What Is Goal-Setting Theory? Principles, Pros and Cons

Locke, et al (1981) defined the “goal” in Goal-Setting Theory (GST) as “what an individual is trying to accomplish; it is the object or aim of an action” (p. 126). According to Moeller et al. (2012), goal setting is the process of establishing specific and effective targets for task performance. Locke, et al. (1981) also provided evidence that goal setting has a positive influence on task performance. Latham and Locke (2007) explained that “a specific high goal leads to even higher performance than urging people to do their best” (p. 291).

Before the 1960s, some researchers began to study the effectiveness of setting goals in business. The results showed that goal setting has a positive influence on workers’ performance. However, there was a lack of theoretical framework to explain why and how goal-setting influences work performance (Latham & Locke, 2007). GST served to explain human behavior in specific work situations (Locke, 1968). After a lot of experimental research done by Locke and Latham, GST was formalized in 1990 (Locke & Latham, 1990; Locke & Latham, 2002). The theory is now seen as “one of the most influential frameworks in motivational psychology” (Nebel et al., 2017, p. 102).

Studies that employ GST can be divided generally into three domains. First, in academics, setting goals was shown to have a significant influence on students’ learning performance (see, e.g., Gardner et al, 2016; Locke & Latham,1990; Locke & Latham, 2002). For example, Gardner et al. (2016) invited 127 medical students to participate in surgical skill training. They found that goal setting was effective in helping new students acquire surgical skills, especially when students develop specific strategy and goal orientations. In other words, the study found that students have better learning performance when they have clearer and more specific goals. In addition, Neble et al. (2017) had 87 students play the video game Minecraft (Mojang, 2011), and the results showed that for those students who set specific goals, their cognitive load was lowered. Further, Moeller and colleagues (2012) conducted a five-year quasi-experimental study on the relationship between goal setting and the performance of Spanish language learners in high school. The results indicated that having high-quality goals contributed to students’ better language acquisition.

Second, Latham and Locke (2007) pointed out in their study that, in the field of organization and human resource management, goal setting can have an impact on employees’ behavior and performance in the workplace. Based on this idea, 108 middle level banking managers in Indonesia were invited by Aunurrafiq et al. (2015) to investigate whether setting goals could have a positive impact on their managerial performance. They provided evidence that goal specificity, goal participation, and goal commitment are significant factors in enhancing managers’ managerial performance. In addition, Brown and Latham (2000) invited 36 unionized employees in a Canadian telecommunications company to test the effectiveness of three ways to increase employees’ performance. Their results indicated that the employees with specific and challenging goals reached higher performance levels than those who set goals along with self-instructions to do their best.

Third, goal setting has also been popularized in the field of sports. According to Weinburg and Butt (2014), “Setting goals can help athletes prioritize what is the most important to them in their sport and subsequently guide daily practices by knowing what to work on” (p. 343). Locke and Latham (1985) concur. In Locke and Latham’s (1985) study, they found that setting goals can be more effective in sports because the performance of sports is easier to measure. In another study, Burton et al. (2010) investigated the impact of incorporating goal setting and goal strategies between highly effective and less effective athletes among 570 college athletes who participated in 18 sports at a university. The results indicated that goal setting had a positive impact on their performance, and the athletes who set goals and implemented goal strategies more frequently tended to be both more effective than others and have better sports performance. Finally, a study conducted by Bueno et al. (2008) on the effectiveness of goal setting on endurance athletes’ performance indicated that goal setting is effective in increasing efficacy, which leads to better performance in endurance sports.

This model in Figure 1 is adapted from Locke and Latham (2002) and consists of three parts: concepts, constructs, and a proposition. The concepts include key factors that affect peoples’ performance, with moderators and mediators that might affect the goals that are set. The constructs indicate that these concepts impact people’s performance and motivation. The proposition shows that a specific and challenging goal, combined with regular feedback, can increase motivation and productivity so that people can perform better. These model aspects are described below.

Locke (1990) pointed out that there are some significant factors that can impact an individual’s performance: core goal properties (e.g., specificity, challenge), moderators (e.g. ability, feedback, goal commitment), and mediators (e.g., choice, effort). Latham (2003) pointed out in one study that individuals who have specific, challenging, but attainable goals have better performance than those who set vague goals or do not set goals. Meanwhile, individuals should possess ability and have commitment to the goal to have better performance.

For the part of moderators, Locke (1990) explains ability as whether people possess skill or knowledge to finish the task. Feedback is also needed for people to decide whether they should put forth more effort or change their strategy. Moreover, goal commitment refers to whether individuals have the determination to realize the goal. In addition to ability, feedback, and commitment, task complexity is also considered important; it indicates that people tend to have better performance when the tasks are more straightforward. In addition, situational resources, the related resources or materials provided for individuals to achieve their goal, are also essential. Finally, self-efficacy refers to whether people are confident in doing something and that it will affect their goals and performance (Locke & Latham, 1990).

