Goal setting

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Goal setting involves the development of an action plan designed to motivate and guide a person or group toward a goal.[1] Goal setting can be guided by goal-setting criteria (or rules) such as SMART criteria. Goal setting is a major component of personal-development and management literature.

Studies by Edwin A. Locke and his colleagues have shown that more specific and ambitious goals lead to more performance improvement than easy or general goals. As long as the person accepts the goal, has the ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.[2]


Cecil Alec Mace carried out the first empirical studies in 1935.[3]

Edwin A. Locke began to examine goal setting in the mid-1960s and continued researching goal setting for over thirty years.[2][4][5] Locke derived the idea for goal-setting from Aristotle's form of final causality. Aristotle speculated that purpose can cause action; thus, Locke began researching the impact goals have on human activity. Locke developed and refined his goal-setting theory in the 1960s, publishing his first article on the subject, "Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives", in 1968.[6] This article established the positive relationship between clearly identified goals and performance.


Goals that are deemed difficult to achieve and specific tend to increase performance more than goals that are not.[7] A goal can become more specific through quantification or enumeration (should be measurable), such as by demanding "...increase productivity by 50%," or by defining certain tasks that must be completed.

Setting goals affects outcomes in four ways:[8]

  1. Choice: goals narrow attention and direct efforts to goal-relevant activities, and away from perceived undesirable and goal-irrelevant actions.
  2. Effort: goals can lead to more effort; for example, if one typically produces 4 widgets an hour, and has the goal of producing 6, one may work more intensely towards the goal than one would otherwise.
  3. Persistence: someone becomes more likely to work through setbacks if pursuing a goal.
  4. Cognition: goals can lead individuals to develop and change their behavior.

In business

In business, goal setting encourages participants to put in substantial effort. Also, because every member has defined expectations for their role, little room is left for inadequate, marginal effort to go unnoticed.

Managers cannot constantly drive motivation, or keep track of an employee's work on a continuous basis. Goals are therefore an important tool for managers, since goals have the ability to function as a self-regulatory mechanism that helps employees prioritize tasks.[9][10]

The four mechanisms through which goal setting can affect individual performance are:

  1. Goals focus attention toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
  2. Goals serve as an energizer: Higher goals induce greater effort, while low goals induce lesser effort.
  3. Goals affect persistence; constraints with regard to resources affect work pace.
  4. Goals activate cognitive knowledge and strategies that help employees cope with the situation at hand.

Goal commitment

People perform better when they are committed to achieving certain goals. Through an understanding of the effect of goal setting on individual performance, organizations are able to use goal setting to benefit organizational performance. Locke and Latham (2002) have indicated three moderators that indicate goal setting success:[10]

  1. The importance of the expected outcomes of goal attainment, and
  2. Self-efficacy—one's belief that they are able to achieve the goals, and
  3. Commitment to others—promises or engagements to others can strongly improve commitment.

Expanding the three from above, the level of commitment is influenced by external factors. Such as the person assigning the goal, setting the standard for the person to achieve/perform. This influences the level of commitment by how compliant the individual is with the one assigning the goal. An external factor can also be the role models of the individual. Say if they strive to be like their favorite athlete, the individual is more likely to put forth more effort to their own work and goals.

Internal factors can derive from their participation level in the work to achieve the goal. What they expect from themselves can either flourish their success, or destroy it. Also, the individual may want to appear superior to their peers or competitors. They want to achieve the goal the best and be known for it. The self-reward of accomplishing a goal, is usually one of the main keys that keep individuals committed.

