We've been tasked with writing employee goals for the upcoming year. Our goals will be reviewed and approved by our manager. At the end of the year we'll be asked to explain, in writing, how we met or exceeded each goal. I'm a software engineer. The goals will need to span both technical and non-technical areas. I always work hard, and I produce a lot of value, but work does not consume my life. I know that places certain limits on my career, and I'm fine with that.

I've noticed in this company that nobody ever admits, at least to superiors, to ever being less than perfect, even in trivial matters. I think it's absurd, because of course nobody is perfect. It's just office politics. Personally, I'm bad at navigating them.

For example, someone accidentally left their USB keyboard/mouse adapter at a desk that was supposed to be kept clear at all times and it disappeared, so a mistake was noticed. They now use their laptop for keyboard/mouse because if they'd asked if it was found, or requested a new one, they'd know who made the mistake. Someone broke their chair. An office-wide email was sent asking who left a broken chair in a common area. Nobody responded. This even extends to things like work assignments, where I'm still trying to get a bad assignment changed, because changing it would mean my manager admitting he made a mistake.

Thus, these goals concern me, because I suspect they will not ultimately be viewed as goals, but as firm commitments, and if I miss them, I'll look bad. With a goal, there is a potential that the goal was too lofty and despite my best efforts I might not succeed. I think making and accomplishing goals is important, but I also need to protect myself.

I will not lie about accomplishing a goal. So, I need to be careful and make sure that whatever goals I set, I will achieve, no matter what. However, I'll need to make it look like I'm challenging myself and that the goals are useful and apply to me, otherwise my goals will be rejected and I might be forced to modify them in some way that adds a lot of risk. For example, I might be forced to give a specific number, which obviously is super risky.

What's the best way to write my goals to avoid risk? What types of goals should I offer up and which should I avoid? If I end up having to modify a goal to be more specific, how can I minimize risk as much as possible?

Note: Besides the politics, I enjoy my work and the pay is good. I've never been in a workplace without politics. Let's consider quitting as off-topic.

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    This concept of goals sound pretty stupid to me. – VarunAgw Mar 9 at 20:43
  • @VarunAgw It's pretty widespread in larger companies. thebalancecareers.com/… – calamari Mar 9 at 21:09
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    There's nothing at all wrong with setting goals for people, in fact it's positive - and should be a means for employees to fairly assess themselves. What is stupid, and positively toxic, is creating an environment where there are punishments (real or perceived) for not accomplishing all your goals to the letter. Employees will game the system either by undercommitting or by sabotaging their peers in order to not be the one seen as a "failure". – Julia Hayward Mar 9 at 21:13
  • Is this the first year the company is doing goal setting or your first year at the company? Does the company provide any guidance on goal setting at all? If not, has any hire up said what they want to see in those goals? – BSMP Mar 9 at 21:26
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    I will write an answer later if someone else doesn't elaborate first but... the best approach is to work with your boss to come up with these goals and, most importantly, modify them as things inevitably change throughout the year. This way by the time the review comes around you have up-to-date solid accomplishments to list instead of a bunch of baloney "SMART" goals dreamed up year ago in haste and never modified to reflect reality. – teego1967 Mar 9 at 23:25

Please note, the sentiment of the advice in this answer is real. However, it is framed in a somewhat satirical manner - please do not take the below meaning of "SMART" goals as the actual meaning of "SMART" goals.

It sounds like you want to set S.M.A.R.T goals for yourself.

The main thing when setting goals in an organisation like this, is to ensure that no matter what happens - you have a deliverable outcome. Avoiding failure, does not mean simply setting "easy" tasks; it means settings tasks that can be considered achieved by default.

For this, I recommend setting S.M.A.R.T goals. That is, each of your goals should focus on:

  • Standardise.
  • Manage.
  • Administrate.
  • Research.
  • Track.

As some examples:

Standardise how we do FooBar. - On paper, this sounds like a great achievement. In reality, you simply need to write documentation and present a standard way this item should be handled. You do not need to ensure it actually is handled - you simply need to work continuously on suggesting how it could be in documentation.

Manage the license orders for BooFar software tool. - already do some order process? Make that your goal. Anything menial that you do as part of your everyday workload can be used here - the key is, you cannot fail to deliver it, because you already do it.

Administrate the BeepBoop server. - got some piece of always-on software you keep track of on a regular basis? Maybe it even has user accounts you create/destroy occasionally? Just continuing to handle that is a goal.

Research Shiny New Workflow v2.0 - If you avoid defining them, there's no reason your research tasks need a specific start or end date. Importantly, any result you find, even if it means recommending not using this new tool - can be written up at the drop of a hat, and as such you will never fail to deliver on this.

Track usage of Old Unused Metric - Again, just like "Administrate" or "Manage", you want to find something which is always-on and from which you can always monitor. Importantly, you monitoring something is not tied to that thing working - you are simply reporting on it.

As you can see, each of these is valuable, and defensible from a legitimate business stand point. But unlike specific "implement x" goals; you have no scope to fail - you will be succeeding each of these from the minute you start; doing any amount of each of these is achieving them.

Importantly, it's worth noting that all of the above can be done well. The aim is not to cop-out and avoid working; it's to ensure that all goals have a very simple and guaranteed base-line accomplishment - how much you achieve on top of that is then up to you.

  • 2
    If your redefining of "SMART goals" is intentional, IMHO (Indubitably Mention or Honor the Original). – stannius Mar 11 at 23:19
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    @stannius Good point, I've made this clear in a disclaimer at the top now. It should avoid accidentally misinforming anybody now. Of course, the actual sentiment of the answer I do believe is worth pursuing (that is, it's not entirely just a joke post). – Bilkokuya Mar 12 at 9:58

So, I need to be careful and make sure that whatever goals I set, I will achieve, no matter what. However, I'll need to make it look like I'm challenging myself and

You cannot both set goals you are sure to achieve and challenge yourself. Taking on a challenging task involves a significant risk of failure. Your company has voted by its actions that employees should not challenge themselves.

What's the best way to write my goals to avoid risk? What types of goals should I offer up and which should I avoid?

I would pick procedural things. Stuff like tracking metrics or implementing a mentoring program

For example

Implement a mentorship program for new hires - again, all you have to do is assign a mentor to new hires. If the program is a great success you can take credit. If it fizzles and goes nowhere you can still assign someone to show new hires the ropes.

Track Metrix X - simply by writing it down every week, you've achieved this goal. Pick one that no other team is doing so there is no way you can be compared to another team.


This is broadly known as "continuing professional development", and many larger companies like you to have such formal goals in writing. The format varies, but you usually have to state a few goals, and how you intend to meet each goal. The long-term efficacy of such a task is questionable at best, but it's office politics that has to be done.

Some of those tasks you set may be obvious / boring, and it goes without saying you shouldn't say anything that you're not prepared to achieve:

  • Improve commit message quality.
  • Be sure to check for (x problem) before submitting code, as it's something often flagged up on code review.

However, there's a big plus in this - you can usually use it to argue for company provided training in a few key areas. Make the most of this! So you might say:

  • Become more proficient in the AWS infrastructure, as an increasing number of our projects are deployed using this. Aim to complete an "AWS certified professional" assessment by Q1 2020.

...and so on.

This might be met with a "no" of course, and it shouldn't just become a list of training that you want, but it's definitely worth a try. Any large organisation will have a training budget, so try to use this opportunity to get a slice of that.

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