Living organisms differ from inanimate matter. Life is a teleological process. It must be maintained by a continual process of goal directed action. What is needed for survival for a given species is the result of evolution. If the needed action is not successfully taken, the organism or species dies. This applies to plants, the lower animals and humans. Humans, however, have one capacity beyond that of the lower life forms: we have the volitional power to choose our own goals. We have the power of reason which includes the capacity to form concepts and thereby create language. Through the process of thought we can consider alternatives and anticipate the consequences.
Goal setting theory was developed by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. The theory, based on more than 1000 studies, explains how goals can be used to regulate and improve your performance.
Types of goals. There are four basic types of goals. They can be for behavioral (e.g., contact five potential clients everyday), learning (e.g., discover 5 ways to improve your putting), and outcomes (e.g., increase sales by 10% in the next 12 months). These can be used separately or in combination. On tasks where new knowledge has to be acquired, learning goals should be set either alone or with outcome goals or before performance outcomes are tracked. The fourth type of goal is general such as to do one’s best is performing a task.
Goal Attributes. Goals need to be clear (specific). If they are vague or ambiguous, people will interpret them in their own idiosyncratic way. For example, telling people to “do their best” has no clear meaning. It does not lead people to do their best because best is not defined. If you want people do their best or come close to it, the goal has to be both specific and challenging. If the goal is too easy, people will not have to try hard to reach it. If a goal is too hard (e.g., impossible) people may give up pursuing it.
A word is in order about what Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric called “stretch goals.” These are goals that are so hard that they may not be possible to reach (e.g., increase sales by 100% in the next year). However, under the right conditions they can still be motivating. Here is how. Make clear that the stretch goals are for the purpose of stimulating creative thinking (“thinking outside the box”), and that there will be no penalty for not attaining them. Give people credit for creative ideas and progress.
Causal Mechanisms. Specific, challenging goals affect action in three ways. They call attention to what is important and thus direct action accordingly. Telling people to attain a specific level of product quality will not motivate them to attain a certain quantity level. That requires another goal. Goals also mobilize effort in proportion to what a task requires. Challenging goals lead to more energy being mobilized than easier goals. Further, goals affect persistence. If people are committed to the goal, they will not stop until it is reached. Finally, goals motivate people to utilize or search for task strategies that will be effective for attaining them.
Boundary Conditions. For goal setting to be effective, four conditions are required. First, there must be objective feedback to reveal degree of progress toward the goal. This allows people to adjust their effort level and strategies especially if they are not making progress. Second, there must be commitment to the goal. Commitment is highest when the goal is important to an individual, and the individual has the knowledge/skill needed to attain it. Knowledge or skill (i.e., ability) is a third moderating condition. Finally, organizational support in the form of resources (i.e., time, equipment, and budget) facilitates goal attainment.
Satisfaction. Goals, because they are something to aim for, are the standard for one’s satisfaction. People are happier and more satisfied when they succeed, than when they fail. If a goal is challenging, giving credit for progress toward goal attainment promotes satisfaction.
Goals for Teams, Divisions and Organizations. Team goals are as effective as goals for an individual. However, additional factors come into play. Team members must share information thus upping the skill level of the team. Team members must encourage one another. Personal conflicts can hurt goal attainment. Effective team leaders can facilitate goal attainment by ensuring these enabling processes take place. The issues become more complex as the unit size increases. Everyone has to be committed to attaining the team’s goals, and in doing so to coordinate their work with others.
Rewards. Goal attainment (and/or progress) should be rewarded with recognition and in some instances salary increments. However, goal theory does not specify a preferred method for tying goals to money incentives. Incentives involve so many potential complications and conflicts that companies simply need to experiment as to an appropriate method. One important caveat is not letting the incentive system tempt people to cheat or take shortcuts.
Ethics and Control Systems. All organizations need control systems to prevent or catch cheating. Most importantly, they need a code of ethics that percolates thru the organization’s culture, starting with senior management. This includes hiring ethical people, explaining in detail the moral code of the company, including assessments of ethical behavior in the performance appraisal system, and firing people who are not honest. Poor ethics can stem from dishonest leadership at the top, and from deliberate neglect (e.g., not wanting to know how results were attained).
About the Authors
Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Motivation and Leadership Emeritus at University of Maryland. He is internationally known for his research and writings on work motivation and the philosophy of science. He is widely published and cited has received numerous scholarly awards from his professional associations. He is an advocate of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. He has given talks and courses at many universities and conferences.
Gary Latham is the Secretary of State Professor of Organizational Effectiveness in the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. In addition, he is the President of Work and Organizational Psychology in the International Association of Applied Psychology, and a Past President of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology (US) and the Canadian Psychological Association. Among his many awards is election to the status of Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada.
We'll send you weekly emails with our latest insights and training for free, and we'll never send you ads or sponsored messages.