Goal Setting Theory Of Motivation Essay Questions

Goal Setting Theory Overview

Since it was first researched five decades ago, goal-setting theory has been the most researched, utilized, and established theory of work motivation in the field of industrial and organizational psychology (Pennsylvania State University World Campus [PSU WC], 2015, L. 6). The theory began with the early work on levels of aspiration developed by Kurt Lewin and has since been primarily developed by Dr. Edwin Locke, who began goal setting research in the 1960s. The research revealed an inductive relationship between goal setting and improved production performance. A goal is the aim of an action or task that a person consciously desires to achieve or obtain (Locke & Latham, 2002; Locke & Latham, 2006). Goal setting involves the conscious process of establishing levels of performance in order to obtain desirable outcomes. This goal setting theory simply states that the source of motivation is the desire and intention to reach a goal (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).  If individuals or teams find that their current performance is not achieving desired goals, they typically become motivated to increase effort or change their strategy (Locke & Latham, 2006).

Dr. Ben Baran discusses Goal-Setting Theory (Baran, Employee Motivation: Goal-Setting Theory.)

Locke and Latham stated that "the goal setting theory was based on the premise that much human action is purposeful, in that it is directed by conscious goals"(O'Neil & Drillings, 1994, p.14). The decision to set a goal results from dissatisfaction with current performance levels. Setting a goal should include setting a structure that directs actions and behaviors which improve the unsatisfactory performance. Setting a goal will change a person's behavior in order to work towards achieving the set goal. Goal-setting theory predicts that people will channel effort toward accomplishing their goals, which will in turn affect performance (Locke & Latham, 1990). Locke and Latham (2002) found a direct linear relationship between goal difficulty, level of performance, and effort involved. This relationship will stay positive, as long as the person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and doesn't have conflicting goals (Locke & Latham, 2006). Locke and Latham's goal setting theory states that several conditions are particularly important in successful goal achievement. These include goal acceptance and commitment, goal specificity, goal difficulty, and feedback (O'Neil & Drillings, 1994). These conditions have been extended and edited by other researchers, such as Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson's SMART goals, which are conditions that are necessary to make goals effective.

Goal Setting Theory Mechanisms

Goal mechanisms affect performance by increasing motivation to reach set goals (Latham, 2004). These mechanisms are inputs that affect behavior in groups or individuals, which serve to increase attention to a goal, energy in pursuing a goal, persistence in achieving a goal, and ability to strategize to reach a goal. When an individual or team can focus attention on behaviors that will accomplish a goal, they also divert attention away from behaviors that will not achieve the goal (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Goals energize people to expend more effort based upon the effort that is required to reach a certain goal (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Goals also lead to a persistent pursuit of reaching the goal by providing a purpose for that pursuit (Latham, 2004). Lastly, when people are pursuing a goal they will seek effective means for accomplishing it, particularly if the goal is difficult to achieve (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). The following chart briefly describes each of the four goal setting theory mechanisms. 




Direct Attention

Goals direct attention to behaviors that will accomplish the goal and away from the behaviors that will not achieve the goal.

In trying to become a proficient airline pilot, one would expect to focus his efforts with training long hours in the flight simulator to achieve proficiency.


Inspiration to put out a certain amount of effort based upon the difficulty of achieving one's goal.

An individual who wants to become an airline pilot will train to prepare himself on a high level to accomplish this goal.

Task Persistence

The amount of time spent on the behavior to achieve a goal.

The individual that wants to become an airline pilot will study hard and train longer hours.

Effective Strategies

In wanting to achieve a goal the individual seeks out different ways to achieve it.

In trying to become an airline pilot a person might look for ways or techniques that maximize his training or understanding.

Goal Setting Theory Conditions

There are necessary conditions that must be met to make goals effective in invoking motivation through the above mechanisms: (1) goal acceptance/goal commitment (2) goal specificity (3) goal difficulty, and (4) feedback on progress toward the goal.

Goal Acceptance/Goal Commitment

Before a goal can be motivating to an individual, one must accept the goal. Accepting a goal is the first step in creating motivation (Locke & Latham, 2002). Goal commitment is the degree of determination one uses to achieve an accepted goal. Two primary factors that help to enhance goal commitment are importance and self-efficacy (Locke & Latham, 2002). Importance refers to the factors that make attaining a goal important, including the expected outcomes (Locke & Latham, 2002). Self-efficacy is the belief that one can attain their goal (Locke & Latham, 2002). These factors can be as simple as making a public announcement about the commitment, or as complicated as a formal program of inspirational mentoring and leadership.

Importance and self-efficacy enhance the goal commitment by the individual (Locke & Latham, 2006). The individual must find the goal important and must believe they can achieve it(Locke & Latham, 2006). Making the importance of the goal personal provides the individual with the motivation to move beyond failure and maintain the path toward the goal. Research by Erez, Earley, and Hulin (1985) indicates that participation in setting one’s own goals result in a higher rate of acceptance due to the individual feeling a sense of control over the goal setting process (Erez, Earley, & Hulin, 1985). Locke and Latham determined that when the purpose or rationale of the goal is provided, performance between participative and assigned goals do not differ significantly, as long as the goal is accepted (Locke & Latham, 2002). Their explanation for the discrepancy lies in the way the goal was presented. If the objectives were clearly explained to the participants, motivation increased. Alternatively, if goals were briefly administered with little explanation, motivation was lower. In other words, the goals need to be specific, which leads us to our next condition.

Klein, Wesson, Hollenbeck, Wright, and DeShon (2001), developed a five-item scale for assessing goal commitment. Responses are provided on a five-point Likert scale using "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" end-points.

Goal Commitment Scale


It’s hard to take this goal seriously. ®


Quite frankly, I don’t care if I achieve this goal or not. ®


I am strongly committed to pursuing this goal.


It wouldn’t take much to make me abandon this goal. ®


I think this is a good goal to shoot for.

*Note:Items followed by ® indicate that the item should be reverse-scored before analysis.

Developed by Klein, Wesson, Hollenbeck, Wright, and DeShon (2001).

Goal Specificity

A goal must be specific and measurable. It should answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the expectations of the goal. Specificity and measurability provide an external referent (such as time, space, increment, etc.) to gauge progress, whereas vague “do better” goals are ambiguous and often have little effect on motivation. Removing ambiguity allows one to focus on precise actions and behaviors related to goal achievement. The more specific the goal, the more explicitly performance will be affected. Specific goals lead to higher task performance by employees than do vague or abstract goals (Locke & Latham, 2002). A person can set a general goal to sell more cars per month; however, setting a goal to sell two cars per day for the next thirty days is more specific and therefore more effective.  These goals will be more motivating than the broad goals of just doing better.  With a clear objective in mind people will be more dedicated to reaching their set goal (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6) Goals without an external referent allow for a wide range of acceptable performance levels (Locke & Latham, 2002). In order for performance to increase, goals must be challenging, specific, and concrete. 

Goal specificity does not insure performance at an exceptional level. Specific goals vary in difficulty. The performance of these goals will also depend on the intellect and abilities of each individual. Just because a goal is specific, does not guarantee that an individual will put forth an increased effort to obtain the goal. Management may implement policies that require workers to sell two cars per day. If this is below the actual performance that is normal for an individual, that person may not exert any extra effort to obtain or exceed that goal because the goal required is not difficult to achieve. In fact the individual may lower the performance to remain consistent with other employees. Motivation also plays an important role in goal specificity. The individual must be motivated to obtain the projected goal, or in other words the goal must have a level of importance to that individual in order for them to seek to reach it. If a career selling cars comes secondary to going to school, the individual may not expend the required effort to reach set goals but instead only perform at a level that they view as satisfactory.

Goals should be...
ConceivableOne should conceptualize the goal so that it is understood clearly
BelievableOne should believe that the goal can be reached and that other people believe in it
AchievableOne should ask themselves if given their strengths and weaknesses they can reach their desired goal (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Goal Difficulty

Goals are proven to be an effective motivation tactic if difficulty is taken into consideration. They should be set high enough to encourage high performance but low enough to be attainable (PSU WC, 2015). When this grey area is achieved, goals are proven to be effective. If goals are set too high or too difficult than motivation and commitment suffers as a result. Integrity is another cost that can ensue from setting high performance goals. A study performed by Ordóñez and Scheitzer (2004) reveals that people have a tendency to be dishonest if they fall short of their goals. Enron’s book cooking, Ford’s combustible Pinto in the 1960s, and Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s dishonorable business practices are all examples of highly publicized scandals that occurred as a result of setting goals too difficult to achieve.  In the case of Enron, executives schemed an elaborate cover-up to hide its bankruptcy from stockholders, many of whom were employees of Enron and had their retirements invested in the company.  Ford’s goal to gain relevance in the foreign economy car market compelled the company to cut corners to meet product deadlines and release the Pinto, which resulted 53 consumer deaths. Mechanics at Sears, Reobuck and Co. engaged in unfair business practices by overcharging customers and performing unneeded repairs in order to meet sales goals. Here you can see that setting goals that are too high not only jeopardizes motivation and commitment but also can create a culture of corruption, dishonesty, and cutting corners (Bennett, 2009).