For the part of mediators, choice means that people will make an effort towards the goal-relevant activities when they choose to set specific and difficult goals. Furthermore, persistence refers to how long people will stick to the goal and if individuals are willing to spend time on achieving it. If so, they may have better performance (Locke & Latham, 1990). Finally, a specific, high goal needs a strategy to attain it.

Goal-setting theory could be used in different domains such as teaching or research. In teaching, for example, this theory could be used as an instructional procedure to improve students’ writing performance for those who have difficulty in learning writing. By setting specific goals of what will be written in each paragraph, students may perform better in their writing class (Page & Graham, 1999). In addition, Nebel, et al. (2017) mentions that GST can also be used while using educational video games such as Minecraft; goal setting can reduce students’ cognitive load when they set specific goals. Moreover, players who use educational video games and follow a specific learning goal can be impacted affectively by goal setting. In other words, students tend to become more engaged and show greater passion in finishing the task when they have clear goals. Moreover, Idowu, et al. (2014) invited 80 senior secondary school students to investigate whether goal setting skills are effective for students’ academic performance in English, and the results indicated that the incorporation of a goal setting strategy can enhance students’ academic performance in English. In other words, teachers can encourage students to create goals that can support their academic performance.

In the research area, studies investigate the influence of GST on language learners’ motivation and self-efficacy, which can better help language learners and language experts understand how to set up different goals affecting students’ self-efficacy and motivation in language learning (Azar et al., 2013). For future study, researchers could integrate goal-setting and self-efficacy theories to explore outcomes and the reasons for them, or studies could use GST with young children to see whether the theory applies across ages.

Edwin Locke: Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation

Principles of the goal-setting theory

According to Lockes goal-setting theory, there are five main principles of setting effective goals:

What is goal-setting theory?

Goal-setting theory is a theory based on the idea that setting specific and measurable goals is more effective than setting unclear goals. Edwin A. Locke developed this theory in 1968 in his article, “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentive.” In this article, Locke showed how employees are more motivated by well-defined goals and constructive feedback and are more likely to accomplish these goals when they are specific and measurable.

In addition to setting clear goals, Locke emphasized the fact that employees work well when they are faced with challenging goals. Tackling these more difficult goals forces employees to work hard and develop their skills, and, as a result, receive positive feedback and an overall sense of achievement. This, in turn, may result in improved employee engagement, productivity and satisfaction in the workplace.

How to use goal-setting theory in the workplace

There are several steps you can take to incorporate the goal-setting theory into the workplace. These steps include:

1. Identify the purpose of the goal

There are several reasons why a goal should be set. For example, maybe an employee needs to learn a new computer program to continue doing their job. Maybe your company has just integrated a new system that will be used by all employees, so determining the best way to ensure each employee learns the system would require the implementation of goal-setting. Whatever the reason for the goal, it should be clear to both management and the employee or employees who will be accomplishing the goal.

2. Meet with the employee

If a goal is being set for a single employee, schedule a meeting with this employee to go over the needs for goal-setting. Get the employees opinion on the need for the goal and ensure the employee understands their responsibilities in terms of accomplishing the goal. You can also use this time to inform the employee of future check-ins on their progress.

3. Develop a plan using the SMART model

Specific means that the goal should be as specific as possible. Rather than saying you want an employee to increase their customer satisfaction ratings, communicate you want the employee to improve their customer satisfaction ratings by 10% over the next month.

The goal should be measurable. So, instead of saying the goal is to increase sales, you would set a measurable sales goal, such as to increase sales by 12% over the next six months.

Goals should be fairly challenging to keep employees engaged and to provide a better reward upon accomplishing them but the goals should also be achievable. Ensure the goal being set is slightly higher than an employees skill set, to keep the employee engaged, but still within reach of the employee’s capabilities.

Setting a goal that seems impossible or out of reach will not offer motivational value to employees and therefore result in loss of interest and perseverance for those working to reach the goal. Set a goal that can realistically be met.

Goals should have a clear timeframe in which they need to be reached. For example, instead of saying that the goal is to increase sales by 10%, a time-bound goal would be to increase sales by 10% over the next 90 days.

4. Make sure the employee has what they need to accomplish the goal

Before the employee starts working toward a particular goal, you should first ensure they have the equipment, time and resources needed to accomplish the goal. Meet with the employee and ask if they have access to what they need, and if not, provide this to them before they begin working towards the goal.

5. Provide regular feedback

Meet with the employee on a regular basis to assess their progress, review their action plan and discuss the results achieved. When an employee reaches a goal, provide positive and supportive feedback. If an employee was unable to meet the goal by the set timeframe, discuss any modifications that need to be made and provide constructive feedback as to how the employee can improve.

Advantages of goal-setting theory

There are several advantages of incorporating the goal-setting theory in the workplace. These advantages include:

Disadvantages of goal-setting theory

There are also a few potential disadvantages to be aware of in terms of using goal-setting theory in the workplace. These potential disadvantages include:

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