Why Cascading Goals Doesn’t Work

Dilbert Comic by Scott AdamsLarge companies can be perplexing, daunting environments for even the most competent of employees.  Figuring out which department handles what and who reports to whom can, and often does, require its own handbook. And all this disorder can lead to grave consequences: as Forbes recently pointed out, the top reason people leave their jobs is because they’re poorly managed and their organization is confusing and uninspiring.

Therefore, it’s essential that employees understand exactly how their individual goals connect to the larger goals of the organization. That way, managers can ensure that every employee understands how they are personally contributing to the higher-level goals of the company, instead of feeling like menial cogs in a massive, impersonal machine.

Unfortunately, one method many HR managers often employ to combat the confusion that results from being unable to connect individual goals with the company’s loftier goals is cascading goal systems. This top-down approach to goal setting begins in the C-suite, where executives set goals based on the company’s strategy. Next, VPs and the next level of executives set goals  that align with those first goals, and this approach is then cascaded through the company, in theory, all the way to the entry level.

However, as TLNT asserts, the reality of most organizations is that not everyone’s individual goals can be directly connected to the company’s overall goals, which results in cascading usually stopping at the manager/director level. Since the cascading goals are supposed to extend to anyone whose work directly contributes to the larger goals of the company, those lower-level employees whose roles fall below the minimum level of contribution can feel insignificant and irrelevant to the company’s goals and its success.

Furthermore, the concept of top-down goals set by upper management for every single person in the company is increasingly less relevant in today’s collaborative, lightning-speed workplace, where traditional hierarchy and established job descriptions are becoming less and less commonplace. And as companies become more agile and work becomes quicker, facilitated by the ease and speed of social media, goal-setting practices are becoming quicker too. Goals are no longer yearly or quarterly measures but instant, current measures of what’s relevant to an employee’s work right now.

In addition, cascading goals can often result in goals being fabricated or created specifically for the purposes of cascading, which can be both confusing for the individual and harmful to the organization. Indiscriminate use of goals can lead to overly ambitious timelines that favor short-term wins over long-term strategy. Furthermore, a study by the Wharton School shows that when overly ambitious goals are set, cheating and immoral corporate behavior become increasingly rampant.

Instead of cascading goals top-down, companies should consider putting their employees at the helm of setting their own goals. Putting people in charge of setting their own goals ensures that they’ll be motivated to work towards them and feel empowered by having a say in their goals. This puts the ownership in the hands of the employee: the onus is on them to both set the goal and complete it. And adding in accountability takes some of the pressure off the manager and puts it on the employee to measure and assess exactly what their goals are and whether they are meeting them.