Richard Duszczak on goal achievement (Duszczak, One-step-at-a-time - goal achieving cartoon doodle video).

The cost of integrity for difficult goal standards can also be illustrated in the illegal, but commonly practiced, mulligan in the game of golf. A mulligan is an extra stroke allowed after a bad shot, which is not recorded on the scorecard. This practice is highly illegal in competitive settings though common in more relaxed games among friends. The game of golf requires a tremendous amount of skill and concentration, which can prove to be quite daunting through eighteen holes. To speed the game up and appease frustration it is common for amateur players to shave shots off the scorecard.

Figure 1 illustrates how goal difficulty effects performance. As you can see the more challenging the goal, the higher the performance. Performance steadily increases as goal difficulty increases. The highest level of performance is experienced at "A," the peak of difficulty. Performance sharply declines if goal difficulty is too high. Easy goals can easily be achieved therefore there is no incentive to increase performance. Goals that are too difficult are perceived as unattainable, which will either thwart commitment (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6) or lead to dishonest behaviors in order to achieve the goal (Bennett, 2009).

Figure 1: Relationship Between Goal Difficulty and

There's been considerable research on how specific levels or types of goals affect performance. Most of the research is on the role of target goals in general as standards for performance in self-regulation and achievement. There are now some new, more-specific approaches to goal research that focus on a type of target goal. For instance, boundary goals–those that indicate the minimum performance level that an individual must attain to subjectively experience success–have been the considered predictive of achievement outcomes.  Setting Lower Limits High: The Role of Boundary Goals in Achievement Motivation (Corker & Donnellan, 2012) explores the relationship among boundary goals, performance avoidance (direct individuals away from negative outcomes) goals, and performance approach (direct individuals toward achieving positive outcomes) goals. The research study showed a positive association between boundary goals and performance approach goals and a negative association between boundary goals and performance avoidance goals. It's possible that implementing the use of boundary goals may assist management with intervention activities aimed at motivating the workforce to higher levels of achievement. Boundary goals provide the worker with a benchmark or self-regulatory guide for goal pursuit and, for individuals with a stronger performance avoidance orientation, they keep their attention on goal-relevant cues and away from goal-irrelevant cues. Consequently, boundary goals may be motivational and regulatory. Boundary goals are unique to each person because they are based on the balance of the individual’s level of internal aspirations–which may be very lofty–with one's avoidance orientation. This balance can change over time (increasing or decreasing in difficulty) in response to success or failure. Those with higher boundary goals exhibit a higher performance than those with lower boundary goals, however, performance is relative to the individual being assessed and those with lower (achievable) boundary goals will be able to experience success when their minimal level of acceptable performance has been achieved.  This success will motivate them to raise their boundary goals to new levels, eventually resulting in an improvement in work performance (Corker & Donnellan, 2012).

Goals that are too easy or too difficult negatively affect motivation and performance. You want to set goals that are realistic, attainable, and challenging. The greatest motivation and performance is achieved with moderately difficult goals (somewhere betweentoo easyandtoo difficult). Goals should be attainable, but at the same time they must be a challenge. Even if a goal is out of reach, a person will work harder to reach that goal as opposed to how hard they will work for an easier goal (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Having a goal that will push someone to new performance levels but is able to be reached will greatly benefit that person by showing them what they are really capable of.


Feedback is necessary in order for goals to remain effective and retain commitment. Without feedback people are unaware of their progression or regression; it also becomes difficult to gauge the level of effort required to pursue the goal effectively (Sorrentino, 2006). Additionally, feedback allows for individuals and teams to spot any weaknesses in their current goals, which allows modifications to be made (Smith & Hitt, 2005). It is necessary for goals, and the people making the goals, to be flexible (Bennett, 2009). Feedback is most effective when it is directed at setting more challenging goals (Locke & Lantham, 1979). Effort and productivity will increase when performance falls short of goal achievement. For example, if a student receives feedback in the form of a progress report he or she may adjust study habits accordingly to achieve the desired goal. However, without feedback, the student has nothing to gauge performance. Feedback can either be process oriented or outcome oriented. Process feedback provides specific tasks that must be performed to achieve the desired outcome. Outcome feedback is focused on the outcome of the goal and offers no tangible information to utilize in goal attainment.  When these types of feedback are combined it will give a clear sense of how someone is performing, and what they can do differently in order to perform better.  Similar to goals, feedback must also be specific to offer constructive information on how to meet objectives (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). By receiving feedback, individuals will know that their work is being evaluated and that their contributions are being recognized.


Ed Muzio explains SMART goal-setting (Muzio, Setting SMART Goals).

The above goal conditions for positively affecting motivation and performance have commonly been referred to as SMART goals. Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson first developed the SMART goal system when branching the concept of goal theory beyond academia into the area of management and leadership (Blanchard, Zigarmi, & Zigarmi, 1985). The meanings of Blanchard and Spencer's SMART goals have evolved over time and the modern definitions are represented in the figure below:

The termraising the baris a common metaphor for setting challenging goals.  Therefore, to further explain the elements of SMART goals, an analogy of a track and field high jumper will be used to demonstrate how raising (or lowering) the bar affects motivation and performance.  In addition, examples of SMART goals will be generalized in a management situation to demonstrate the various goal essentials and conditions.


In order for goals to translate into motivation and improved performance, goals must be specific.
A goal to just jump higher is too general. Instead, an example of a specific goal would be to improve high jump by three inches.

A management goal to improve profits is too general. This broad goal could include increasing sales, reducing costs, or a combination thereof. A more specific goal would be to increase sales by 8%.

A goal to do better in school is not a specific goal.  Setting a goal of improving a GPA by 0.5 is a specific goal.


Goals must be measurable to be able to provide progress feedback and to know when the goal is achieved.

Three inches (and increments below, between, and above) are both measurable and specific in order for the high jumper to be able to gauge his progress and achievement. Therefore, instead of the goal being improve high jump by three inches, the jumpers goal could be to increase high jump from 64 inches to 67 inches.

Similarly, the manager can measure the progress of the sales figures to understand how much focus and resources to dedicate to achieving the goal. Therefore, a goal of increasing sales from $80,000 to $86,400 is more specific and measurable than the ambiguous goal to just increase sales.

Therefore, a goal of increasing GPA from 3.0 to 3.5 is specific and measurable for the student.


A goal must be assignable to an individual or a group.

Because high jumping is an individual goal, the high jumper would assign this goal to himself – or perhaps the high jumper’s coach might assign this goal to the jumper.

In the sales example, the manager must be able to assign the goal to a specific person or department.

This is also an individual goal, the student may assign this goal by themselves, or could have it assigned to them by a potential employer, or adviser.


The goal must be challenging, yet realistic.

Lowering the bar for a high jumper could not realistically increase motivation nor enhance performance. Similarly, setting a goal to raise the bar ten feet is not a realistic or attainable goal and would therefore not positively affect motivation or performance.

Similarly, increase sales by 300% may not be a realistic and attainable goal. By setting goals unrealistically high, the manager may not see increased motivation or performance in the sales team.

For some students achieving a 4.0 GPA may be unrealistic.  Setting one a little lower that will still be a challenge will be a better goal.


In order for goals to positively affect motivation and performance, goals must be time-related.

For the high jumper, he may set a time within three months which may provide a realistic time frame to meet his goal. However, a time line of tomorrow may make achieving the goal unrealistic. Similarly, before I’m forty may be a time line that is so far into the future and lacks urgency and motivation.

A realistic time line for our manager might be by the end of next quarter. Increasing sales by 8% by the end of the week may be too aggressive, and before the company goes bankrupt is too vague of a time line.

Since the student wants to improve on his/her GPA, it could be a goal to achieve by the end of the semester.

When originally introduced by Blanchard, SMART goals were denoted as: Specific and Measurable, Motivating, Attainable, Relevant and Track-able (Blanchard, Zigarmi, & Zigarmi, 1985, p. 89-90). Over time, the SMART acronym for goals has evolved into what they are today: Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Related.

"Specific" and "Measurable" have been split into two separate categories. The requirement that goals be specific has been enduring in the SMART goal acronym. "Motivating" was dropped from the SMART system, perhaps because it is the overarching theme of goals. If done correctly, goals will be a positive motivator and will enhance performance. The term "attainable" has had alternatives--such as "achievable." However, as stated above, a goal must be accepted and have commitment in order to be achieved. As a result, the A in SMART goals has become "assignable." "Relevant" has widely replaced "Realistic," possibly because irrelevant goals would not be realistic and, while a goal may be relevant, whether a goal is realistic may depend on­ the time frame for achieving the goal. Track-able is redundant to measurable and has been replaced with time-related because goals with no deadline lack direction and urgency.