Goal–performance relationship

Locke et al. (1981) examined the behavioral effects of goal-setting, concluding that 90% of laboratory and field studies involving specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than did easy or no goals.[11]

Locke and Latham (2006) argue that it is not sufficient to urge employees to "do their best". "Doing one's best" has no external referent, which makes it useless in eliciting specific behavior. To elicit some specific form of behavior from another person, it is important that this person has a clear view of what is expected from him/her. A goal is thereby of vital importance because it helps an individual to focus his or her efforts in a specified direction. In other words, goals canalize behavior.[2]

Goal setting and feedback

Without proper feedback channels it is impossible for employees to adapt or adjust to the required behavior. Managers should keep track of performance to allow employees to see how effective they have been in attaining their goals.[12] Providing feedback on short-term objectives helps to sustain motivation and commitment to the goal and without it, goal setting is unlikely to be successful. Feedback should be provided on the strategies followed to achieve the goals and the final outcomes achieved, as well. Feedback on strategies used to obtain goals is very important, especially for complex work, because challenging goals put focus on outcomes rather than on performance strategies, so they impair performance. Properly delivered feedback is also very essential, and the following hints may help for providing a good feedback:

  • Create a positive context for feedback
  • Use constructive and positive language
  • Focus on behaviors and strategies
  • Tailor feedback to the needs of the individual worker
  • Make feedback a two-way communication process

Advances in technology can facilitate providing feedback. Systems analysts have designed computer programs that track goals for numerous members of an organization. Such computer systems may maintain every employee's goals, as well as their deadlines. Separate methods may check the employee's progress on a regular basis, and other systems may require perceived slackers to explain how they intend to improve.

More difficult goals require more cognitive strategies and well-developed skills. The more difficult the tasks, the smaller the group of people who possess the necessary skills and strategies. From an organizational perspective, it is thereby more difficult to successfully attain more difficult goals, since resources become more scarce.

Honing goal setting using temporal motivation theory

Locke and Latham (2004) note that goal setting theory lacks "the issue of time perspective".[13] Taking this into consideration, Steel and Konig (2006) utilize their temporal motivation theory (TMT) to account for goal setting's effects, and suggest new hypotheses regarding a pair of its moderators: goal difficulty and proximity.[14] The effectiveness of goal setting can be explained by two aspects of TMT: the principle of diminishing returns and temporal discounting.[14] Similar to the expression "the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole", a division of a project into several, immediate, subgoals appears to take advantage of these two elements.[14]

Employee motivation

The more employees are motivated, the more they are stimulated and interested in accepting goals. These success factors are interdependent. For example, the expected outcomes of goals are positively influenced when employees are involved in the goal setting process. Not only does participation increase commitment in attaining the goals that are set, participation influences self-efficacy as well. Additionally, feedback is necessary to monitor one's progress. When feedback is not present, an employee might think (s)he is not making enough progress. This can reduce self-efficacy and thereby harm the performance outcomes in the long run.[15]

  • Goal-commitment, the most influential moderator,[citation needed] becomes especially important when dealing with difficult or complex goals. If people lack commitment to goals, they lack motivation to reach them. To commit to a goal, one must believe in its importance or significance.
  • Attainability: individuals must also believe that they can attain—or at least partially reach—a defined goal. If they think no chance exists of reaching a goal, they may not even try.
  • Self-efficacy: the higher someone's self-efficacy regarding a certain task, the more likely they will set higher goals, and the more persistence they will show in achieving them.[16]


Goal-setting theory has limitations. In an organization, a goal of a manager may not align with the goals of the organization as a whole. In such cases, the goals of an individual may come into direct conflict with the employing organization. Without aligning goals between the organization and the individual, performance may suffer.

For complex tasks, goal-setting may actually impair performance. In these situations, an individual may become preoccupied with meeting the goals, rather than performing tasks.[17]

Some evidence suggests that goal-setting can foster unethical behavior when people do not achieve specified goals.[18]

Goal setting may have the drawback of inhibiting implicit learning: goal setting may encourage simple focus on an outcome without openness to exploration, understanding, or growth.[citation needed] A solution to this limitation is to set learning goals as well as performance goals, so that learning is expected as part of the process of reaching goals.[19][20]

Developments in theory

Goal choice

Self-efficacy, past performance, and various other social factors influence goal setting.[2] Failure to meet previous goals often leads to setting lower (and more likely achievable) goals. The social networking website 43 Things, "the world's largest goal-setting community", sought to take advantage of these social effects.

