Ongoing coaching and feedback triangle with 3 sides labeled planning, mid year check in and years end performance review

Goal Setting Conversations

The performance planning conversation between employees and managers is central to developing the relationship that will facilitate the entire performance management process. The goal setting conversations are primary to your performance planning process.

Setting goals can be a way to think positively, purposefully, and productively about the future. Just as performance on goals is central to the annual review process, setting goals is fundamental to planning for the coming year. It is important for the manager and employee to develop clear goals that they understand and agree on, and to discuss how they will meet the goals. This could involve using particular tools or resources, developing new skills, or increasing knowledge.

Here you will find reminders and resources for the goal setting or planning portion of our Performance and Development Cycle (Performance Management).  Ongoing conversations are an important component of this Performance and Development Cycle to ensure your employees have the support required to meet their goals.

General Guidance

Goals should combine what is of interest to the employee with what is important to the university, unit and/or work group. It is important for each manager to share their goals with the team, which ideally align with the college or unit goals.  It is powerful and effective if every team member is working toward the same college or unit goals; however, the contribution or individual goals aligning to those overarching goals could be different for each employee.  The goals should also stretch the employee a bit – not so much they cannot achieve them, but more than business-as-usual.  It is critical that employees fully understand the goals they set with their manager and how the goals align with the organization’s goals. Use the SMART framework to help define clear and inspiring goals.

Types of Goals

three overlapping circles with performance, development and business objectives written in the circlesWhen setting goals, consider these 3 things:  employee performance, employee development and business objectives.  Ideally a goal blends two or more of these. For instance:

  • A goal might be performance-oriented and also advance a business objective.
  • A performance goal might require the employee to develop a skill or competency development or increase their knowledge.
  • An employee development goal might reflect a longer term career aspiration and also align with current business needs.

Number of Goals

Aim for 2 to 4 carefully chosen and described goals.  Having 5 or 6 goals is often unrealistic and contributes to a fragmented focus for the employee and their manager.

Setting Goals Virtually

Our move to remote and virtual work has made some conversations and work easier and other work harder.  Be flexible and compassionate (with yourself and the other person!) as you work through the goal-setting process. Be willing to set and refine goals over several conversations if necessary.

Preparing for this two-way conversation is key to getting the most out of it.  If you are the manager, consider what information you could share in advance, such as business objectives or strategies. Afterwards, follow up to ensure both of you are clear on what was agreed to and recorded as goals. Refer to Delivering Performance Reviews Virtually for more information.

Additional resources are listed below.

It’s great to set goals but if you don’t put them into action, they’ll never get accomplished! The manager and the employee together will:

  • Identify the result you want – what are you reaching for?
  • Focus it as much as possible
  • Write a goal statement
  • Brainstorm as many action steps as you can
  • Narrow down and finalize the action steps
  • List the action steps in the order they must be completed
  • Assign deadlines for each one
  • Review your goals frequently (together employee and manager) and revise as needed

Moving from Goals to Action

Action plans are the steps that are necessary to achieve a goal. These questions must be answered for action plans to be effective:

What specific steps need to be accomplished to achieve the goal?
How do the steps (or tasks) need to be ordered?
When must each task be accomplished?
What resources are needed to accomplish each task?
How will each step be measured?
Who else may be involved in this?

Action steps are specific to the person, time, place and environment. For the same goal to be accomplished by different individuals in different settings, the action plans may very well be different given:

  • The individuals’ unique combination of skills, abilities, and experiences
  • The resources available in the organization or external environment
  • The priority that the organization places on the particular goal
  • The amount of time the individual has to focus on the goal


When planning and setting goals it comes out better if there is a mix of:

  • Real motivation and clear direction
  • Creative thinking that reaches for the objective and is open to experimenting
  • Courage to face dead ends and bumps in the road and learn to convert them into new motivations and directions
  • Willingness to challenge the status quo
  • Willingness to take a risk and knowledge that there will be uncertainty in achieving the objective


  • Who is involved?
  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • Why?
  • How could you say that in 7 words or less?
  • How could you say that in one sentence?