SMART goals also may be evolving into SMARTER goals with the E adopting meanings like ethical, exciting, enthusiastic, and evaluate and R adopting terms such as reevaluate, reassess, and rewarding.

Oracle (2012) makes the case that the acronym for “SMART” can be expanded to encompass other topics. For instance, “S” (which stood for “Specific”) could be modified to mean “stretch” depending upon organizational context (Oracle, 2012). Additional meanings that may be more appropriate include:

LetterOther Meanings
SSimple, Significant, Strategic
MMeaningful, Mission-related, Motivated
AAction-based, Achievable, Advantageous
RRelevant, Rational, Reachable
TTangible, Thorough, Tactful


In addition to a SMART goal, another type of goal commonly used is known as a BHAG. This acronym stands for big, hairy, audacious goal (Henricks, 1999).  BHAGs are ambitious long-term goals that act to motivate companies and people to achieve lasting success (Buchanan, 2012). While it’s important to set SMART goals which provide you with a fair chance of reaching, it’s also very beneficial to set BHAGs, because these goals really stretch us as individuals and organizations (Gergen and Vanourek, 2009).

This concept was coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras while writing their book called Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It was the result of a six-year long research project at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Collins and Porras chose eighteen remarkable and long-standing companies and studied each one in comparison to one of their highest competitors. They evaluated these companies from their very beginning to present-day and analyzed their different stages along the way as first start-ups, then as midsize companies, and now as large companies.

Throughout this entire process, Collins and Porras aimed to answer the following: “What makes the truly exceptional companies different from the comparison companies, and what were the common practices these enduringly great companies followed throughout history?” (Collins and Porras, 2004). It was in response to these questions that BHAGs were born. Collins and Porras consistently found one thing that distinguished the successful companies from their less successful counterparts which was that “the more successful companies had one or more very ambitious, clear and inspiring long-term goal” (Henricks, 1999). With that said, they concluded that BHAGs are one of the most effective ways to increase a company’s chance for continuing prosperity and success (Henricks, 1999).

According to Collins and Porras (1996), a great BHAG meets the following three criteria:

  • it is consistent with the company’s core values and ideology,
  • it includes a timeframe ranging from 10 to 30 years, and
  • it is both vivid and engaging.

Jim Collins discusses how you can tell if you have a good BHAG here.

BHAGs have been used by a number of successful companies throughout history. Organizations who have used BHAGs as a tool for motivation and way to achieve long-lasting success include companies like Wal-Mart, Citicorp, Nike, GE Electric and Boeing (Collins and Porras, 1996).

Research on Goal Setting Theory

Goal setting is a general theory that can be applied in a multitude of work situations. Support for the theory comes from individual and group settings, laboratory and field studies, across different cultures and involves many different tasks(Locke & Latham, 2002). The strongest support relates to the relationship between specific, difficult goals and task performance. A meta-analysis performed by Tubbs (1986) supported the concept that specific, difficult goals are positively correlated to improved performance.Other research obtained similar conclusions and further stated that, “If there is ever to be a viable candidate from the organizational sciences for elevation to the lofty status of a scientific law of nature, then the relationships between goal difficulty, specificity/difficulty, and task performance are most worthy of serious consideration” (Mento, Steel, & Karren, 1987, p. 74). DeWalt, et al. (2009) found a direct correlation between those who achieve set goals and the motivation to create additional goals or add more challenging aspects to the current goal based on feedback. Parker, Jimmieson, and Amiot (2009) found that autonomy in the workplace improves self-efficacy, which improves performance towards reaching goals. Within this idea is the vision and structure that goal setting provides, which helps to motivate individuals and teams to perform better and do more (Sorrentino, 2006).

Goal setting is not without its critics. Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky, and Bazerman (2009) stated that the theory is over-prescribed and can potentially cause harm to an organization. Care should be taken in applying goal setting due to the possible unintended side effects. The arguments levied against the theory are not new and have been discussed by previous researchers. For example, Ordóñez, et al. (2009) argued that unethical behavior can result from motivating employees to meet specific and challenging goals. In an effort to reach a sales quota, salespeople may either fudge numbers or lie to customers. According to the authors, this focus on goal attainment can actually promote unethical behavior by creating a “focus on ends rather than the means” (Ordóñez, et al., 2009, p. 12). Not only was negative behavior addressed by Latham and Locke, but the means to mitigate this issue were offered as well, such as offering progressive awards toward goal attainment, organizational control systems, and an ethical workplace culture (O'Neil & Drillings, 1994). 

The preponderance of empirical research supporting goal-setting theory illustrates its utility as a method to motivate individuals and improve organizational outcomes. While some caution may be in order, Locke and Latham (2002) argue that failures resulting from the theory are usually due to errors in its application and can often be prevented. The subject of human motivation is vast and complex. No single theory fully explains every aspect of what motivates individuals to perform better. 

1975 Latham and Baldes Study

One of the first studies to depict the practical benefits of goal setting was the 1975 study conducted by Latham and Baldes (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Management of the timber industry in Oklahoma noticed that employees were not loading trucks to full capacity, which resulted in additional trips and greater associated costs (e.g., gasoline). Subsequently, this particular study focused on the productivity of lumber crews who transported timber from forests to sawmills in Oklahoma with the implementation of a goals program (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Latham and Baldes hypothesized that setting goals would result in increased performance; they predicted that these benefits would be present after one month (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).

To test their hypothesis, Latham and Baldes introduced two levels of goals: 1) a “do your best” goal and 2) a goal of loading timber trucks to 94% capacity (as cited in PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). With each trip, drivers weighed their trucks with a loading scale indicating how heavy their loads were. According to their results, Latham and Baldes found that performance improved immediately, with trucks weighing in between 70-90% of their capacities (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Furthermore, these effects lasted for several years and resulted in the timber company saving approximately $250,000 in the first nine months (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).

1997 Ludwig and Geller Study

Ludwig and Geller conducted another study that depicts the benefits of goal setting theory; this time with pizza delivery drivers (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). In this particular study, Ludwig and Geller (1997) addressed safety concerns, resulting from high accident rates of pizza deliverers. Ludwig and Geller observed approximately 320 deliverers, from three different restaurants, as they delivered pizza to establish a baseline measure that revealed they failed to come to complete stops less than half of the time (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Ludwig and Geller then assigned drivers to three participant groups: a control group, a participative goal group, and an assigned goal group. In both goal groups, drivers were given a goal of making complete stops 75% of the time (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Drivers were given feedback on their stop rate and compared against the goal; the control group was not given a goal. Ludwig and Geller found the process of setting goals and providing feedback was very successful for both the groups, with most drivers stopping approximately 75% of the time. However, once the participants stopped receiving feedback, the pizza deliverers reverted to stopping only 50% of the time (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). This particular study suggests that feedback is crucial to maintaining performance towards goals and that participative and assigned goals generally elicit the same short-term response (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).

2007 Study by Vigoda-Gadot and Angert

A study conducted in 2007 by researchers Eran Vigoda-Gadot and Larisa Angert at the University of Haifa found connections between the aspects of goal-setting theory, specifically in the realm of feedback and Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). This study used the Management by Objectives (MBO) process to study aspects of goal-setting theory beyond the goals themselves, by examining desirable types of behaviors in organizations such as the enhancement of team spirit and job attachment, social support, and bolstering performance overall beyond the goals set by management (Vigoda-Gadot & Angert, 2007, p. 120). Participants in this study were students working in a social service capacity with needy children in Israel.

The study set the independent variables of goal setting, job satisfaction, job commitment, organizational justice, and job feedback against the dependent variables of formal performance and OCB (Vigoda-Gadot & Angert, 2007, p. 123). Since the researchers were already in agreement about Locke and Latham's argument that the setting of specific goals was better than vague ones, their focus was on how behaviors unrelated to goals would be increased by the processes of goal setting. The findings concluded that though the process is important, the key remained in feedback regarding both the formal goals set during the process as well as feedback regarding other informal behaviors. Specifically, that "managers should consider the positive effect of feedback on formal performance, but even more importantly, on informal work behaviors such as altruistic OCB or compliance OCB" (Vigoda-Gadot & Angert, 2007, p. 127). This is important since it is not only results that drive an organization, but the people who fit within it and how they conduct themselves.

Strengths, Benefits, Limitations and Weaknesses of Goal Setting Theory

Strengths and Benefits

Goal-setting theory is one of the most popular theories in use among I/O Psychologists due to wide support provided by extensive empirical research and its relative simplicity as compared to other theories (Locke & Latham, 2002; PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).  According to Locke and Latham (2002) using techniques such as correlational, experimental and quasi-experimental design, a plethora of research studies have been conducted over 40 years using close to 40,000 participants in eight countries, over time periods varying from one minute to 25 years (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).

