Rethinking the purpose and power of goal-setting during the pandemic

For health care organizations focused largely on operational survival, hour-to-hour may best describe their planning horizon right now. The immediate challenges of the pandemic have thrown a wrench in most healthcare systems’ disciplined, predictable annual goal-setting processes.

But the pandemic shouldn’t cause organizations to completely toss aside goal-setting, especially at the workgroup level. This article is the fifth in our series Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus. Today, we look at how to use adapted goals to support a workforce that is physically exhausted, emotionally drained and, in some cases, disillusioned.

Following are three ways to think differently about goal-setting during the pandemic, pulling back on some priorities and leaning into others.

Be as clear about what you’re not going to do as you are about your priorities

As a young strategic planner early in my career, I learned the hard lesson that deciding what we would not spend time and resources on was the toughest part of effective planning.

That same philosophy and discipline helps your team breathe a collective sigh of relief during the pandemic. When leaders tell employees that they have paused a major IT enhancement, a new program opening, or any other project that adds more stress, it signals that you really do understand what they’re up against.

Get staff more involved in workgroup goal-setting related to the current crisis

Too often, organizations focus all their attention on big, company-wide goals and expect those to automatically impact work at the frontline. But leaders often miss an opportunity to boost frontline staff empowerment. Staff are usually in the best position to decide the how of goal achievement.

In their book The Four Disciplines of Execution, authors Sean Covey, Chris McChesney and Jim Huling described the importance of setting both “lagging” and “leading” goals to change performance. Most leaders set and are most comfortable with lagging goals that look in the rear-view mirror and measure end results. (For example, our operating margin last quarter or quality scores last year.) Leading goals, on the other hand, target specific predictive behaviors that will lead to better performance. I always use this clinical example to illustrate: if your lagging goal is fewer infections, your leading goal should be hand hygiene compliance.

Getting staff involved in setting leading goals is an ideal way to improve empowerment (which we covered in our last post). Examples of issues that could improve the care experience for staff, patients and family members might include:

  • How to share responsibility for communicating with family members who can’t visit;
  • When and how to proactively share visiting restrictions with family members to avoid conflict and disappointment; or
  • How the role of the charge nurse might be adapted on a COVID unit to better support staff
Dial up the focus on goals around leadership support

As we emphasized in an earlier post in this series, leadership visibility and listening have never been more important. During the pandemic, leadership rounding should focus on just three key questions/topics:

  • How are you doing?
  • Here’s what we’re doing as an organization to better support you.
  • We appreciate beyond words what you are doing to help patients and our community.

The performance improvement saying that “if you don’t measure it, you can’t move (improve) it” applies to leadership rounding. Smart leadership teams set schedules and metrics to ensure rounding is consistent and appropriately distributed across departments. Key learnings from rounding should be a standing item on management team agendas. This way, all leaders understand issues hotspots.

Especially now, organizations should adapt goals-setting to communicate that leaders understand the stress staff are under and sacrifices they’re making. Involving employees in setting “leading” work group goals is one of the best ways to achieve this priority.