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Goal Setting Theory of Motivation

Technical Details

Name(s): Goal Setting Theory of Motivation
Author: Edwin Locke
Classification: Cognitive or Need-to-Know Motivation Theories
Year: 1960s


  • Goal Setting Theory of Motivation provides a measurable way of assessing a person's commitment and performance.
  • Providing specific goals is an organized way of giving feedback on the way an organizational member performs.
  • Evidence does exist that higher performance results when goals are well defined but challenging, as a successful outcome boosts the self esteem [1].
  • Persons seeking structure (as opposed to anarchy) in organizations will find compatibility with goal seeking.
  • Goal Setting Theory of Motivation is a major tenet of program management techniques, such as the Program Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), a widely adopted standard issued by the Program Management Institute [2], such as by the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • The goal setting theory is something by which a leader can point in coordinating otherwise disparate elements in an organization; goals provide a focal point of organizational coherence.
  • With goal setting theory and hoped-for achievement a leader can assess her/his capabilities, as well as learn by mistakes and rectify them.


  • If there is a conflict between managerial and overall organizational goals, goal setting may be a source of conflict.
  • This method may not work as well for complex situations, where goals may not be clearly definable.
  • There needs to be an accurate assessment of a member's ability to achieve the goal. Even if the person claims to be able to accomplish a task, the self-assessment may not be realistic. There needs to be a "back-up" person to take over if the first person cannot achieve the goal.
  • Evidence doesn't exist that goal setting theory satisfies the member.
  • The very existence of other goal setting theories cancels the exclusivity of the goal setting theory as the only theory of what motivates leadership.
  • One should ask whether there are other factors than goal identification that make an organization cohere.


Goal Setting Theory of Motivation for leadership was formulated by Edwin Locke, his first article in 1968 being "Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives". An organizational member performs a task better because there is a clear-cut goal set, with specific objectives, scheduling, and feedback. This presupposes that goals are attainable and challenging. The member has something toward which to strive, and there are no ambiguities about what is to be done. While it may not always be a good idea to have the member be a part of the goal setting, although, that person may be more motivated if s/he is a part of the decision-making process. The greater ability the member has, the greater probability s/he will be motivated to achieve it, and the goal will actually be achieved. To be committed to the goal, the member should be involved in goal setting, the goal should be openly defined and clear, and it should be consistent with other organizational goals.


Goal Setting Theory of Motivation presents itself as a common sense way of viewing how a leader is motivated. After all, what is the purpose of an organization, if its goals cannot be defined? However, at one end of the scale of specificity is an organization that is formed for the vague idea of its members to associate with each other. At the other end of the scale is a formalized version of goal-setting theory set forth in the acronym S.M.A.R.T, i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-targeted [3]. A person wanting to lead because s/he thought that goal setting was needed should be expected to think along these lines.

Let's look at this popularization from the Wikipedia entry and ask some simple questions so as to help evaluate the worth of this goal setting theory. Then, perhaps we can be more critical and hesitant before adopting yet another theory in what may be deemed a fad.

Specific - How specific is specific? If a leader is more anarchistically oriented or wants to give people a greater leeway in identifying what is to be done, then, we can have a wide variance in what people think needs to be done and what actually needs to be done.

Meaningful, Motivational, Manageable, and Measurable - Here, we have a very subjective term and we ask questions in terms of persons involved. For example, to whom is something meaningful? What may be meaningful to one may not be to another. From this can stem issues about manageability.

Attainable - Attainability also is a relevant term, dependent upon goal definition and a person's perspective on whether it is meaningful, attainable, relevant, etc.

Relevant - Again, we have a relative term. What may be relevant to the leader specifying a goal may not have any relevance to the one carrying out the task. Relevance is tied very close to "meaningful" and bears with it similar problems.

Timely -While this is a more measurable aspect of goal setting theory, it also is tied to other factors, such as relevance, specificity, and so forth.


Evaluate - "Ethical, Excitable, Enjoyable, Engaging, Ecological" are what might politely be called "overflow" factors in considering how goals are formulated, and one can wonder why these either are not stated as separate factors or integrated into the ones existing. The cleverness in starting each with the same letter "E" in the acronym does nothing to answer the question.

Re-evaluate - Rewarded, Reassess, Revisit, Recordable, Rewarding, Reaching also invokes the same type of questions as the above. However, these do focus on "recursion" - also an "r" word - and feedback, where one assesses outcome in terms of these factors.

Satisfactory - Satisfies Strategic Vision - Here appears to be more business jargon, "strategic" adopted from the military arena. We see such an overuse of this self-important term so as to dilute its true meaning of thought behind general responses to an action. Judging whether something is satisfactory falls under evaluation, if one adopts a common sense meaning of the word "evaluate". One determines whether something has worth or not, and presumably, goals are generally what is to be attained, i.e., "fulfillment of a strategic vision".

