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Writing Annual Performance Goals – Don’t Go to Work Without Knowing the Rules of the Game

Sue:  “I shouldn’t have to tell him what I want.  He should just know.”

Bob:  “She expects me to read her mind.  I’m not a mind reader.”

This age-old romantic relationship complaint is as common at work as it is at home.

Several years ago, before I started Candid Culture, I wrote down my annual performance goals, and asked my manager to approve the goals, which he did. But we didn’t weigh the goals. Neither I nor my manager articulated what percent of my bonus should be dedicated to each goal. The company practiced pay-for-performance and paid bonuses based on goal achievement.

At the end of the year, my boss reviewed my performance goals as part of my performance appraisal. There was one very small project that I didn’t finish. And when I say small, I mean, really, really small. So small, that detail-oriented me shouldn’t have included the project on my list of performance goals. My boss dinged me 15% of my annual bonus for not completing that one very small project. Apparently he thought the project was important. And I lost a chunk of change.

I was really upset. But it was my fault. I didn’t work with my boss to weight my projects or performance goals. So when it came time to determine bonuses, the decision was subjective, which is not what you the employee wants.

When evaluating performance, Managers don’t really want subjectivity either. When there are no clear criteria for awarding bonuses, pay increases, or company stock, managers can have a hard time making decisions, and employees often feel treated unfairly. Written guidelines for how compensation is allocated reduce the feeling that compensation decisions are unfair and subjective.

Your manager may or may not verbalize his expectations for the year, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have expectations.  A professional athlete would never get on the field without knowing the rules of the game, and neither should you. Don’t go to work without knowing what, specifically, is expected of you.

Ask your manager these questions each quarter. Don’t guess!

  1. What projects are most important this quarter?
  2. How is my work being evaluated? What are the criteria for a good job?
  3. How often would you like to review work in progress so you can give feedback, and I can make adjustments as projects progress?

The bottom line is:

  1. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do at work.
  2. Like speeding limits, not knowing the rules doesn’t mean you’re not subject to them.
  3. Write down your performance goals and get them approved in writing by your manager, even if your manager is difficult to schedule with. While it’s not ideal, you can write your performance goals down and email them for edits and approval, without discussing live.
  4. Review performance goals quarterly, at a minimum.  Monthly would be better. Bring your goals to your one-on-one meetings with your manager and discuss progress regularly. Don’t make your manager ask you for updates.
  5. If you’re not having one-on-one meetings with your manager, start. Employees are accountable for asking their manager for feedback.
  6. Make changes, in writing, to goals that change or become irrelevant.
  7.  If your compensation or annual performance rating is tied to goal achievement, write down specifically how each goal contributes to your compensation or annual rating. Giving each goal a numerical value (a percentage) is ideal.

These guidelines may sound like a lot of work or overly formal. In my experience writing agreed-upon performance goals give employees a sense of control. When I know what I need to do, and I know how I’m being evaluated, I feel like I am in charge of where I put my time. If I elect not to finish a project, I know how I will be affected. And that makes me feel like I’m running the show.



Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

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