Goals vs Expectations: 8+ Differences to Bring More Clarity Into Employee Performance
Navigating the landscape of employee performance can often feel like deciphering a complex code. While you're scrambling to make sense of how to lead and motivate your teams, you're also trying to support business growth by pointing their organizations in a specific direction.
Two key elements in this code are 'goals' and 'expectations'.
But what's the difference between goals and expectations? While they may seem similar, understanding their differences is crucial for effective management and employee development.
And how can we pick realistic goals and develop positive expectations?
This post will help you:
- Understand the core expectations vs goals differences;
- Learn how to best set each of them.
🎯 What are employee goals?
Employee goals are targets that outline what employees should accomplish and what their job responsibilities are. Goals are usually described using an objective statement that describes the desired outcome for the goal.
For instance, you can write a goal like "increase revenue by 10% over the next quarter" or "gain 250 new leads by the end of the month".
4 Types of goals for employees
Each type of goal serves a distinct purpose, aiming to enhance performance, foster growth, and align individual efforts with broader organizational objectives.
These are targets set for employees to achieve in their current roles. They're usually quantifiable and related to job-specific responsibilities. For instance, achieving sales targets, completing projects within deadlines, or increasing customer satisfaction scores.
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These focus on enhancing skills, knowledge, or capabilities that aren't necessarily part of the current role but are beneficial for future career growth. Examples include learning a new programming language, improving leadership skills, or attending UX design workshops.
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Goals for new hires
These goals help new employees acclimate to the company culture, understand their roles, and learn necessary skills.
They might include completing an orientation checklist or compliance training, understanding company policies, or building colleague relationships.
➡️ Read more on how to set effective new employee goals using the 30-60-90 framework.
Performance goals for managers
Managers have goals tailored to their leadership responsibilities. These can include achieving team performance metrics, fostering a positive work culture, improving employee engagement, or developing their team's skills through coaching and mentoring.
➡️ Discover our 7-step framework for setting goals for managers and 45+ examples you can implement right away.
📊 What are employee expectations?
Employee expectations typically encompass a range of professional behaviors, performance standards, and attitudes that contribute to the overall success of an organization.
While these can vary depending on factors such as industry, role, or company culture, they always refer to the general behavior and competency profile an employee should display as opposed to the results they need to achieve (the latter is why you need goals, too).
Meeting these expectations can lead to stronger manager-employee relationships, higher job satisfaction, and better team performance.
However, it's important to note that managers might have their own set of challenges and expectations, and finding a balance between these needs is crucial for a healthy working dynamic.
5 Characteristics of expectations
Many roles share common expectations and goals, but one core way of differentiating between goals and expectations is to understand the specific elements that define an expectation.
They're qualitative in nature
Goals typically rely on the SMART framework, with measurable being one of the SMART criteria. Hence, goals are quantitative in nature.
In contrast, expectations tend to involve qualitative aspects, such as open communication skills, teamwork, adaptability, or leadership qualities. These are not easily quantifiable but are crucial for success in a role and should thus be part of a robust development plan.
You need to link expectations to behaviors
Expectations are tied to the behaviors or actions you can observe.
For instance, an expectation of "sharing accurate information" might be linked to behaviors like expressing oneself honestly, adhering to all policies and rules, or being responsive.
They establish the baseline standards of performance
Expectations set the minimum level/performance requirement deemed acceptable or desirable within a specific role or context.
You'll likely set these standards based on job descriptions, company values, or industry norms.
Christie Hoffman, Employee Experience Expert at Workleap, says that while goals are about stretching and growing, setting sights on new achievements, expectations focus on maintaining a baseline of performance and behavior:
"When both are clearly defined and communicated, employees have a better understanding of what they are striving to achieve (goals) and what standards or requirements will get them there (expectations). This clarity can lead to increased motivation, better alignment with organizational objectives, and a more structured approach to employee development and therefore engagement."
➡️ Check out these self-evaluation template examples to see how exceeding expectations (or not) are best tracked.
They stem from your organizational culture
Expectations can be pulled from the current company culture. For example, if a company values innovation, employees might be expected to demonstrate creativity and willingness to explore new ideas.
They reflect an ongoing nature
Employee expectations are often continuous and ongoing rather than having a specific endpoint. This means they also evolve as roles, responsibilities, and organizational needs change. Continuous improvement and growth are often integral to meeting expectations.
On this, Max Wesman, Founder & COO at GoodHire, notes:
"With goals, we can set forward a clear plan of action and measure the results, and they are always subject to change and optimization. Expectations, on the other hand, do not come with a clear plan of action, and there isn't much space to compromise and make changes once expectations are set."
