While the UK recently stitched together its two strongest quarters for productivity since the financial crisis, there are signs that many employers could be veering wide of the trend by failing to set their staff proper goals. In a poll of 3,000 staff, employee engagement specialists Sodexo Engage found that just one in five (21%) of UK workers were set specific goals by their managers.

Some 38% had never had any specific goals or targets set for them at all, while 41% said that their managers had provided them with only “loose” targets.

This general lack of a hands-on approach in the field of employee objectives is having a direct impact upon how employees perceive their bosses. Almost half of the respondents (47%) said they did not consider their managers to be effective role models. And even more worryingly, more than four in ten staffers (44%) signalled that they didn’t trust their managers to make the correct decisions, or to treat them fairly.

So, as well as potentially jeopardising their organisations’ productivity, goal-reticent managers are also risking their own reputations and the engagement of their staff.

Sodexo Engage director of incentive and recognition Ian Thomson said: “Our research shows that managers risk losing the respect and trust of their team unless they take a more hands-on approach … We know people work best when they’re given goals to achieve, but many managers are failing to take this onboard.

“Working with employees to set SMART goals [Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound] will help keep them motivated and give them a clear understanding of their role in the team.”

However, are goals or micro-targets of the type that Thomson favours really the sum total of what it takes to deliver outcomes and support productivity? Not for The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper.

“This research is making quite a few assumptions about what drives human behaviour,” she says. “We know that, in terms of how they are talked about, SMART objectives are pretty much ubiquitous – but when it comes to practice, they’re not. I think that perhaps there’s something about them that doesn’t engage the imagination. Surely, a broader expectation of what the job’s about, what doing the job well looks like and how the job aligns with the organisation’s higher purpose is a much better framework for delivering outcomes than one that relies more on an individual deciding what each person in their team should deliver.

“That’s taking into account all the problems that could arise in the targets-setting arena with miscommunication and/or misunderstanding – together with the notion that something which is being imposed upon you is nowhere near as empowering or motivating as a goal that you’ve set for yourself.”

Cooper notes: “where I think managers have a significant leadership goal is in providing feedback about performance on a constant basis – not just in quarterly, six-monthly or annual increments. They can certainly praise and encourage. They can lead by example, in terms of talking about their own goals or targets and how they’re going to achieve them. But as an ethos, ‘management by objectives’ (MBO) was at its most popular in the 1970s. Back then, the idea was that, if everyone had objectives, and they were cascaded throughout the organisation with performance-related pay schemes in place, everyone would get behind them and it would be ‘job done’ in terms of delivering outcomes.

“However, you don’t really hear that much about MBO anymore – and that’s because it doesn’t really work. There’s a much bigger picture that we need to get to grips with in order to encourage people to deliver outcomes. Micro-measures alone are not the solution.”

Cooper adds: “we must also bear in mind that there are many aspects of an individual’s job that don’t readily lend themselves to goals and targets, such as attitude, behaviour towards colleagues – and one that is meant to be a huge, primary signifier of engagement: going the extra mile. What does a ‘going-the-extra-mile target’ actually look like?

“The reality is that micro-targets can’t possibly encompass the totality of someone’s job. As such, conveying a broader purpose and how the individual contributes to it – together with a sense of what good looks like and the appropriate levels of encouragement – will deliver overall better performance.”

For further insights into the subject of delivering outcomes, BOOK NOW for our upcoming webinar with Leadership & Management Wales director Jo Riley, set to take place from 5:00pm to 5:30pm on Wednesday 28 March