Smith and Hitt (2005) in their book,Great Minds in Management, reinforced the popularity of this theory with their reference to a 2003 assessment of organizational behavior scholars who rated goal-setting theory first in importance out of seventy-three management theories, validating the claim that goal setting has had tremendous research and practitioner support (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). Its applications within organizations are extensive, so much so that "79 percent of British organizations use some form of goal setting" (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). The success of goal-setting has even lead to the development of even more specific procedures and applications of goal setting, such as Management by Objectives. MBO has shown, through both field experiments and meta-analyses to be astoundingly effective: "97 percent of the 23 studies reviewed found increases in productivity" (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). 

Furthermore, the effectiveness of goal-setting reaches well beyond the work force: Lock and Latham have used their extensive research to determine the high level of generalizability, such that it is valid "not only to individuals, but to groups, organizational units, and entire organizations" (Lock & Latham, 2002, p. 174, within PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). This means that, just as an individual would succeed with his or her goals using these theories, organizations, despite their industry or size, should have just as much success when properly applying the mechanisms and conditions. Ludwig and Geller (1997) found success with pizza delivery drivers, and Latham and Baldes (1975) found success with lumber crews. The implications stretch as far as to say, if there is a goal, there is motivation to reach it.

According to Latham (2004) goal setting has been found to inspire individuals and is a critical key to self-management. In many cases, goal setting creates an alternative purpose for work and provides the challenge that enables individuals to overcome even the most physically exhausting tasks (Latham, 2004). Whether a goal requires cognitive or physical exertion, perhaps even both, studies have shown that the greatest amount of effort is applied to those that are considered more challenging (Latham, 2004).  From a psychological standpoint, a sense of pride develops from an individual's improved self-interest; which may lead to better jobs and increased pay over time (Latham, 2004).  When making the commitment to set a goal and focus on its accomplishment within a specified period of time, attention is often diverted away from activities that are considered goal-irrelevant.  For this reason, people are often motivated to utilize or discover the knowledge necessary for successful completion (Latham, 2004).

In the Gallup Business Journal, researchers found that employees who set goals that were based on their personal strengths, were seven times more likely to be engaged in their work assigned and much more likely to be "high performers" (Asplund & Blacksmith, 2013, para. 9). 

Limitations and Weaknesses

When two separate goals are set at the same time, exerting too much focus on one may make it difficult to achieve the other (Latham, 2004). For example, if someone sets quantity and quality goals simultaneously; trying too hard for quantity may cause quality to be neglected (Latham, 2004). However, this can be fixed by prioritizing separate goals or finding a balance between goals directly dealing with each other. It is more important to have well thought out goals than to have too many and not be able to follow through on any one goal (Gergen & Vanourek, 2009).

Another limitation deals with goals and risks.  During a computer game study, Knight, Durham, and Locke (2001) found that participants who were given difficult performance goals increased risk strategies to improve performance. Additionally, a limitation that can occur is commonly referred to as tunnel vision.  This is when employees focus so intently on their goals that they will ignore other aspects of their job (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).  When attention is focused too narrowly on a goal, inattentional bias can occur.  This was demonstrated in a study Simons and Chabris.  In the study, subjects were asked to measure the number of passes in a basketball game.  People became so focused on their task that they didn't notice a man in a gorilla suit on the course.  Concentrating too much on a specific task or goal can cause you to miss a major aspect of your environment (Simons & Chabris, 1999). In a case study done with GE goal setting seemed to backfire on the company. "A few management experts began to wonder what sort of price we pay for our goals. Goals, they feared, might actually be taking the place of independent thinking and personal initiative" (Bennett, 2009, para. 14).  If people are always having goals set for them it is difficult for them to motivate themselves.  Improper management techniques, or the presence of inequity in the workplace (e.g., underpayment), can subvert the effectiveness of the goal setting theory. 

Goal Setting Theory also does not account for actions motivated by the subconscious; as the goal-setting theory focuses on cognition with no regard to the subconscious (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). On occasion, an individual can do something without being aware of what is motivating them. This cognitive quality of this theory makes it such that, much like other cognitive motivation theories, it takes for granted the fact that "people can take action without being aware of what is motivating them" (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). More tangible and challenging goals would be much more difficult to pursue subconsciously, largely due to the amount of planning and forethought required to accomplish them. But subtler and more general goals could potentially be striven for and achieved subconsciously.

Finally, goal-setting theory focuses on how goals are related to job performance, but does not take into account the "why" now how this is related to increased job performance (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). This lack of defined translation between goals and job performance calls for future research to refine (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6).

Practical Solutions (Locke, E.A. 2002)

Negative Outcomes of Goal-Setting Theory

When discussing limitations and weaknesses of goal-setting theory, it is important to discuss how the outcomes of set goals can be different than intended:  especially if one doesn't use the aspects of SMART in the planning and execution of his/her goal. Without a specific goal that addresses what one is trying to achieve and by how much (i.e. improve running time by 1 minute), an individual can easily get off course and lose site of the goal. This leads into the idea that these specific goals must be measurable in quantity. This allows for process feedback later on and without a measurable, quantitative component, it will be difficult to determine if one has moved toward their goal (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). The A refers to assignable; when a goal is not assignable, no one individual is responsible for achieving the goal, thus no one is accountable and the goal may never be achieved. Goals must be realistic in that they can be achieved within the expected period of achievement. When a goal is unrealistic, an individual will be less likely to work toward it since they know it won't be attainable. Many times it is helpful to setup small, goals along the way to the major achievement. This not only allows for more realistic expectations but provides small achievements along the way to increase motivation. Without these, motivation may drop significantly. Lastly, a goal that is not time-related and lacks a definite end doesn't allow for feedback as there is no date to work toward. When this deadline isn't realistic, motivation goes down and performance may suffer. Overall, all of these components must be present for a goal to be completed. Whilst they all have a tendency to lead to inability to achieve the goal, the bigger problem may lie in where the work leads the individual, if not toward the final desired effect.

While research provides an abundance of support in favor of the effectiveness of goal-setting theory on achieving organizational goals or improving outcomes, a dangerous side of goals has also been identified.  With recent large-scale failures of organizations such as GM, Enron, Frannie Mae and Freddie Mac, skeptics find support in their belief, that setting goals can also lead to disastrous outcomes.  By recounting the atmosphere at Enron, as hostile, dysfunctional and ultimately criminal, executives were rewarded for meeting revenue targets, which essentially created the atmosphere and it's consequential collapse, the negative outcomes of this theory are apparent.  In addition, Sears, Roebuck and Co. started setting sales goals for its auto repair staff, which lead to unethical practices such as making unnecessary repairs, and over charging customers just to hit numbers (Bennett 2009).  As utilization of this valuable theory of motivation continues in the workplace, the negative outcomes presented in these examples, can remind us of its potential dangers. 

A recent example of goal setting theory going awry is the current Wells Fargo scandal.  This scandal showed the consequence of the upper management not foreseeing the dire effects of the corporate goal of 8 accounts per customer.  The entire goal of the company was to increase their "cross sale" ratio.  This ratio became the standard by which the company based itself on.  As this goal made it down the layers in the company, it became a benchmark for employee pay, bonuses, and reviews.  Instead of rating an employee by their whole job, the cross sale ratio took on a life of its' own. The cross sale goal became the company's calling card with equity analysts and drove the stock price up.  This made the executives millions of dollars and reinforced their belief in the cross sale ratio.  It became something that was pushed even harder.  In order to make money and not lose their jobs, the front line employees resorted to creating millions of fake accounts with customer knowledge. In the end this scandal ended up costing over 5,000 employees their jobs and A $185 million dollar settlement with federal regulators. (Baker 2016)

Application of Goal Setting Theory in the Workplace

Goal setting is widely used in the workplace as a means to improve and sustain work performance. Goal setting theory is based on the assumption that behavior reflects an employee’s conscious goals and intentions. Consequently, the expectation is that employee efforts and performancewithinanorganization will be influenced by the goals assigned to or selected by these employees. In the workplace, successful managers use the goal setting theory to clarify expectations, improve performance, and develop employees into stronger workers, which in turn makes the company stronger(Fried & Slowik, 2004). Furthermore, goal setting can function as a contract between the employee and employer, creating greater opportunities for accountability and growth (Oracle, 2012).  Some of the ways managers use this theory are included in the graphic below:

Some reward systems that are used for employees reaching their goals are:

Management by Objectives

The application of Management By Objectives (MBO) throughout business organizations has become widespread (PSU WC, 2015, L. 6). MBO is an approach to systematically align both employees' goals and the goals of the organization and ensures that everyone is clear about what they are doing and why it is beneficial to the organization (Mindtools, 2012).  This provides a mechanism to ensure that the goals of the organization coincide with the goals of the individual(s) within that organization.

