What Is Goal-Setting Theory?

colleagues working to set goals

Goal-setting theory describes the mechanisms that best engage and motivate employees. It implies tactics you can use to increase productivity on your team or throughout your organization. These tactics include setting goals that are specific and realistic yet challenging.

Best practices in goal setting also require a completion date for a project. Milestones with due dates for smaller tasks that are part of that goal also motivate your teams. Finally, goal-setting theorists suggest using two-way communication and feedback loops. For instance, regular meetings enhance engagement, identify bottlenecks and other difficulties and ensure goal alignment.

A Short History on the Goal-Setting Theory

Setting goals to incentivize laborers and managers to complete tasks is not a new idea. After all, the Egyptian pyramids stand today as a tribute to cross-generational goal setting and completion. Yet, modern theoretical science has a keen ability to quantify what “we already know.” In that process, it takes age-old models, objectively narrows down their strengths, improves upon them and removes corollaries that may be high-cost and counterproductive.

This is true in psychology as well. And psychologist Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D., and Gary Latham, Ph.D., set their sights on incentivizing labor. The culmination of their studies appeared in a 1968 edition of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. Locke’s paper, “Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives,” set a new standard in understanding better means of task motivation in the workplace. He found that clear, challenging and realistic goals best engage and motivate employees.

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 by research industries ranging from robotics and business to education and studies in general decision-making.

Raytheon engineer George T. Doran later applied Locke’s theory to his own work in goal setting. His mission to apply Locke’s findings to a useful framework appeared in his paper, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives” appearing in Management Review.

SMART Goal-Setting

Many goal-setting models have evolved from the theory, but SMART goals remain the most versatile and popular. The acronym also captures the attributes commonly used in most modes of goal setting. That is, set goals that are:

  • 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 team software like Asana 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 the dumb New Year’s resolutions we often set for ourselves. 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!

Photo by LDprod/Shutterstock

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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.

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