What Is the Goal-Setting Theory and How to Use It in the Workplace

UPDATED: February 23, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 25, 2023
Woman smiling at a cafe learning about goal setting theory

If you’re looking to motivate yourself or your employees to increase productivity, then it’s time to learn about goal-setting theory.

What is goal-setting theory?

Like its name entails, the basis of goal-setting theory is understanding how to set realistic yet challenging goals that can be achieved, if you and your team work hard. It motivates people by setting a completion date for the goal in question, whether that be a project at work or something more personal. 

Part of how it works is by setting up smaller tasks to complete along the way, like milestones of accomplishment on the way to the final larger goal at hand. When people pass these milestones, they feel motivated and excited and find themselves completing these once distant and challenging goals faster than they expected.

Of course, good communication is also critical for making goal-setting theory work, especially in the workplace. Practices like regular meetings to enhance engagement can identify bottlenecks in the process and help solve other difficulties to ensure goal alignment.

Let’s go through the goal-setting theory basics to get you up to speed on how this process can help you and your team succeed.

A short history of goal-setting theory

Setting goals to incentivize laborers and managers to complete tasks is not a new idea. All of the greatest infrastructure in our country was built on a solid foundation of planning and setting goals.

Yet, the first people to put this theory to paper were psychologists Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D. and Gary Latham, Ph.D. They were interested in how to incentivize labor, and in 1968, a culmination of their studies appeared in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, in a paper called, Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives.”

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The paper set a new standard in understanding better means of task motivation in the workplace. Locke found that clear, challenging and realistic goals are what best engage workers. Locke wrote:

“[H]ard goals result in a higher level of performance than do easy goals, and specific hard goals result in a higher level of performance than do no goals or a generalized goal of ‘do your best.’”

He later concluded:

“Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence and motivating strategy development. Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging…”

The performance gains he discovered were dramatic. In fact, his paper has been cited for decades by industries ranging from robotics and business to education.

Less than two decades later, Raytheon engineer George T. Doran would apply Locke’s theory to his own goal-setting theory framework called S.M.A.R.T, which he published in a landmark paper in 1981.

SMART goal-setting

Today, SMART goal-setting remains the standard in goal-setting theory. Even though many models have evolved since, the simple acronym captures the most important attributes of setting goals:

  • Specific: rather than seeking broad goals, narrow them to a particular outcome
  • Measurable: ensure that the outcome you want to achieve is measurable
  • Attainable: unrealistic goals are less likely to be achieved
  • Relevant: ensure that the goals align with your overall values or corporate mission
  • Time-bound: set a timeline for task completion as well as a final completion end date

Using goal-setting theory in the workplace

Researchers designed goal-setting theory especially for the workplace. In many ways, the task of motivating and engaging employees through tested methods is already done for you. But like great software, the challenge for you lies in “installing” and using it.

Take some time on your own on the front end of a project. Using the SMART model, carefully consider the goals you want to achieve. Break down the tasks best suited to each employee and the realistic timeframe necessary for each stage. But, just as importantly, consider this a sketch rather than a completed work.

Then, meet with your team members as a group to discuss your outline and assignments. Listen closely to feedback in areas including time frame to completion, what additional support they need and even where the end-goal itself can be improved. Don’t let your team dictate your plan. Rather, consider it a strategy session to flesh out details and improve overall objectives. This action alone will help build a more motivated and happier workplace.

Once your plan is finalized, use tools such as spreadsheets and project management software, like Monday, to keep everyone on board in achieving their tasks. Augment these tools with regular individual and group meetings to discover and address challenges along the way. Remember: This sort of communication is a central component to goal-setting theory.

Using goal-setting models in your own life

Setting our own goals can prove more challenging than setting goals for others. For instance, consider how often we fail to meet our New Year’s resolutions. The problem isn’t intent. Rather, our resolutions often fail to use SMART methodology to ensure we stay motivated.

Consider yourself an employee. Whether seeking to learn a new skill, improve your health or achieve greater professional success, use the same goal-setting theory as you would to motivate a team member or subordinate. Goal-setting books and goal-setting worksheets can assist you in formulating goals you will stick with and achieve!

This article was updated February 2024. Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com

Bryan enjoys the digital space where arts and technology meet. As a writer, he has worked in education, health and wellbeing, and manufacturing. He also assists smaller businesses in web development including accessibility and content development. In his free time, he hikes trails in central Florida.