Why the Tony Robbins “You Can Be Great” Employee Goal-Setting Approach is BS

Kris Dunn Coaching, Driving Productivity, Employee Coaching, Engagement and Satisfaction, FOT Reads, HR, HR (& Life!) Advice, Influence, Kris Dunn, Labor, Leadership, Performance, T+D, Talent Strategy, Training and Development, Workforce Management Articles

FOT Note: This Rant is brought to you by the good folks at Halogen Software, who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our performance management track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). They’re also up for having fun to the extent that they’re sponsoring a podcast called “The Performance Enhancing Podcast,” which is a double entendre if we’ve ever heard one.

QUOTE #1 -“The most important thing you can do to achieve your goals is to make sure that as soon as you set them, you immediately begin to create momentum.”

–Tony Robbins

QUOTE #2 – “I found that if you have a goal, that you might not reach it. But if you don’t have one, then you are never disappointed. And I gotta tell ya, it feels phenomenal.”

–Vince Vaughn as Peter La Fleur in Dodgeball

It’s January, and that means one thing—it’s goal setting time, right? The time of year where if you’re extremely disciplined about performance management, you’re going to engage your employees about what’s expected of them in the year to come.

There’s just one little catch.  Goal setting—if it’s done at all—can be boring as hell.  It’s like the Two Bobs from Office Space suddenly emerged at your company and starting running the process.

So one of the primary objections to doing goal setting is that it’s lame and played.  But I think that reality means one thing:

Most of your employees don’t deserve a dynamic goal-setting process.  Also, most of them don’t want it. #truth

That’s right.  You shouldn’t treat all employees equal when it comes to goal setting.  You’ve got stars on one end of the spectrum, the dregs of humanity on the other—and everything in between.  To think that everyone gets the same process in an area like goal setting underscores one of the biggest problems in Human Resources and Talent Management—the assumption that everyone in your company should be treated the same.

Treating everyone the same is what makes your managers and you (the talent pro) sound like one of the Two Bobs when running through any process like goal setting.

I say to hell with treating people the same.  Let’s start with goal setting.  Here’s your primer on how to treat the different employee classes you’ll see when it comes to setting goals this year:

1.  Coach Class/Ditch-Diggers/The Unengaged – Oh, you know this group.  You would have fired them already, but you know the labor market and it’s pretty much impossible to upgrade for what you want to pay combined with what’s generally available on a month-to-month basis.  So you live with it and muddle by.  You’re never happy and they’re never happy.  The job you have them in may be a crap job and their life has unfolded in a way that has put them in that job.

Tell me again why you’d use the Tony Robbins goal-setting approach for this group?  They don’t care, and you barely care.  So, let’s call a turd sandwich what it is and simplify the goal setting process:

All goals for this group should be structured as follows:

–How many ditches did you dig today?  Crap, I need you to dig more ditches.

–Where are the ditches of sufficient quality to make me want to retain you another week?

Primary Feature of Goal Setting for the Ditch Diggers: Quantity and Quality people.  Also, do the Reagan deal and tell them they’re going to be evaluated all the time via your Trust but Verify policy.  With this goal setting approach, you’re treating them like the commodity labor they are.  It’s a harder message for you than it is for them.  They want to clock in and clock out.  You’re a lot more worried about their happiness than they are.

2.  The Jimmy Eat World Crew (aka, the Middle) – This group doesn’t know who they are, hence my naming convention with a hat tip to an Alt Rock band that should have done better than they did, but didn’t.  Here’s some lyrics from the most popular Jimmy Eat World single, “The Middle“:

“Hey, don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on
Just try your best (Just try your best), try everything you can
And don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away”

Holy Sh*t.  That sums up all you need to know about this group.  They could go either way.  They could be a star or part of the great class of disgruntled employees that’s dragging your company down, one crappy interaction a time.  BTW, most of the employees in the Jimmy Eat World division are in their first two years.  After two years, they’re either on their way to being a star, or they’ve given up and are more focused on smoking in the boys room than they are about giving you discretionary effort.

All goals for this group should be structured as follows:

–Number of ditches and relative quality of ditches dug in each goal area.

–Something you’re asking the employee to work on skill-wise in each goal area to get better and thus, be more marketable long-term.

Primary Feature of Goal Setting for the Jimmy Eat World Crew:  You’re giving them something that all stars had at one time—access to a coach giving feedback on how to get better. They either take that and run with it or they don’t.  You go through a couple of goal-setting cycles with people in the middle, evaluate their response, then either move them up or down depending on their reaction.

3.  The Naturals – This group is your honor guard.  The ballers.  You don’t treat them like the Dregs or Jimmy Eat World nation.  You treat them like the Kayne West superstars they are. Interestingly, your approach to goal setting becomes less about the company and more about the employee’s climb to world domination the higher up the food chain you go.

All Goals for this group should be structured as follows:

–Very light measurement of quantity

–Some measurement of quality

–A large and in-charge focus on them getting interesting work that helps them grow and contributes to their career goals.

Primary Feature of Goal Setting for The Naturals in your company:  You tell them what you need in the big goal areas of their job, but you quickly move away from measuring quantity and only talk about that in performance conversations if it’s an issue.  Your complete focus is to get them involved in work related to the goal areas that builds their career portfolio and also helps the company build needed things.  Coffee’s for closers, and project work that builds portfolios is for this group—no one else.

Summary: You care more about treating people equally than the people at the bottom of the food chain do, so stop.  Goal setting is a great place to start feeling like you’re saving the good stuff for your stars.  Treat the commodity labor how they want to be treated and skip the Tony Robbins talking tracks.  Tweak the middle group with access to coaching, and if they don’t start looking like a star, move them down to the dregs.  All interesting work related to goal areas goes to The Naturals.

Be on the lookout for The Performance Enhancing Podcast, exploring all things performance management related (brought to you by Halogen Software and Fistful of Talent).

Kris Dunn
Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He's also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.