Five ways to set ‘stretch’ goals that won’t lead to staff burnout

There’s a balance between pushing people enough for them to succeed, and too much so that they’re overwhelmed. These simple steps can help managers to get it right 
Stretch Objectives

Everyone is familiar with the idea that work is at its most rewarding when it’s challenging. But there’s a delicate balance to strike. Take the challenge too far and you risk burnout. 

This creates a challenge for businesses, managers and HR teams. How can you encourage employees to take on new projects and acquire new skills – ultimately, enabling them to progress in their careers – without throwing them in at the deep end and risking them crumbling under the pressure or leaving the company?

Here are five ways to balance a worker’s personal growth with their wellbeing – and the practical needs of the business. 

Get them invested in the company’s mission

Before you set about finding ways to challenge your employees, you need to decide on the basics. Generating meaningful employee engagement is an important place to start – and particularly pertinent for the UK. Gallup’s annual State of the Global Workforce report found that 9% of British employees are engaged with or enthusiastic about their work, with the UK ranking 33rd out of 38 European states.

Ron Gutman is an entrepreneur and adjunct professor of leadership at Stanford University. He believes that reversing employee disengagement requires senior leaders to sell their company’s overarching mission to their teams and shift the narrative from viewing work as a purely contractual relationship. After all, why should employees care about taking on new challenges if work is just a nine-to-five obligation for them?

“There’s an issue with the language that employers are using currently,” Gutman explains. “At the moment, it is outcome-focused and that isn’t inspirational. The language needs to be much more ‘big picture’, so your employees understand how everything they do ties back to the overarching mission of the company.”

In short, get that right, and employees will see the value of the challenges they’ve been set.

Establish a culture of listening

Listening to employees is a critical component of that mission to promote employee engagement. And what’s more, when leaders take the time to actively listen to employees, they not only gain valuable insights into the day-to-day realities of their operations, but they can also identify opportunities for individual growth and, more importantly, any signs that an employee may be struggling with the challenges they’ve taken on.

David Ard is senior vice-president for employee success at Slack and he believes that senior managers must create an open-door leadership style. This is where every employee is encouraged and given the space to voice their concerns, whether about their regular duties or how they’re finding their new challenge.

“By organising regular feedback sessions, employers can gauge what employees want from their workplace and get an insight into any concerns they have around the company’s future, their own development and everyday parts of their roles,” he says.

Train your line managers

Line managers arguably play a more important role than any other senior team member in employee development and retention. As the first point of contact between employees and the company, line managers have a huge influence over the daily experiences of their team members.

Despite this, many line managers are under-trained in management skills. Research by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Inside Group found that just 15% of companies include mandatory training for line managers.

Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, believes that this figure reflects a working world where line managers are promoted primarily for their sector expertise rather than their management credentials. “Many organisations are really bad at training line managers,” she says. “Typically, they’re promoted because they’ve become good in their technical field. But after we promote them, we don’t give them any support to line manage, despite line management requiring a different set of skills.”

Without proper training in areas such as communication, leadership and conflict resolution, line managers may struggle to build trust and foster a sense of collaboration and camaraderie with their teams. How, then, can they be expected to guide employees through new challenges?

Adjust your management style for remote workers

When workers divide their working time between the office and home, line managers play an even more crucial role in ensuring employees aren’t overwhelmed by their current job and are sufficiently challenged by new projects.

For many remote workers, their line manager is their main, and perhaps only, day-to-day point of contact with the company. As a result, line managers and development leaders must be deliberate with their communications, create opportunities for engagement, and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to management.

Set clear expectations for the project

Micromanagement helps nobody. It increases the likelihood of employees ‘quiet quitting’ from their existing roles and the new challenge they’ve been set.

One way to avoid micromanagement is by shifting to an expectations-based management style, where the manager sets the end goals of any new project and gives their employees the support and skills necessary to reach them without forcing them down a particular route.

Paula Allen is global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at Telus Health, a Canadian digital health provider. She warns that any expectations set by the manager must be achievable. “Expectations should be aligned with what is possible,” she says. “You can take a chance that a project might not go well. You can’t take a chance that you might break a person.”

Parry concurs with this view, adding that for managers to move to an expectations-based management style they must avoid preconceived notions of what work looks like. “You must set clear expectations and let them get on with it. Line managers typically struggle with this because our culture equates long hours and seeing people working in the office with outcomes. We all know people can sit in the office for long hours without delivering anything.”