Learning goals

There are times when having specific goals is not a best option; this is the case when the goal requires new skills or knowledge. Tunnel vision is a consequence of specific goals; if a person is too focused on attaining a specific goal, he or she may ignore the need to learn new skills or acquire new information. In situations like this, the best option is to set a learning goal. A learning goal is a generalized goal to achieve knowledge in a certain topic or field, but it can ultimately lead to better performance in specific goals related to the learning goals.[19][20]

Locke and Latham (2006) attribute this response to metacognition. They believe that "a learning goal facilitates or enhances metacognition—namely, planning, monitoring, and evaluating progress toward goal attainment".[2] This is necessary in environments with little or no guidance and structure. Although jobs typically have set goals, individual goals and achievement can benefit from metacognition.


Framing, or how goals are viewed, influences performance. When one feels threatened and or intimidated by a high goal they perform poorer than those who view the goal as a challenge.[2] The framing of a goal as a gain or a loss influences one's eventual performance.


Realization of goals has an effect on affect—that is, feelings of success and satisfaction. Achieving goals has a positive effect, and failing to meet goals has negative consequences.[2] However, the effect of goals is not exclusive to one realm. Success in one's job can compensate for feelings of failure in one's personal life.[2]

Group goals

The relationship between group goals and individual goals influences group performance; when goals are compatible there is a positive effect, but when goals are incompatible the effects can be detrimental to the group's performance.[2] There is another factor at work in groups, and that is the sharing factor; a positive correlation exists between sharing information within the group and group performance.[2] In the case of group goals, feedback needs to be related to the group, not individuals, in order for it to improve the group's performance.[2]

Goals and traits

On a basic level, the two types of goals are learning goals and performance goals; each possesses different traits associated with the selected goal.[2][19]

Learning goals involve tasks where skills and knowledge can be acquired, whereas performance goals involve easy-to-accomplish tasks that will make one appear successful (thus tasks where error and judgment may be possible are avoided).

A more complex trait-mediation study is the one conducted by Lee, Sheldon, and Turban (2003),[21] which yielded the following results:

  • Amotivated orientation (low confidence in one's capabilities) is associated with goal-avoidance motivation, and more generally, associated with lower goals levels and lower performance.
  • Control orientation (extrinsic motivation) is associated with both avoidance and approach goals. Approach goals are associated with higher goal levels and higher performance.
  • Autonomy goals (intrinsic motivation) leads to mastery goals, enhanced focus, and therefore enhanced performance.

Macro-level goals

Macro-level goals refer to goal setting that is applied to the company as a whole. Cooperative goals reduce the negative feelings that occur as a result of alliances and the formation of groups.[2] The most common parties involved are the company and its suppliers. The three motivators for macro-level goals are: self-efficacy, growth goals, and organizational vision.[2]

Goals and subconscious priming

The effects of subconscious priming and conscious goals are independent, although a conscious goal has a larger effect.[2] The interaction effect is that priming can enhance the effects of difficult goals, but it has no effect on easy goals.[2] There is also the situation in which priming and conscious goals conflict with one another, and in this situation the conscious goals have a greater effect on performance.[2]

General action and inaction goals

Action goals are believed to promote the sense of action, whereas inaction goals are considered to reduce people's tendency to take actions.[citation needed] Common action goals can be to do something, perform a certain act, or to go someplace, whereas typical inaction goals can take the form of having a rest or to stop doing something.

Goal-regulated overall activity and inactivity tendency result from both biological conditions and social-cultural environment.[22][page needed] Recent research revealed that most nations hold more favorable attitude towards action rather than inaction, even though some countries value action and inaction slightly differently than others.[23]

Recent research suggested that people tend to choose inaction goals when they are making decisions among choices where uncertainty could result in negative outcomes, but they prefer action over inaction in their daily behaviors when no deliberation is needed.[24][25] Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues found that many people "preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts".[26]