We have other factors such as prioritization - how important or critical is the goal, a factor that is not mentioned in the clever acronym "SMART". All in all, all these factors, while important cannot be regarded in isolated but as an ensemble, the modification of one affecting the others.

Paul J. Meyer in his Attitude is Everything [4] asks the standard questions a reporter asks in doing any news story:

  • What: What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why: Specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal.
  • Who: Who is involved?
  • Where: Identify a location.
  • Which: Identify requirements and constraints.

One might ask "how"; otherwise, the other questions will remain mere academic exercises. Enter the key performance indicators (KPI) that a goal-motivated leader may identify as tools to help carry out goals and the more specific objectives [5]. Here, measurable specifics, such as task standards, worker turnover, number of problems being resolved, and so forth, allow a leader to assess the effectiveness of what s/he is doing in terms of achieving goals.

Besides being measurable, however, it is more important, perhaps, to have those one leads be committed to goals. First, they need to be well defined and not changed from one moment to another according to whim. Written goals, with milestone charts help obviate this problem. Second, the members need to be committed to the goals, i.e., in agreement with them. Third, the goals need to be realistic. If organizational members do not think they are attainable, then, there may not be any attempts to achieve them [6]. A person motivated by goal setting would be expected to thinking along these lines, if s/he expected to be successful as a leader.

A precaution with the goal setting theory, or any other goals setting theories, must be that not all organizations are the same. There is a major tendency - in the U.S., at least - to broad brush any organization outside the government as a business. There are non-government organizations, such as educational institutions, as well as private clubs and non-profit organizations. A number of these are not production oriented, and goal formation may undergo an entirely different set of processes than a business or government. For example, would KPIs be appropriate for a philosophy club?


Is the achievement of a goal the only reason why a person would want to become a leader? If one can think of other reasons, then this is the first critique of the Goal Setting Theory of Motivation, being "the" theory for why persons are motivated to become leaders.

One may ask "Precisely why do people become leaders?" Surely, goals enter into many situations attracting leaders, but for the leaders themselves, there may be other reasons. Goal setting is one of several "cognitive, or need to know" theories. A leader may or may not even care about the organizational goals but seek leadership as a way of bring order in to her or his own life, as in giving her/him a purpose. A classic case is gang leadership, where a person joins and rises to the top because s/he is alienated on the outside and finds social affinity and order within the gang. Subcultures, organizations being examples, may be motivations or opportunities for a person to find social acceptance and personal order, or coherence.

One always should be wary of singular explanations or theories as to why a person may lead. Goal setting as a motivation appeals to someone quantifiable-oriented, and one might compare personality types (another genre of theories about leadership styles) and persons with a more free-wheeling style of leadership may not want to be obsessed with the details in goal setting and ways to achieve them. After all, such details may involve administrative aspects, such as record keeping, hierarchies, disputes about who evaluates and why, etc.

Goal setting surely is one reason impelling people to lead in this style, and, as we have mentioned, the PMBOK has proved itself to be an effective way of leading. Goal setting is a double-edged sword, like so many things. On one hand, it is a way of better defining an organization's purpose and helps it to be more efficient. On the other hand, if the organization has been established for informal purposes, a goal-setting approach may formalize matters that can create conflicts among persons, such as in creating hierarchical structures and opportunities to wield power.

Future of theory

Wherever there is a way of measuring a goal, ways to achieve it, and whether the outcome is what is desired, it seems that there always will be goal-oriented motivations for leadership. In 1910, to add a somber note, Frederick Taylor did time-motion-efficiency studies to determine down to the very last body motion the most efficient way of performing a task [7]. In essence, Taylor was attempting to make people as efficient as machines. Today, we see software that accounts for a works keystrokes in a job, and if s/he is deemed "inefficient", s/he is called on the carpet to account for why there are not ore keystrokes per unit time [8]. Too, well known is the discussion concerning cameras in the workplace, tracking a worker's movements [9]. Are these what is meant about measuring key performance indicators? We have to be careful about what we mean by goal setting and the means to achieve it. We have to ask whether a person wants to become a leader because s/he wants to exert power. While Taylor's methods of intense supervision still exist, there are those who are taking a more subtle approach where "... employees will be encouraged and motivated to be involved in highly challenging and risky goals, with the expectations that achieving these goals may require some time and can be associated with temporal failures [10]." Like so many other things in life, there are two sides of the proverbial coin. On one hand, no one want to see time wasted, but on the other hand, one has to ask about the nature of the organization or a workplace and a member's participation in it. Those subtle approaches to time management may be an ostensibly more convivial means of personnel management, but such does not mean that they enhance human character or democratic organizations. These modern Tayloresque measures are ways of indicating success, thereby boosting the ego of that leader, thus satisfying the real desire to lead, but is that what we want to encourage in our world, making the workplace or organization a production facility?

Want to expand on the discussion?

We encourage you to expand on the discussion, add to the critique or even share your vision with regards to the future applications of the theory.

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