MBO focuses on a joint determination by subordinate and superior goals, major areas of responsibility, and result expectations. These are the measures used to determine employee contribution and operations of the organization. While there are notable key steps in MBO, the theory varies between organizations and from theorist to theorist. Some of these differences include: setting objectives, working towards goals, and reviewing performance.  MBO is not an individual effort; rather it is an essential collaboration of employees and managers to actively participate in the goal-setting process and the “how to” of reaching their goals.  Diversity in decision-making is positive because it allows for decisions that are specific and fit the organization.  

The management by objectives has a five step process:

1. Set or Review Organizational Objectives -This step requires defining the clear organizational objectives. 

2. Cascading Objectives Down to Employees -Once the objectives are set they need to be clear to every employee. To make sure that the goals are attainable and the employees feel accountable, the SMART method will be used. 

3. Encourage Participation in Goal Setting - Everyone needs to understand how personal goals fit within the objectives of the organization and allow sharing and discussion so that everyone understand "why" things are being done. This allows everyone to set goals to align with the organizational goals and also allows for an increase for personal responsibility of their objectives. Self-direction, decision making, and responsibility is an important part of this step and encourages motivation within the employees.

4. Monitor Progress -Since the goals and objectives of SMART are measurable they can be monitored. However, those that are monitoring need to make sure that they are timely with their monitoring in case something is wrong so issues can be adequately dealt with in a timely manner. Make sure every goal has mini goals, and adequately monitor goal performance and accountability. 

5.Evaluate and Reward Performance - The MBO is designed specifically to improve performance at all levels of the organization. Employees are evaluated on their performance related to the goal, and retrospectively include rewards such as compensation and provide appropriate feedback.

After the process is completed, the cycle is usually repeated after a review of the previous five-stage process is done and those who were involved in the attainable goals understand the importance to measurable goals and clear performance within the MBO. Management by Objectives is a powerful tool for aligning employees' actions with organization's goals (Mindtools, 2012). 

Like any other method, MBO has its positive and negative aspects.  A negative aspect of MBO is that the motivating effects of difficult goals are susceptible to dissipation over time, even when individuals are most responsive to them (Miner, 2007).  However, even with the negatives, after a review of many studies on MBO, Locke and Latham (1990) conclude that MBO's relative success rate–as observed in a variety of studies–is approximately 90 percent.

Models for organizational management that contain structured goal hierarchies that are similar to MBO include hoshin kanri (Jolayemi, 2008) and strategy deployment (Schlickel, 2013).

Examples of Goal Setting in the Workplace

General Electric (GE) successfully applies goal setting theory in all levels of its organization, not just on­ the departmental and individual level. GE successfully implements goal setting theory on an organizational level by making the idea behind goal setting part of their vision/mission statement. Throughout their annual Citizenship Report, Our Actions (2005), it refers to the concept of goal setting. They summarize their goal setting initiatives as a recipe for success for all companies and capitalism. GE sets goals for all aspects of organizational life, reviews those goals regularly, putting systems in place to reach those goals, and continually seeking to improve processes and set challenging goals for all employees. For these reasons it is a wonderful example of the goal setting theory in the workplace.

According to Milliman, Zawacki, Chulz, Wiggins, and Norman (1995), Federal Express Company (FedEx) tried a form of goal setting that was called "360 degree goal setting" (p. 136). In this form of goal setting, supervisors are asked to write goals for their subordinates after they receive input from them. The goals are written for each employee after input from internal and external sources. The main objective of this type of goal setting is a more complete understanding of expectations of employees and customers. There is a pledge for 24-hour response to email and phone messages, a two-hour response to emergency calls, a bi-monthly meeting with the employees, and a semi-annual training session on topical subjects. After trying this method with the human resource department, FedEx found that the pros outweighed the cons. The only true con was that it took time to train the employees and managers on this new system. However, the pros that they established from it were greater accountability for the employees' performance, clear expectations for the employees, and precise measurement of and feedback on performance goals. After the trial run, FedEx then began implement this goal setting into other departments(Milliman et al., 1995).

Reward Types

It was explained in the section above, “Application of Goal Setting Theory in the Workplace,” that it is important for managers to implement a reward system for employees because this often increases goal commitment. Often times, it is assumed that monetary rewards are what motivate individuals.  In the study "The effects of reward type on employee goal setting, goal commitment, and performance" it was found that not all individuals are motivated by cash rewards (Vance, 2013, p. 1806). Some individuals are motivated by other tangible, non-cash rewards. Examples of non-cash rewards include travel or merchandise. This seems to be somewhat related to Victor Vroom's idea of valence and the expectancy theory. Individuals place a perceived valance on desired outcomes (Vroom, 1964). The importance of having a variety of reward types was explored and proven by Thomas Vance in his study. Managers should consider implementing reward systems, to align with attained goals, to include a variety of reward types.  Employees are very likely to increase effort, commitment, and performance to attain a set goal if the employees have a reward available that they find attractive (Vance, 2013).

Team Goals

Teamwork and collaborative assignments have begun to rise within organizational configurations.As a result, managers have changed how they view and practice goal setting.Team goals function similarly to individual goals, although there are unique complications that make goal setting in a team environment more complex. For example, in order for individuals' efforts to be directed toward team performance the team goal must first be accepted by that individual. However, the individual dynamic within team environments can cause personal goals to compete with team goals. This type of competition has the ability to cause discord within the team and misdirect performance. In order to facilitate team goal setting andmonitoring of team performance relative to team and organizational goals,managers have begun utilizing electronic dashboards. These applications enable real time performance tracking by the users and also ensure that team goals are aligned with the organization’s forecast. Dashboards also aid in providing feedback to teams, enabling them to easily review their performance compared to the team goal (DeShon, Kozlowski, Schmidt, Milner, & Wiechmann, 2004).


  1. Asplund, J., & Blacksmith, N. (2013). Strength-Based Goal Setting. Retrieved February 18, 2013, from Gallup Business Journal: http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/152981/strengths-based-goal-setting.aspx
  2.  Baker, T. H. (2016, September 12). Wells Is Exhibit A of Employee Incentive Failures. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.americanbanker.com/bankthink/wells-is-exhibit-a-of-employee-incentive-failures-1091227-1.html

  3. Baran, B. (2012). Employee Motivation: Goal-Setting Theory [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yj2wsPJEWs
  4. Bennett, D. (2009). Ready, aim... fail. Why setting goals can backfire. The Boston Globe, C1.
  5. Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, P., & Zigarmi, D. (1985). Leadership and the one minute manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational leadership. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.
  6. Buchanan, L. (2012, November 01). How to Achieve Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. Retrieved February 18, 2016, from http://www.inc.com/leigh-buchanan/big-ideas/jim-collins-big-hairy-audacious-goals.html
  7. Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1996). Building Your Company's Vision. Harvard Business Review74(5), 65-77.

  8. Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (2004).Built to last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

  9. Corker, K. S., & Donnellan, M. B. (2012). Setting lower limits high: The role of boundary goals in achievement motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 138-149.
  10. DeWalt, D.A., Davis, T.C., Wallace, A.S., Seligman, H.K., Bryant-Shilliday, B., Arnold, C.L., Freburger, J., & Schillinger, D. (2009). Goal setting in diabetes self-management: Taking the baby steps to success. Patient Education and Counseling,77, 218-223.
  11. DeShon, R.P., Kozlowski, W.J., Schmidt, A.M., Milner, K.R., & Wiechmann, D. (2004). Multiple-goal, multilevel model of feedback effects on the regulation of individual and team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 1035-1056.
  12. Duszczak, R. (2013). One-step-at-a-time - goal achieving cartoon doodle video [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cCiqbSJ9fg
  13. Erez, M., Earley, P. C., & Hulin, C. L.(1985).The impact of participation on goal acceptance and performance: A two-step model.Academy of Management Journal,28(1), 50-66.
  14. Fried, Y., & Slowik, L. H. (2004).Enriching goal-setting theory with time: An integrated approach.Academy of Management Review, 29(3), 404-422.
  15. GE (2005). Our Actions: GE 2005 Citizenship Report. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ge.com/files_citizenship/pdf/GE_2005_citizen_05rep.pdf
  16. Gergen, C., & Vanourek, G. (2009, January 14). Properly set goals aid success.The Washington Times,B03.
  17. Jolayemi, J. (2008). Hashin Kanri and Hoshin Process: A Review and Literature Survey. Total Quality Management, 295-320.
  18. Klein, H.J. Wesson, M.J., Hollenbeck, J.R., Wright, P.M., & DeShon, R.D. (2001) The assessment of goal commitment: A measurement model meta-analysis.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,85(1), 32-55.
  19. Knight, D., Durham, C.C., & Locke, E.A. (2001). The relationship of team goals, incentives and efficacy to strategic risk, tactical implementation and performance.Academy of Management Journal,44(2), 326-338.
  20. Latham, G. P. (2004). The motivation benefits of goal setting.Academy of Management Executive,18(4), 126-129.
  21. Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2006).Enhancing the benefits and overcoming the pitfalls of goal setting. Organizational Dynamics35(4), 332-340.
  22. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1979). Goal setting-A motivational technique that works. Organizational Dynamics, 8(2), 68-80.
  23. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990).A theory of goal setting and task performance.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  24. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey.American Psychologist,57(9)

Goal setting is a proven tool for generating motivation. Having been studied extensively for the past 50 years, much is known on how to maximize the tool’s usefulness.