See also


  1. Grant, Anthony M (September 2012). "An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: an evidence-based framework for teaching and practice" (PDF). International Coaching Psychology Review. 7 (2): 146–165 (149). Goal setting should be done in such a way as to facilitate the development and implementation of an action plan. The action plan should be designed to motivate the individual into action, and should also incorporate means of monitoring and evaluating performance thus providing information on which to base follow-up coaching sessions.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (October 2006). "New directions in goal-setting theory" (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15 (5): 265–268. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x. Goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002) was developed inductively within industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology over a 25-year period, based on some 400 laboratory and field studies. These studies showed that specific, high (hard) goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to 'do one's best'. So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance. Because goals refer to future valued outcomes, the setting of goals is first and foremost a discrepancy-creating process. It implies discontent with one's present condition and the desire to attain an object or outcome.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Carson, Paula Phillips; Carson, Kerry D.; Heady, Ronald B. (1994). "Cecil Alec Mace: the man who discovered goal-setting". International Journal of Public Administration. 17 (9): 1679–1708. doi:10.1080/01900699408524960.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Locke, Edwin A. (Spring 1996). "Motivation through conscious goal setting" (PDF). Applied and Preventive Psychology. 5 (2): 117–124. doi:10.1016/S0962-1849(96)80005-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Locke, Edwin A. (2001). "Motivation by goal setting". In Golembiewski, Robert T. (ed.). Handbook of organizational behavior (2nd ed.). New York: Marcel Dekker. pp. 43–56. ISBN 0824703936. OCLC 44681839.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Locke, Edwin A. (May 1968). "Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. 3 (2): 157–189. doi:10.1016/0030-5073(68)90004-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Swezey, Robert W.; Meltzer, Andrew L.; Salas, Eduardo (1994). "Some issues involved in motivating teams". In O'Neil, Harold F.; Drillings, Michael (eds.). Motivation: theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 146. ISBN 0805812873. OCLC 29952231.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). "The study of work motivation in the 20th century". In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo (eds.). Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282.CS1 maint: display-editors (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Shalley, Christina E. (April 1995), "Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity", Academy of Management Journal, 38 (2): 483–503 (501), doi:10.2307/256689, JSTOR 256689<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (September 2002). "Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey" (PDF). American Psychologist. 57 (9): 705–717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Locke, Edwin A.; Shaw, Karyll N.; Saari, Lise M..; Latham, Gary P. (July 1981), "Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980" (PDF), Psychological Bulletin, 90 (1): 125–152, doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.1.125, retrieved 2010-06-01<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Skinner, Natalie; Roche, Ann M.; O'Connor, John; Pollard, Yvette; Todd, Chelsea, eds. (2005). "Goal setting". Workforce development TIPS (theory into practice strategies): a resource kit for the alcohol and other drugs field. Adelaide: Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation (AER); National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (Australia). pp. 8–9. ISBN 1876897066. OCLC 156766716.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (July 2004). "What should we do about motivation theory? Six recommendations for the twenty-first century" (PDF). Academy of Management Review. 29 (3): 388–403. doi:10.5465/amr.2004.13670974.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Steel, Piers; König, Cornelius J. (October 2006). "Integrating theories of motivation" (PDF). Academy of Management Review. 31 (4): 889–913. doi:10.5465/AMR.2006.22527462.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Bandura, Albert (March 1993). "Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning" (PDF). Educational Psychologist. 28 (2): 117–148. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep2802_3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Goal-setting theory might define self-efficacy as an impression that one has the capability of performing in a certain manner or of attaining certain goals. Or one could define self-efficacy as a belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations. Unlike efficacy (defined as the power to produce an effect—in essence, competence), self-efficacy consists of the belief (whether or not accurate) that one has the power to produce that effect. For example, a person with high self-efficacy may engage in more health-related activity when an illness occurs, whereas a person with low self efficacy may succumb to feelings of hopelessness. (Compare: Sue, David; Sue, Derald Wing; Sue, Stanley; Sue, Diane (2015). Understanding abnormal behavior (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning. p. 194. ISBN 9781305537606.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>) Note the distinction between self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-esteem in this context relates to a person's sense of self-worth, whereas self-efficacy relates to a person's perception of their ability to reach a goal. For example, take the case of an incompetent rock-climber. Though probably afflicted with poor self-efficacy in regard to rock climbing, this hypothetical person could retain their self-esteem unaffected.
