How to do goal-setting for employees without being overly directive

This time of the year, goal-setting for employees becomes a hot topic. As a coach, this is where people come into the coaching sessions to discuss their resolutions and set intentions for the new year ahead. For managers and leaders, this conversation extends beyond their personal goals, but also to those of their employees. 

Goals serve as “lighthouses” on our journey and remind us of the direction in which we’re headed. How can you set clear, effective, and meaningful targets that can motivate – not pressure – employees? And how can they get the latter’s buy-in? 

As a coach, I am privileged to have assisted many like you in this endeavour. Through my conversations with professionals in various industries and fields, I have developed the following steps for annual goal-setting for employees.

Step 1. Revisit the company’s aims and prioritise goals

Sometimes, it can be tricky to translate the company’s theoretical vision and mission into practical goals for our teams. “I don’t know how to set goals for my team without knowing what our company wants from us myself,” they would lament.

This is why it helps to revisit the company mission (what is our objective?) and vision (where are we headed?) with fellow managers and leaders at the start of a new year. Annual kick-off meetings are a great avenue to align everyone on the company’s priorities, and how best to communicate these potential paths to employees. 

That being said, goal-setting for employees can be kept open-ended. In the last year, layoffs and hiring freezes have prompted many companies to adapt annual goals and strategies based on the prevailing economic circumstances. This isn’t a bad thing, especially if managers and leaders can practice transparency by providing context, holding space for the ground, and engaging in discussions when needed. 

Step 2. Align SMART goals with the company’s mission

Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound – these are the key elements of SMART Goals. These give employees clarity on specific areas to focus on, the amount of time and energy to be allocated, and how their progress will be reviewed and measured.

But setting SMART goals is half of it; following up on them is another. In our guide to making habits stick in 2023, we talked about uncovering the real reasons for our goals in order to reach them. Conversely, when we miss the big picture, we lose conviction. 

Clients in large corporations often tell me, “I feel like a tiny screw in a gigantic machine, and the machine will function just fine without me.” When team members do not see their contribution and impact, staying engaged is a tall order. 

When discussing goals, reiterate the company’s aims and illustrate your employee’s role in the grand scheme of things. For an Outreach Coordinator at a company like Intellect, this could sound like this: 

Our mission is to promote workplace wellbeing by equipping organisations with resources, and your role as an outreach coordinator increases awareness and accessibility of our product across industries. 

If you could help expand our client base by 10% this year (goal), that could mean that at least X employees in Y companies would feel more supported in their personal and professional lives (mission-related impact).”

Step 3. Give employees ownership

While you can share the company’s aims, employees with ownership of their own goals feel most motivated and dedicated. To keep things collaborative, note the following do’s and don’ts:


  • Encourage them to review the company’s goals and prepare theirs before meeting
  • Use the meeting to brainstorm on ways their work can impact the company’s mission 
    “What impact would you like to make this year?” 
    “How would you like to add value to our team?”
    “How would you like to help our company’s mission?”
  • Ensure that they have the resources and support needed to follow through


  • Hand a list of pre-set goals to employees
  • Make assumptions about their strengths and weaknesses; needs and wants
  • Use directive language such as “should”, “need”, and “must”

All in all, you will do well to welcome input, concerns, and questions; and be prepared to adjust their expectations. For instance, if an employee is excited about an area of work that does not contribute to the company’s mission directly, don’t douse their fire just yet. Instead, compromise on the number of hours they get to spend on this passion project each week while keeping up with other tasks. 

Step 4. Addressing ups and downs

To maintain momentum, check in regularly with employees to discuss progress and learnings, obstacles and challenges, as well as the appropriateness of the goals as needed. This can look like biweekly check-ins, deep monthly reviews, or thorough quarterly evaluations, and employees should be aware of the cadence. Here’s a template that could come in handy when conducting performance appraisals. 

As a manager or leader, it’s normal to feel pressured when employees do not meet their goals, but what’s most critical is how we engage with them. One-on-ones, for starters, offer a good opportunity to address unmet goals privately. 

Rather than brushing it off and saying “try harder next time”, seek to understand their obstacles and challenges, identify resources that can be leveraged, and brainstorm for strategies. More than problem-solving, offering words of encouragement also sends the message that “we’re in this together”. 

Team members who are making good progress, on the other hand, can benefit from positive reinforcement. According to the American Journal of Industrial and Business Management, positive reinforcement in both intrinsic and extrinsic forms is directly correlated to employee performance. Recognising good work publicly, like in group chats, validates their efforts while motivating other team members. 

Step 5. Introduce “stretch” goals  

So you’ve successfully guided team members in achieving the set goals – congratulations! It may be time to consider rewards, especially if the original targets have been exceeded. And if they still have the willingness, time, and capacity to achieve more, “stretch” goals can help keep them engaged. 

However, “stretch” goals should always be implemented with caution. Used unwisely, they could be experienced as punishment for good performance, and discourage employees from being efficient. To avoid this, let team members decide how much they wish to stretch themselves.

Here are 3 tips when implementing “stretch” goals:

  • Communicate the expectation clearly – stretch goals are good-to-haves rather than must-haves, and will not jeopardise their appraisal
  • Grant them autonomy over how they wish to engage, and the right to say no
  • If employees have achieved their “stretch goals”, treat it as a “bonus” and don’t let it become the new expectation 

Nailing goal-setting for employees

Goal-setting for employees is a valuable exercise in nurturing teams. Providing guidance while giving them room to flourish is a real balancing act, and that’s where coaching can be a big help.

Intellect’s behavioural health coaches have worked with managers and leaders to adapt the above framework for their unique contexts, and formulate strategies that both challenge and empower team members. When put into action, they yield dividends not only in terms of productivity and performance but also in employee engagement.

Keeping town hall real: 6 strategies leaders gained from our executive coach
Resenteeism to resolution: Managing passive-aggressive behaviours at work in 5 steps
How to conduct layoffs the “right” way: A coach’s advice to a guilt-ridden CEO
How can I deal with imposter syndrome after a promotion?

Xiao Ling, Executive Coach

As a seasoned psychotherapist and executive coach, Xiao combines her expertise in psychology with leadership coaching and brings a unique perspective to the business world. 

Based in New York with a global reach, Xiao has worked with clients from various industries, cultures, and backgrounds, gaining a deep appreciation for the unique challenges and opportunities that arise in different cultural contexts...

Contact us for your first consultation