priorities have shifted. That happened throughout 2020 as well, when our team’s goals changed several times throughout the year. Do you have any advice for how to help my team set relevant goals?


First, it’s great that you’re still setting goals and trying to do it in a better way than ever before. Toward the end of last year, I talked with so many managers and leaders who were of the mindset that it had been a crazy year, people were busy, and they weren’t able to hit many of our targets, so maybe they should just hold off setting goals for the present. I think that’s probably the biggest mistake that a manager could make, especially during a year (that is stretching into this year) that was so unlike what many of us have become accustomed to at work.

There’s a lot to be learned from 2020. It’s important to celebrate the many things that went well, and to grow from the challenges. Leaders need to do that in a way that balances grace (how much slack is appropriate) with accountability (a candid look at what was possible even given the extraordinary circumstances). It’s a matter of being human and humane.

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The same is true with goal setting. Last March we learned that things could change almost overnight. For many leaders, it was a stunning, visceral lesson that all the great plans that they had made in Q1, when the ink was barely dry, were null and void. I think we’re all coming to terms with the fact that long-term goals, annual reviews, and cast-in-concrete processes are no longer relevant.

We need to be much more flexible. We need to embrace shorter-term, more agile goals, like sprints, so we’ve got that flexibility and the nimbleness needed in an increasingly uncertain and volatile world.

Goal sprints are the antithesis of the massive annual goal-setting experience, where you sit down and plot everything that’s going to happen, in great detail, for the next 12 months, only to see it invalidated once something unexpected happens. We must not treat goal-setting as a one-and-done sort of activity but as an ongoing conversation. This can help people focus on a shorter-term goal within the context of the big picture. A shorter-term goal allows folks to be able to deploy their resources, including personal energy, see some progress, get some traction and momentum, accomplish something, and then be in a position to re-evaluate and set yet another goal that acts as the next piece of the puzzle. A more incremental and iterative approach to setting goals gives employees, their leaders, and organizations a lot more flexibility to pivot and adjust and make sure that the efforts that people are investing are delivering the intended results.

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Learn more from Julie about developing your career on the ATD Accidental Trainer podcast. Her episode will air on March 17.



If you have a question for Ask a Trainer, send it to [email protected]. You can find answers to previous questions by visiting the Ask a Trainer hub.



We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning. Named one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Julie is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want, a respected speaker on a variety of topics, and a regular contributor to many business publications.

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