  • How much?
  • How well?
  • To what level or degree?
  • How could you make that goal measurable?
  • How will you know when the goal is achieved?


  • Have you identified specific action steps for each goal?
  • For your professional development goal(s) have you identified action steps that include learning through experience, exposure and education?

Relevant and Meaningful

  • What’s the purpose or benefit of accomplishing the goal?
  • How does the goal fit with the vision and goals/priorities of the unit and/or university?
  • What’s the most important part of that goal?
  • How do your goals help the university and/or your team?
  • Will your goals enrich the lives of somebody besides you (e.g. customers, students, peers, team members, the community, etc.)?

Time Bound

  • Have you identified an appropriate time frame to complete the goal?
  • Should you consider breaking the goal into smaller chunks or phases?
  • Do you have deadlines assigned to your action steps?


  • How much more stretch could there be in the goal and it still be achievable?
  • Is this goal enough of a challenge for you in the designated timeframe?
  • Will your goals push you out of your comfort zone?
  • Will your goals provide you the opportunity to learn a new skill?
  • Are your goals too similar to each other?
  • Will one goal be achieved by going for any of the others?


  • How can you say the goal so that it inspires you every time you say it?
  • Can you vividly picture how great it will feel when you achieve your goals?

Goals need to be much more than just words on paper. For a goal to truly help people achieve great things and reach their full potential, the goal has to leap off the paper. It has to be so vividly described that people can feel how great it will be to achieve it.

Research shows that in order to achieve greatness, a goal also has to be bigger than ourselves. We have to identify whose lives will be enriched by our goals. And the goals need to be relevant to the university/unit and to the individual. One is critical for the university to achieve its result and the other is critical to motivate the employee to higher performance.

Inspiring goals are characterized by the following:


The more specific the goal, the more likely the success. Specificity takes the guess work out. Managers won’t find themselves saying “Well, this is NOT what I meant!” Employees won’t find themselves  saying “Well, why didn’t you say you wanted THAT?” Managers need to be very clear themselves on what they expect so they can be clear with their employees and set them up for success. Employees should know exactly what’s expected of them so there is no room for interpretation, guesswork, or trial and error.

Specific goals answer the following questions:

  • Who is involved?
  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • Why? What’s the purpose or benefit of accomplishing the goal?
  • How does the goal fit with the vision and goals of the department?


While specific goals help clarify the “what” of a goal, measurable goals clarify the “how much”, “how well”, or “to what level or degree” of a goal. Measuring takes the guesswork out of determining if a goal was actually achieved or not. Unfortunately, most managers tend to make vague quality demands of their employee and then assume their employees know how to translate those statements into the level of quality the manager wants or needs.

If goals are measured, managers won’t find themselves saying, “Well this isn’t the quality I was looking for.” Employees won’t find themselves saying, “I had no idea you wanted it done like that.” Measurable goals answer the question, “How will I know when it’s accomplished?”

Action Oriented

Goals that are action oriented help keep the focus where it should be; on the employee’s behavior. Many times goals are aimed at the end result, no matter how the employee gets there. The assumption, of course, is that the employee uses legal, ethical and moral ways to accomplish goals.

At Ohio State, the end result is important but we also care about how it is done. Behavioral goals are aimed at how an employee gets the results expected of them based on the values. Focus action oriented goals on results AND behaviors.


Goals need to be relevant to the vision, goals and values of the department. Employees deserve and want to feel they are a part of something bigger than their own job. They will be more motivated and make better decisions when they understand how they fit in with the bigger picture. Employees want to know that their goals are absolutely necessary to help the university and/or the unit.

Time Bound

Time bound goals measure the “when” of the goal. Time bound goals help managers and employees monitor and gauge progress and stay on track. Time bound goals remove ambiguity of when a goal should be accomplished. Don’t use words like “often” because “often” to one person is completely different than “often” to another.

With time bound goals, you won’t hear managers say “Clearly you should have done this by now.”

In addition, inspiring goals need to be:

  • Meaningful – the goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides the employee (e.g. customers, the community, etc.)
  • Energetic – Employees can vividly picture how great it will feel when achieved
  • Difficult – Employees will have to learn new skills and leave their comfort zone