  17. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465045138. OCLC 36315862.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Schweitzer, Maurice E.; Ordóñez, Lisa; Douma, Bambi (2004-06-01), "Goal setting as a motivator of unethical behavior", Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management, 47 (3): 422–432, doi:10.2307/20159591, ISSN 1948-0989, retrieved 2013-01-23, [...] people with unmet goals were more likely to engage in unethical behavior than people attempting to do their best. This relationship held for goals both with and without economic incentives. We also found that the relationship between goal setting and unethical behavior was particularly strong when people fell just short of reaching their goals.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Grant, Anthony M (September 2012). "An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: an evidence-based framework for teaching and practice" (PDF). International Coaching Psychology Review. 7 (2): 146–165 (151). Learning goals (sometimes referred to as mastery goals) focus the coachee's attention on the learning associated with task mastery, rather than on the performance of the task itself. An example of a learning goal in executive or workplace coaching might be 'learn how to be the best lawyer in my area of practice'. Learning goals tend to be associated with a range of positive cognitive and emotional processes including perception of a complex task as a positive challenge rather than a threat, greater absorption in the actual task performance (Deci & Ryan, 2002), and enhanced memory and well-being (Linnenbrink, Ryan & Pintrich, 1999). Furthermore, individual performance can be enhanced in highly complex or challenging situations when team goals are primarily framed as being learning goals, and the use of team-level learning goals can foster enhanced co-operation between team members (Kristof-Brown & Stevens, 2001). One benefit of setting learning goals is that they tend to be associated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation which in turn is associated with performance (Sarrazin et al., 2002).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. 20.0 20.1 Kegan, Robert; Congleton, Christina; David, Susan A (2013). "The goals behind the goals: pursuing adult development in the coaching enterprise". In David, Susan A; Clutterbuck, David; Megginson, David (eds.). Beyond goals: effective strategies for coaching and mentoring. Farnham, Surrey: Gower Publishing Limited. pp. 229–244. ISBN 9781409418511. OCLC 828416668.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Lee, Felissa K.; Sheldon, Kennon M.; Turban, Daniel B. (April 2003). "Personality and the goal-striving process: the influence of achievement goal patterns, goal level, and mental focus on performance and enjoyment" (PDF). Journal of Applied Psychology. 88 (2): 256–265. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.256. PMID 12731709.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Hepler, Justin; Albarracin, Dolores; McCulloch, Kathleen C.; Noguchi, Kenji (December 2012). "Being active and impulsive: the role of goals for action and inaction in self-control". Motivation and Emotion. 36 (4): 416–424. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9263-4. PMID 23766548.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Zell, Ethan; Su, Rong; Li, Hong; Ho, Moon-Ho Ringo; Hong, Sungjin; Kumkale, Tarcan; Stauffer, Sarah D.; Zecca, Gregory; Cai, Huajian; Roccas, Sonia (September 2013). "Cultural differences in attitudes toward action and inaction: the role of dialecticism". Social Psychological and Personality Science. 4 (5): 521–528. doi:10.1177/1948550612468774.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Byrne, Ruth M. J.; McEleney, Alice (September 2000). "Counterfactual thinking about actions and failures to act" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 26 (5): 1318--1331. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.26.5.1318. PMID 11009260.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Roese, Neal J.; Hur, Taekyun; Pennington, Ginger L. (December 1999). "Counterfactual thinking and regulatory focus: implications for action versus inaction and sufficiency versus necessity". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1109–1120. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1109. PMID 10626366.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Wilson, Timothy D.; Reinhard, David A.; Westgate, Erin C.; Gilbert, Daniel T.; Ellerbeck, Nicole; Hahn, Cheryl; Brown, Casey L.; Shaked, Adi (July 2014). "Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind". Science. 345 (6192): 75–77. doi:10.1126/science.1250830. PMID 24994650.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>