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Hitting the target but missing the point

The issue of 'target culture' often features prominently on the front pages. The issue doesn't only affect large public sector employers; it's relevant to any organisation that uses performance targets.

Targets in themselves are not necessarily a bad thing. They provide quantifiable objectives, give staff and management goals to work towards, and a sense of achievement if they are met. But problems seem to start when organisations lose sight of the original reason behind the targets, forgetting the bigger picture and overall mission of their organisation. This can happen when targets are prioritised above all else.

It's important to remember that the way targets are achieved is often at least as important as the end result. This is the role of 'competencies' - the behaviours needed to deliver objectives and perform a job competently. For example, a retail assistant might reach her sales targets, but by using aggressive sales techniques to do so, she loses the goodwill of her customers and the potential for their repeat business. Her company's bigger aim of growing a long-term customer base is compromised - helped by her narrow focus on hitting her target.

Perhaps at the centre of the issue are trust and communication. Managers need to communicate what organisations are trying to achieve and what the role of staff is in doing that. They need to listen to staff and take feedback from first-hand experience. Trust is crucial too. Managers shouldn't try to micro-control a situation with dozens of targets, which may feel punitive on the shop floor. Allowing staff to do their jobs to the best of their ability for the broad good of an organisation within a more trusting performance management system is likely to foster mutual respect and lead to a greater sense of engagement.

The Acas How to manage performance gives detailed advice on how to create an effective performance management system. Acas also offers practical training in Performance management, including how to manage appraisals and developing skills for line managers. There are also courses in how to boost trust, communication and better engage employees, listed under Staff retention.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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