Properly set goals have been shown to increase performance on well over 100 different tasks involving more than 40,000 participants in at least eight countries working in laboratory, simulation, and field settings. The variables have included quantity, quality, time spent, costs, job behavior measures, and more. The time spans have ranged from 1 minute to 25 years. The effects have been found using experimental, quasi-experimental, and correlational designs. Effects have been obtained whether the goals are assigned, self-set, or set participatively. In short, goal-setting theory is among the most valid and practical theories of motivation in psychology.1

Let’s talk money. After goals were assigned to 39 truck drivers, their productivity immediately increased. Over the following 4 months they earned their company an extra $2.7 million dollars.1

After going through a 1-day goal setting workshop, tree loggers immediately started increasing their performance. The additional wood cut over the following 3 months was estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars.2

Similarly significant results have been found with typists, salesmen, dieting, maintenance technicians, chess, students, and many others.3,4,5,6,7,8

Why Do Goals Help?

“Goals affect performance through four mechanisms.

First, goals direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant activities…

Second, goals have an energizing function. High goals lead to greater effort than low goals. This has been shown with tasks that
(a) directly entail physical effort,
(b) entail repeated performance of simple cognitive tasks, such as addition;
(c) include measurements of subjective effort; and
(d) include physiological indicators of effort.

Third, goals affect persistence. When participants are allowed to control the time they spend on a task, hard goals prolong effort.

Fourth, goals affect action indirectly by leading to the arousal, discovery, and/or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies.22

Goal Selection

In comparing goal selection with goal motivation, although the same variables are involved, they often act in different ways.

For example, a person might shy away from a goal involving frequent feedback – the anxiety of being watched or reviewed might be aversive. However, once selected, frequent feedback is an essential component of successful goal pursuit.

Desire – Economists Are Wrong, Humans Aren’t ‘Rational’

According to economists, goals are selected in order to maximize expected value – people eat 1,000 calorie desserts because the pleasure they provide outweighs the risk of heart-disease. Perhaps it does, but in most circumstances, humans are irrational. That is, they act sub-optimally. For example, humans get more pleasure out of socializing than from watching TV.59 Then why does the average American spend 4 hours a day in front of the tube? Irrationality – the shiny screen appeals more strongly to our desire.

Goal setting is based more on the crude forecasting of our subconscious, as expressed through desire, than on maximizing expected value.60

Temporal Motivation Theory

According to Piers Steel, the world’s leading procrastination researcher, goal importance is subconsciously calculated using the following formula:

  • Expectancy: The percent likelihood of success, as judged by your subconscious.
  • Value: The desirability of the expected reward, as decided by your subconscious.
  • Impulsivity: The strength of one’s tendency to act on a whim.
  • Delay: The expected time until the reward will be acquired.

Expectancy Theory: Expectancy x Value

“Expectancy theories suggest that a process akin to rational gambling determines choices among courses of action. For each option, two considerations are made: (1) what is the probability that this outcome will be achieved, and (2) how much is the expected outcome valued?”11,12

This theory is well-supported.14,15 However, two caveats are necessary. First, the accuracy of the model brakes down over large periods of time, useful only in predicting short-term decision making.13,15 However, this is why the second component of temporal motivation theory includes present value discounting. Second, value is determined more by the subconscious, than by what a person ‘logically’ decides is important.

More on expectancy theory on wikipedia.

Prospect Theory

Even if two goals present the same outcome, if the goal is phrased as a loss it will be perceived as more important.16

For example, consider a person who needs to purchase a gift on a $100 budget. They can choose between:

  1. Saving $50 by spending 3 hours shopping.
  2. Earning an extra $50 by working for 1 hour.

Financially, the goals are the same – what would have been a loss of $100 becomes $50. However, even when all the other variables are the same (e.g. the person likes working as much as shopping) the first choice is more likely to be selected than the second.

This is because we feel loss more powerfully than gain. In other words, we are more likely to select a loss avoidance goal than a gain approach one.

For example, 93% of PhD students registered early when a penalty fee for late registration was emphasized, with only 67% doing so when this was presented as a discount for earlier registration.17

More on prospect theory on wikipedia.

Present Value Calculation: Delay x Impulsivity

The primary reason that college students procrastinate is because of delay. The paper or report is unimportant until the last moment, once the deadline is just a few hours away. Worse, getting those good grades is helpful, but only for getting a job, something years into the future. Most people would rather receive $100 now than $110 after a year. Now is better.

This is because humans evolved to develop a present-focus time perspective. In an ancestral environment, someone spending the first 21 years of their life on education would have died. There were more pressing concerns – hunting for food, building shelter, staying safe, and so on. According to Philip Zimbardo, who studies the psychology of time, humans are born into the world with a present-focus time perspective. Although kids might intellectually understand the importance of studying for the future, their primitive brain disagrees, resulting in temper-tantrums about being forced to do something so boring, like homework.

As they age, children become less impulsive (in part because their prefrontal cortex matures, and in part because of cultural pressure). On a subconscious and emotional level, they start to understand the importance of working not just for the present, but for the future. For those who are less impulsive, delay is less important – $110 after a year is just as good as $100 today. For those who are more impulsive, pleasure now is priority number one.

As you can see in the picture above, as the deadline becomes closer the goal of writing the essay becomes more and more important.12 In addition, because Ann is less impulsive, she starts working on the paper earlier than the other students.

For more information on time-orientation, read the book The Time Paradox.


To some degree, all people have evaluation anxiety.18 This is obvious when one considers that although feedback has such a transformative impact, most people do not seek it out. For example, websites which offer the opportunity to anonymously collect personal feedback (e.g. you talk too loud, have poor fashion sense, make unfunny jokes, etc…) are extremely useful, but are used by very few people. Because that feedback chips away at self-esteem, it is avoided.

Likewise in the workplace. Although the annual review leads to greater performance, few people enjoy the process. Fewer still actively seek out feedback during the intermittent 12 months between each review. Examples can be found in all other domains. People are less likely to select goals which produce anxiety. The prospect of evaluation is one of the, if not the largest source of potential anxiety.

Fantasy Visualization

According to fantasy visualization theory, there are three routes through which goals are subconsciously set.

Expectancy Based

“The expectancy based route rests on mentally contrasting positive fantasies about the future with negative aspects of impeding reality. This mental contrast ties free fantasies about the future to the here and now. Consequently, the desired future appears as something that must be achieved and the impeding reality as something that must be changed. The resulting necessity to act raises the question: can reality be altered to match fantasy? The answer is given by the subjective expectation of successfully attaining fantasy in reality. Accordingly, mental contrasting of positive fantasies about the future with negative aspects of the impeding reality causes expectations of success to become activated and used. If expectations of success are high, a person will commit herself to fantasy attainment; if expectations of success are low, a person will refrain.”19

Fantasy Based

“The second route to goal setting stems from merely indulging in positive fantasies about the desired future, thereby disregarding impeding reality. This indulgence seduces one to consummate and consume the desired future envisioned in the mind’s eye. Accordingly, no necessity to act is experienced and relevant expectations of success are not activated and used. Commitment to act towards fantasy fulfillment reflects solely the pull of the desired
events imagined in one’s fantasies. It is moderate and independent of a person’s perceived chances of success (i.e. expectations). As a consequence, the level of goal commitment is either too high (when expectations are low) or too low (when expectations are high).”19

Negative Rumination

“The third route is based on merely dwelling on the negative aspects of impeding reality, thereby disregarding positive fantasies about the future. Again, no necessity to act is experienced, this time because nothing points to a direction in which to act. Expectations of success are not activated and used. Commitment to act merely reflects the push of the negative aspects of impeding reality. Similar to indulgence in positive fantasies about the future, dwelling on the negative reality leads to a moderate, expectancy independent level of commitment, which is either too high (when expectations are low) or too low (when expectations are high).”19

Core Concepts of Effective Goal Setting

There are four components of goal setting which must always be in place for the process to be effective:

  1. Goal Excitement & Acceptance – The goal must contain a reward valuable enough to make the effort worth it. 
  2. Goal Difficulty – Hard, challenging goals are inspiring, while easy goals are not.
  3. Goal Specificity – Within reason, the more specific the better.
  4. Goal Feedback – The better and more frequent the feedback, the faster the progress. Without feedback, progress is impossible.