🆚 Employee goals vs expectations: 8 Differences you can't ignore
🏆 7 Benefits of clearly distinguishing goals vs expectations
Distinguishing between goals and expectations offers several benefits in the workplace:
- Clearer communication and reduced conflicts: Straightforward distinctions between goals and expectations facilitate better communication between employees and managers. This minimizes misunderstandings, reduces conflicts arising from unclear directives, and builds trust within your work environment.
- Higher motivation: Clarity about individual goals and performance expectations gives employees a clear direction, motivating them to work towards specific targets and achievements. Conversely, they won't have a clear sense of purpose when they don't know exactly what's expected of them.
On this, Jannah Bachrouche, Founder of HERC HR, emphasizes how goals act as the "north stars" for your employees:
"They give employees direction and purpose for their work. Developing company goals can come in the form of OKRs and/or KPIs. This is super important to have as it allows your departmental heads to develop their own goals which funnel up to the overall company goals. Now, of course, how you develop these goals also matters. It needs to be thoughtful and intentional. Employees will be able to see how their day-to-day work rolls up into overall business impact."
➡️ See what factors drive employee motivation and apply these practical tips to quickly boost motivation.
- Improved well-being: Lack of clarity regarding goals and expectations can lead to confusion and frustration. Clear distinctions promote mental well-being by reducing stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Employees feel more secure and confident when they understand what's expected of them.
- Increased accountability: Employees can take ownership of a smart goal when they clearly understand the expectations. This fosters a sense of accountability and responsibility for their work.
- Better productivity and performance: When employees understand their goals and broader expectations, they can effectively align their efforts. This alignment often leads to improved productivity and better performance outcomes.
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- Better alignment with organizational objectives: When employees comprehend their personal goals and corporate expectations, they can align their efforts more effectively with the company's objectives.
- More growth and development opportunities: Clear distinctions encourage continuous improvement. Employees can stay focused on developing skills relevant to their goals and meeting or exceeding expectations, fostering personal and professional growth.
🕵️♀️ What is the difference between setting goals and setting expectations?
The actual process of setting goals vs setting expectations also differs.
When they're done
Goals are typically set at the beginning of a project or task. This way, they come in to clarify what needs to be achieved in a specific role, task, or project, outlining measurable outcomes.
Plus, you can pick goals after identifying areas for improvement or providing training so employees can further develop those skills.
On the other hand, setting expectations is done as early as the recruitment process. You'll see them outlined in job descriptions, defining the overall requirements and responsibilities of the role. They'll also be communicated during onboarding and later on through regular communication.
Where they're documented
Goals are commonly documented as part of performance evaluations, where they're discussed, agreed upon, and recorded for future reference. They're also constantly brought up when specific projects or tasks are assigned. Managers can use task details or resources to document the associated goals, outlining outcomes and timelines.
Expectations, on the other hand, are part of job descriptions, employee handbooks, and performance standards and guidelines (as used for different performance evaluation methods).
How often they're revised
Goals are revised periodically, typically during performance reviews or as projects/tasks evolve. Revisions can also occur when there's a change in project scope (even if weekly), a shift in company priorities, or the completion of specific milestones.
Expectations undergo less frequent revisions than goals and remain consistent over extended periods. Changes in organizational culture, significant policy updates, or shifts in industry standards might prompt revisions.
➡️ Learn how to set expectations for employees at the right frequency and what mistakes you need to avoid.
What they impact
Achieving smart goals demonstrates an employee's ability to meet specific targets, showcasing their competence and dedication, which can lead to immediate recognition and potential for promotions in the short term. Goals are also tied to task completion, contributing to an employee's immediate performance improvements and potentially leading to promotions or advancement within their current role.
Switching back to expectations and meeting (or exceeding) them contributes to an employee's alignment with the company's culture and values, impacting their potential for leadership roles and higher-level responsibilities over the long term. Simply fulfilling expectations consistently further sets the foundation for a successful long-term career trajectory within the organization.
What timeline they cover
There's definitely a shorter-term focus with goals. That's because they emphasize short-term achievements, tasks, or projects that employees should complete within the specified time frame.
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Expectations generally cover longer time frames since they rely on ongoing behavioral standards, extending throughout an employee's entire tenure within the organization.
➡️ See how to set, monitor, and evaluate goals and expectations faster with 11 performance management tools to accelerate employee growth and development.
➡️ Ensure goal and expectation clarity with Zavvy
Empower your team's professional growth with Zavvy's career pathing software. This tool offers a swift and reliable method to establish career trajectories and establish realistic goals and expectations, enabling you to also:
- 📈 Conduct custom performance reviews that align with your company's objectives.
- 💬 Schedule regular one-on-one sessions to foster rapport, address obstacles, and ensure harmony.
- 🏆 Grow employee performance and support employees as they refresh their skills to match industry demands.
- 🎯 Bring your team towards common objectives and guide them to successful outcomes.
📅 Take the next step in people development and learn to set clear expectations and goals without spending hours. Get a free demo from Zavvy.