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Strong performance is not just about excellent execution; it’s about successful execution against realistic objectives.
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Managing Lab Employee Performance

Setting staff up for success begins with clear, achievable goals

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1988. She began working for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., in the fall of that...

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Here’s a secret that many employees don’t know: managers dread periodic performance review discussions just as much as their employees. Why? In good part, it’s because the goal-setting process was often not effectively performed. Strong performance is not just about excellent execution; it’s about successful execution against realistic objectives. What makes a goal realistic is not just the amount of effort required, but a good match between what is required to execute the goal and the boundaries (authorities and responsibilities) within which the employee works. This article will define the connection between good performance, the establishment of boundaries, and the setting of objectives, as well as provide steps to successfully develop them all.

Connecting personal goals to business success

Many organizations have adopted the concept of “line-of-sight” objectives. In this process, each employee should be able to connect their own goals to the overall objectives of the organization. For example, if the lab has the goal of a 10 percent increase in revenue, each employee should be able to point to their own objectives that lead to increased revenue—perhaps developing or qualifying a new test, increasing capacity, or visiting new customers. 

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“Without this investment in communication, the probability of missed objectives is uncomfortably high.”

These line-of-sight objectives have been effective in keeping each person in the organization focused on activities important to the business; however, it is equally important to ensure that the employee and manager both understand the boundaries within which the employee has the authority and responsibility to act, and that those boundaries allow for the successful execution of objectives. If, for example, an employee has the objective of developing a new test method to enter a new market space, do they have access to the right capital equipment? Do they have access to the right technical knowledge? The right market knowledge? If they don’t already have access to what they need, do they have the freedom to go get what they need? What support do they need, and from whom, if what they need for success is not already within their span of control?

If you are thinking that setting objectives this way sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. And the responsibility to do this correctly rests with both the manager and employee. Without this investment in communication, the probability of missed objectives is uncomfortably high.

How job descriptions influence employee goals

The process of setting realistic goals and effective boundaries begins with an explicit job description that outlines the expectations of the role. As with each stage of this process, open and thoughtful communication between the manager and employee is critical. Don’t get caught in the tyranny of assumptions. If there is a vague responsibility in a job description (“Continually work to expand the capabilities of the GC lab”), then both the manager and the employee will mentally fill in the details based on their own assumptions. The manager may be thinking, “I want to see a good accounting of the skills we have and methods we can execute along with a plan for what market opportunities we can pursue with those capabilities. Then I want to see a survey of other possible capabilities we could bring into the lab, both knowledge and capital, which market opportunities we could access with those new capabilities, and the potential revenue and margin impact on the business.” The employee may be thinking, “I need to keep the instruments running well and bring in a new capability or two. I saw some neat new detectors at that conference that could allow us to do some new things. I’ll get one and try some stuff out.” Without the purposeful articulation of assumptions, the disconnect in expectations will never get addressed until performance review time. The manager and employee should go line by line through the job description and explain to each other what that responsibility means to them in action. Add that detail once both agree. A “working” job description should be a lengthier document and one that is updated regularly as part of the goal-setting process.

Turning words into actions

This discussion around job description will involve articulation of authorities that the employee controls. These elements take the form of physical items (equipment or lab sections), personnel, and fiscal resources (capital, training, and travel budgets) as well as the level of decision-making authority associated with each. What are the boundaries within which the employee has the freedom to make decisions? What sort of buy-in do they need from others to make these decisions? Keep asking questions until you get to a level of detail sufficient to keep misunderstandings at bay. Keep asking yourself, “What am I assuming?” and validate that assumption.

“This rigorous process is also what enables both the manager and employee to deal with the inevitable unforeseen difficulties that always pop up.”

Once there is agreement on the detailed job description (or the regular update of it), the discussion of specific deliverables naturally follows. Remember that it is not uncommon for the manager to have a different assumption than the employee about how much work is required to achieve a goal. Even if the manager used to be in the lab, time away from actual bench work often leads to a faulty memory of what is required to complete certain activities. Don’t let those assumptions go unarticulated. Going back to our example of expanding the capabilities of a GC lab, the manager and employee would then set a specific target to accomplish over the next evaluation period. Let’s say that the goal is to define and complete the development and qualification of capabilities needed to penetrate a particular market segment identified as attractive by the company. Now, both the manager and employee need to get down to specifics and articulate the assumptions each one may have:

  • What is the timeframe? 
  • What, exactly, does “develop and qualify” mean in this context? 
  • Does the employee have access to the needed market knowledge and technical knowledge? If not, where does that knowledge come from and does the employee have the right authority to access it? If not, what support do they need and from whom? 
  • What is the role of the manager in facilitating the employee’s success? 
  • What does the employee need to figure out, including what additional support they might need to ask for? For example, the manager might be assuming that this objective can be met without any capital expenditure or that the knowledge can be gained in a matter of days or that the employee already understands the market segment of interest. If the manager never articulates those assumptions, the employee doesn’t know about these expectations. If the employee doesn’t know to disavow the assumptions from the manager and ask for the right support, the objective will most likely not be met.

It is not uncommon to find that there is no acceptable pathway to the desired outcome within the boundaries available to the employee (and often even the manager). This, of course, is an important reason to have a discussion. The resolution is found in either changing the boundaries of authority and responsibility of the employee, finding assistive resources with the right boundaries, or changing the objective. 

This rigorous process is also what enables both the manager and employee to deal with the inevitable unforeseen difficulties that always pop up. Since there has been a good grounding in what is expected and what each person controls, it is easier to have a conversation around how to react to a problem. What caused the problem to arise? What would fix it? Who controls the resources necessary to get to a resolution?

The process of managing performance through a thorough understanding of boundaries connected to realistic goals is not an easy nor quick one. However, nothing is more motivating to an employee than seeing a direct pathway to success and knowing you have the authority and support to achieve your goals. Doing this effectively requires open communication between manager and employee with an emphasis on both parties articulating assumptions they may have. When both partners in this process understand what is expected of them and how they can contribute, the employee feels set up for success and motivated to make it happen.