In addition, there are the avoidance-approach and mastery-performance dichotomies to select from.

Goal Excitement & Acceptance

Exciting, accepted goals are motivating goals:

  1. Hard goals are more exciting than easy goals.
  2. A reward that sounds good now might feel pointless upon reflection.
  3. The most powerful reward is worthless if forgotten.

1. Hard Goals Are More Exciting Than Easy Goals

People are often encouraged to have realistic expectations. If the purpose is to inspire motivation, that advice is false.

Difficult goals inspire greater performance than easy goals. This is true for two reasons. One, “we are motivation misers,” which is discussed in the next section.20 Two, difficult goals lead to larger rewards. What’s more exciting? The prospect of earning a million dollars, or the prospect of earning ten?

As described by expectancy theory in the last section, people are less likely to select difficult goals. However, once chosen difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones.

2. A Reward That Sounds Good Now Might Feel Pointless Upon Reflection

As humans were evolved to be short-sighted, the human mind is poor at long-term planning. Known as the optimism bias, humans have a strong tendency to underestimate the difficult of accomplishing their goals. The human mind has a hard time changing the abstract notion of long-term, hard work into a concrete estimate of time and energy required.

After having that optimism shattered by the strain of reality, a reward than once seemed exciting may no longer appear worthwhile. On a crude level, excitement and desire is a function of expected reward minus expected cost. Becoming a doctor and earning $150,000 a year? Not worth seven years of 80-hour weeks. Getting into shape? Worth exercising twice a week.

Because we tend to underestimate effort, we overestimate excitement. In other words, we feel excited for goals that we shouldn’t. As the optimism bias is hard-coded into our brain, it’s difficult to overcome, although mental contrasting can help.

The simple solution is to select only those goals which are extra-exciting, which offer a reward that is strongly desired. I personally have abandoned many goals because of this problem. Although the reward was exciting enough to get me started, once I realized just how hard I was going to have to work, the reward was no longer enough.

3. The Most Powerful Reward is Worthless if Forgotten

The human brain is poorly equipped to handle many modern sources of motivation. The more we put off acquiring food, the hungrier we get and the more motivated to eat we become. Likewise with social connectivity. The longer we go without contact, the stronger the motivation to connect becomes.

Now consider a modern source of motivation, like power and wealth. After an inspiration speech, we feel excitement. But as time passes without our having taken any action, unlike with hunger and social connectivity, instead of motivation increasing, it rapidly falls to zero. The problem is this – the human brain is used to getting reminders. Lack of wealth can be as motivating as lack of food, but the body doesn’t produce lack of wealth reminders.

Hunger, loneliness, thirst, cold – all reminders which get produced automatically. Don’t act, and the reminder gets louder and the motivation stronger. But with wealth, well-being, health, and many other modern goals, reminders don’t get produced automatically – that’s what motivational speeches and inspirational writing are for.

This is why the most powerful reward is worthless if forgotten, and why [fantasy visualization] is so frequently recommended. Not only should an exciting goal be selected, but the reason(s) why it’s exciting needs to be frequently reviewed – we need to create our own reminders.

Goal Difficulty

Hard, challenging goals are motivating, while easy goals aren’t.36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53

When selecting a goal, difficulty is aversive – we stay away from uncertainty. After having actually selected a goal, difficulty is energizing.35

Negative Expectancy Model

In order for a more difficult goal to be accomplished, more energy must be expended, as skills need to be improved and hard work needs to be put in. Energy is functionally equivalent to motivation – more energy equals more motivation.

On the other hand, if success is all but guaranteed, it would be a waste to allocate more than the minimum (e.g. there’s no point getting excited and motivated about the goal of eating breakfast – that’s a waste of mental energy. If someone wants to eat breakfast, it will probably happen, excitement and motivation or not).

We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success.20

However, this picture is incomplete.

Discontinuous Expectancy Model

Motivation is low for easy goals because the brain is frugal – there is no point getting excited and wasting energy on something simple and easy, like eating breakfast, taking a shower, or sending an e-mail. As goal difficulty increases, motivation rises in step – for example, getting a training certification requires more energy than taking a shower, which the brain provides by increasing motivation.

However, after a certain level of difficulty, motivation immediately drops to near zero, as people feel that the task is too challenging – that even with a high level of motivation, their resources or abilities are not enough.

Goal Specificity

“Twenty four field experiments all found that individuals given specific, challenging goals either outperformed those trying to “do their best”, or surpassed their own previous performance when they were not trying for specific goals.”21

Simply, specific goals are more effective than vague ones.2,3,9,10,22,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34

In one study, engineers and scientists were told to do their best. In another, unionized telecommunications employees were told to do their best. For both groups, those who were instead told to hit a specific target did better, receiving higher ratings and also reporting higher job satisfaction.9,10

When people are asked to do their best, they do not do so. This is because do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically. This allows for a wide range of acceptable performance levels, which is not the case when a goal level is specified.22

There are four major reasons why specific goals are so much more effective than vague ones:

  1. It is easier to get feedback for specific goals, and feedback is one of the most important requirements for progress. For example, one could have the goal of getting more fit. Without having defined what ‘fit’ means, progress is difficult to gauge. On the other hand, if the goal is structured as being able to run 2 miles and having biceps with a diameter of 14″ within the next 3 months, one can immediately know how they’re doing, what’s working, what isn’t, and if they need to make any changes.
  2. Specificity leads to planning. At the high level of ‘getting fit’, it’s difficult to effectively strategize, “I want to get fit… so I’ll go running!”. To create an effective strategy requires a clear idea of the objective. If the goal is to be able to run 2 miles within 3 months, an effective strategy can be created, “I will follow this 3-month training plan, running half a mile tomorrow, 3/4ths a mile next week….”
  3. Specificity is exciting. The more specific the goal, the more vivid your thoughts when imagining the goal. The more vivid your thoughts, the more real & exciting. Which goal do you think is more likely to generate excitement? “I will get fit and look sexy” or “I will lose 10 pounds, tone my abs, fit into pants two sizes lower and look sexy”?
  4. The more specific your goal, the more you’ll be practicing it mentally. Habits are powerful – whether bad (nail-biting) or good (brushing teeth) – they make action automatic and often effortless. Mental practice contributes to habit formation. If you have a specific goal, when you think about that goal, you might also be doing mental practicing, in turn helping to form a habit and making the goal easier to accomplish.
  5. Goal Feedback

    “Integrating the two sets of studies points to one unequivocal conclusion: neither [feedback] alone nor goals alone is sufficient to affect performance. Both are necessary. Together they appear sufficient to improve task performance.”22

    “For goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires. If the goal is to cut down 30 trees in a day, people have no way to tell if they are on target unless they know how many trees have been cut. When people find they are below target, they normally increase their effort or try a new strategy.”21

    In one study, the effect of goal feedback on improving health-safety compliance was measured. Before goals were set and feedback was provided, compliance was around an abysmal 60%. Afterwards, compliance hit 100%.26

    Approach vs. Avoidance

    Goals can be either approach or avoidance. They can also be both, although that is rare and is discussed at the end of this section.

    I will lose weight so that I can look good.I will lose weight so that I can stop looking ugly.
    I will score the highest in my class.I will avoid scoring low.
    I will learn how to get my work done faster and better.In order to avoid getting yelled at by the boss, I will stop working slowly.


    Approach goals are usually pleasurable to think about, while avoidance goals are stressful.23

    Stress can be an exceptionally powerful motivator, but is sometimes used in place of what would have been an equally effective excitement. For example:

    “I will study to avoid getting yelled at” vs. “I will study in order to feel good about my capabilities.”

    Both might have produced a similar outcome – getting good grades, but undeniably the second perspective would be more enjoyable. However, avoidance goals are usually more emotionally powerful than approach goals – the thought of getting yelled at is a more emotionally charged experience than the thought of doing well. Recall prospect theory.

    The reason avoidance goals are not universally more effective is because they’re sometimes too emotionally charged – thinking about the goal produces so much stress and anxiety, that in an attempt to feel better and get distracted, people procrastinate. Even when effective, the cost can sometimes be high . For example, jobs which are high in avoidance motivation have higher turnover.23

    For these reasons, psychologists believe that approach goals are more effective than avoidance goals. However, there are several important nuances.

    First, in some domains, avoidance goals appear to more effective than approach goals. For example, in a study of smokers attempting to quit, those instructed to write down an avoidance goal had more success than those instructed to write down an approach goal.24

    “As with traditional conceptualizations of avoidance goals, some avoidance goals involve preventing a negative state from occurring (e.g., I do not want to get cancer). However, other avoidance goals involve curing a negative state that already exists (e.g., I want to get rid of a chronic cough)…

    Researchers have argued that trying to stay away from a state elicits anxiety, which in turn undermines how much effort people will put forth to work on the goal. Moreover, even if progress is made on a prevent goal, the difficulty of detecting the continued absence of something may make the progress hard to recognize.

    For example, people trying to prevent developing cancer may find it difficult to detect a reduction in the risk of developing cancer and thus have a hard time determining whether they have made any progress on their goal. In contrast to prevent goals, it may be easier to detect progress when working to meet a cure-avoidance goal.”

    Similar results were found in another study – for health goals, cure-avoidance goals are more likely to motivate proactive health behavior (e.g. going to the doctor’s).24 In my own life, avoidance-cure motivation has been more effective in fighting my fibromyalgia than approach motivation.

    Second, avoidance goals can sometimes be combined with approach goals, so that the total motivation increases while stress decreases.22

    For example, I have made a pledge that if I don’t finish this article by the end of the day, I will have to donate $150 to charity. That’s stressful – I want to avoid losing money. At the same time, it’s exciting – I want to work hard in order to share my knowledge. For the goal of writing this article, I have two sources of motivation – one approach and one avoidance.

    Performance vs. Mastery

    Do you think of your goals in terms of doing better than others or in terms of learning?

    I will score higher than last time.I will score the highest in the class.
    I will exercise three times a week.I will become the most fit member of my family.
    I will learn how to get my work done faster and better.I will get the best performance review out of everyone on my team.


    The thought of doing better than others can be exciting and motivating. But the thought of doing worse can be unsettling. Distracting, even.

    The thought of improving and learning can be also be exciting and motivating, so the question is, which is more motivating – improving and learning, or competing and doing better than others?

    Psychologists tend to lean towards learning goals, as in most of the studies they’ve conducted, those with a learning goal have done better than those with a performance goal.

    “People with performance goals seek to prove their ability. When people with performance goals encounter stressful situations, they seek to avoid proof of low ability, which they associate with low self-worth. In contrast, people with learning goals (also known as mastery goals) seek to develop and improve their ability. When people with learning goals encounter stressful situations, they seek to learn and grow from the experience…

    The two types of goals are associated with different strategies for dealing with negative feedback. People with performance goals tend to use defensive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including withdrawing effort, making excuses, and avoiding challenging tasks. People with learning goals tend to use constructive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including increasing effort, persisting on difficult tasks, seeking help, and remaining open to information about their mistakes.”

    However, once performance goals are split into performance-approach and performance-avoidance (e.g. I will do the best vs. I will avoid doing the worst), in certain circumstances and for certain people, performance-approach goals are more effective than mastery goals.22 Personally, I find the prospect of competition exciting and motivating. Many of the skills I’ve learnt and knowledge I’ve gained has been in order to do well in competition.

    More research is necessary to tease out the specific circumstances and personality traits for which performance goals are more effective than learning goals.

    Goal Setting Risks

    Read Goals Gone Wild for a review of the risks of goal setting.


    “When the goal is very difficult, paying people only if they reach the goal (i.e., a task-and-bonus system) can hurt performance. Once people see that they are not getting the reward, their personal goal and their self-efficacy drop and, consequently, so does their performance. This drop does not occur if the goal is moderately difficult or if people are given a difficult goal and are paid for performance (e.g., piece rate) rather than goal attainment.”22

    Goodheart’s Law / Tunnel Vision

    When a measure becomes a target, it stops being a good measure.56

    “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.55

    In order to hit their requirement and keep their job, consider two different ways a teacher could raise the test scores of their children. One, they could spend an extra three hours every day working – some extra time for lesson planning, some time for staying after school and offering free tutoring, and so on. Two, they can try to anticipate what the test questions will be and have their students memorize their answers. Because two is significantly easier, the teacher will probably select that option.

    If the test was a perfect measure of student progress, that would be okay. But because it isn’t, now that test scores have become a goal target, they’ve stopped being an accurate measure of student progress, as teachers and students “game” the system. The size of the degradation varies from measure to measure.

    The real-world consequence is that a goal might cause someone to become less, rather than more productive. Consider a goal to get a better review, in a situation where the busiest people in the office tend to get the highest reviews. While people aren’t gaming the system, that correlation makes sense – those who work harder tend to perform better. But with a goal of getting a better review, although one option is to do more work, the easier option is to spend a little extra effort to always look busy.

    Self-set goals rarely have this problem, Goodheart’s Law is more a concern for managers.

    Unethical Behavior

    “We explored the role of goal setting in motivating unethical behavior in a laboratory experiment. We found that 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.57

    Risky Behavior

    In one study, participants who were given difficult performance goals selected riskier strategies, as they needed to improve performance in order to meet their targets.58

    Combined with survivorship bias, this problem is a large contributor to company failure.


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    2. Improving Job Performance Through Training in Goal Setting, 1975
    3. Effects of Assigned and Participative Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976.
    4. Effects of Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976.
    5. The Role of Proximal Intentions in Self-Regulation of Refractory Behavior, 1977.
    6. Different Goal Setting Treatments and Their Effects on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1997.
    7. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance, 1976.
    8. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal, 2009.
    9. Joint Effect of Feedback and Goal Setting on Performance: A Field Study of Residential Energy Conservation, 1978.
    10. The Effects of Goal Setting and Self-Instruction Training on The Performance of Unionized Employees, 2000.
    11. Expectancy Theory Predictions of Salesmen’s Performance, 1974.
    12. Integrating Theories of Motivation, 2006.
    13. Motivation Theory, Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1990.
    14. Self-Efficacy and Resource Allocation Support For a Nonmonotonic, Discontinuous Model, 2008.
    15. Vroom’s Expectancy Models and Work-Related Criteria: A Meta-Analysis
    16. The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice, 1981.
    17. The Power of Reframing Incentives: Field Experiment on (Students’) Productivity, 2008.
    18. Evaluation Anxiety. Handbook of Competence and Motivation, 2005.
    19. Goal Selection and Goal Striving. Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology, 2001.
    20. The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, 2010.
    21. Goal Setting and Task Performance, 1980
    22. Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation, 2002.
    23. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation, 2006.
    24. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation, 2005.
    25. A 2 x 2 Achievement Goal Framework, 2001.
    26. Improving Safety Performance With Goal Setting and Feedback, 1990.
    27. Changes in Performance in a Management by Objectives Program, 1974.
    28. Assigned Versus Participative Goal Setting With Educated and Uneducated Woods Workers, 1975.
    29. Effects of Goal Setting on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1976 (sales personnel).
    30. Effect of Performance Feedback and Goal Setting on Productivity and Satisfaction in an Organizational Setting, 1976.
    31. The Role of Proximal Intentions in Self-Regulation of Refractory Behavior, 1977.
    32. Performance Standards and Implicit Goal Setting: Field Testing Locke’s Assumption, 1977.
    33. Blue Collar to Top Executive, 1977 (ship loading).
    34. Different Goal Setting Treatments and Their Effects on Performance and Job Satisfaction, 1977 (maintenance technicians).
    35. Personal Correspondence With Piers Steel.
    36. Increasing Productivity With Decreasing Time Limits: A Field Replication of Parkinson’s Law, 1975.
    37. Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance, 1978.
    38. A Study of The Effects of Task Goal and Schedule Choice on Work Performance, 1979.
    39. Knowledge of Score and Goal Level as Determinants of Work Rate, 1969.
    40. Studies of The Relationship Between Satisfaction, Goal Setting, and Performance, 1970.
    41. The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975.
    42. A Two-Factor Model of The Effect of Goal-Descriptive Directions on Learning From Text, 1975.
    43. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance 1976.
    44. Role of Performance Goals in Prose Learning, 1976).
    45. The Motivational Strategies Used by Supervisors: Relationships to Effectiveness Indicators, 1976.
    46. Effects Achievement Standards, Tangible Rewards, and Self-Dispensed Achievement Evaluations on Children’s Task Mastery, 1977.
    47. Systems Analysis of Dyadic Interaction: Prediction From Individual Parameters, 1978 .
    48. The Interaction of Ability and Motivation in Performance: An Exploration of The Meaning of Moderators, 1978.
    49. Effects of Goal Level on Performance: A Trade-off of Quantity and Quality, 1978.
    50. Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979.
    51. The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
    52. The Effect of Beliefs on Maximum Weight-Lifting Performance, 1979.
    53. Another Look at The Relationship of Expectancy and Goal Difficulty to Task Performance, 1980.
    54. Performance and Learning Goals for Emotion Regulation, 2011.
    55. Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, 1976.
    56. Problems of Monetary Management: The U.K. Experience, 1975.
    57. Goal Setting as a Motivator of Unethical Behavior, 2004.
    58. The Relationship of Team Goals, Incentives and Efficacy to Strategic Risk, Tactical Implementation and Performance, 2001
    59. A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method, 2004
    60. Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.

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