Goal Setting Theory of Motivation

updated on 30 September 2022

Goal setting is more than just writing down what you want on a piece of paper. How you create your goals has an enormous effect on the outcome.

If you want to improve your goal setting system, learning about these methods can improve your success rate.

With that, let's jump into the goal setting theory.

Theory of Goal Setting Locke and Latham 
Theory of Goal Setting Locke and Latham 

What is Goal Setting Theory? A Look at Edwin Locke's Theory

The goal setting theory states that setting clear goals with positive feedback motivates people which, in turn, improves performance.

His theory takes goal setting a step further than just coming up with goals. It's about using a system to create more effective goals.

When you set goals in this manor, you're more likely be complete them successfully.

5 Steps of Goal Setting Theory

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Feedback
  5. Task complexity

Let's take a deeper look into the 5 steps and see how they can be applied to your personal goals.

Setting Clear Goals

The first thing you need to do is set clear goals. This is something people often fail at.

People think they can just set any goal and there doesn't need to be much thought put behind it, we've all done this.

Here are some examples of improper goals:

  • Lose weight
  • Make more money
  • Get healthier

There is no substance to them, no guidelines to follow.

A good method for setting your goals is to follow the SMART goal method.

  1. Specific - What exactly do you want to accomplish or achieve? Make sure you create specific goals.
  2. Measurable - How can the goal be measured, is there a specific measurable aspect or unit of measurement?
  3. Achievable - Is this goal achievable? Do you have the resources and skills required?
  4. Relevant - Does the goal align with your other goals, your bigger picture goals?
  5. Time bound - What is the timeframe to accomplish the goal?

Following this method will help set better goals.

Work goal setting and task management
Work goal setting and task management

Set Challenging Goals

Easy goals are just as bad as goals that are too difficult.

You want to find goals that push you enough to spark your interest.

As studies and research have shown, part of the success of our goals comes from the level of challenge that they are.

If they are too easy, they are boring and provide little motivation to accomplish. On the other hand, if you set goals that are too challenging, then you will lose confidence to work on them.

So, you need to find a challenge level somewhere in the middle to optimize performance.


Once you set a goal, you need to put in a deliberate effort to accomplish the goal.

Sharing the goal with others can help hold you accountable and ensure you're committed to the goal.

Goal commitment is a crucial step to the goal setting theory, it's better to make slow progress as long as you remain committed.


Feedback is an important step for measuring your progress and see how you're doing.

The feedback can come from a couple of different methods. First, an outside person can give you feedback and tell you how you're doing. If you have someone holding you accountable, this could be another job for them.

The next method of feedback can come directly from you. You can analyze your progress and task performance to see how you're progressing.

With the regular feedback you receive, you clarify expectations and adjust the difficulty of your goals.

Task Complexity

Finally, we have the final step to the goal setting theory which is task complexity.

We don't want goals to be to complex or difficult so we need to make sure they are manageable. One way to do this is by breaking them down.

Breaking large, difficult goals into smaller ones is an easy way to make sure things don't get overwhelming.

As you complete smaller goals, you can review your progress and make necessary changes to your plan.

psychology effects of goal setting
psychology effects of goal setting

About Locke and Latham's Theory

In later decades Locke's pioneering work with motivation and goal setting helped modernize goal setting concepts.

He shows how clear goals with appropriate feedback motivate employees in 1968. Besides promoting goals it is important to encourage people to work toward them.

The study of Locke shows that, the more difficult the goals are, the more effort is required. So when you set goals, you should set ones that are more challenging but not impossible.

Locke examined more than 10 decades' worth of studies comparing performance goals to laboratory and field studies.

About the studies

Study using goal setting theory is broadly divized into three categories : The first study has shown that setting goals can influence the learning performance of a student — a significant influence from academic perspectives.

For example, Gardner and colleagues surveyed 127 medical undergraduates to undergo surgical skills training. The study finds goals setting helps new students learn surgical techniques, particularly if they are developing strategies and orientations.

This research shows that students were able to achieve better performance when they were given more specific objectives.

Setting meaningful and challenging goals

Most of us have learned from managers, seminar presentations and other businesses that we should set our goals for life.

We know that the term "SMART" goals signifies specific, measureable, accurate, relevant and measurable in a given time. Is this all the necessary consideration for reaching your goal?

Find out what is a good strategy to achieve your goal. Drs Gary Latham and Edwin Locke spent years pursuing the theories of goals setting.

Can goal setting help decision making?

Goal setting and decision-making are two incredibly important voluntary activities which change people's lives radically.

You may remember the saying that “You're not saving a person who wants to be saved”. It’s true. Having others help them is impossible without having the help and motivation and no matter how tiring.

Setting goals allows for better decisions and also the reverse. It gives you access to the important and valuable things.

Team goal setting and task performance 
Team goal setting and task performance 

Self-Efficacy and Goal-Setting

Self efficacy was a notion invented by Albert Bandura. This is an important concept for positive psychology.

Are you the kind of person who always believes they can achieve something? doubt yourself? or somewhere in the middle?

If you don't know what self efficacy is, it is defined as "the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations."

Many people can set goals and figure out what they want to do or change in life but how they do it is where self-efficacy comes in.

Having a strong sense of self-efficacy will not only help you accomplish more goals but more challenging goals as well. You'll also recover more quickly from setbacks. Challenging problems won't stop you from pursuing your goals.

On the other hand, if you have a weak sense of self-efficacy, you dwell on past failures and setbacks, you avoid challenging goals and tasks, and you lose confidence in your personal abilities.

How do you improve your self-efficacy? There are a few ways that you can do this.

  • Master experiences, performing tasks successfully will strengthen our sense of self-efficacy
  • Social persuasion, someone saying something positive and encouraging you can help you achieve your goals.
  • Your own mood and emotional reactions can contribute to a positive or negative self-efficacy.

Goal-Setting vs. Expectancy Theory

It is a theory of expected behaviour developed by Victor Vroom (1964) examining the underlying processes in decision-making.

Vroom describes three important aspects that structure how humans make decisions about how they want to live.

  1. Expectancy: Effort → Performance (E → P)
  2. Instrumentality: Performance → Outcome (P → O)
  3. Valence: V(R) Outcome → Reward

Breaking it down more. Expectancy is the belief that one's effort will result in achievement of the desired performance goals.

Instrumentality is the belief that the person will receive the reward if performance expectations are met.

And finally, valence is the value that the person puts on the reward for the goal.

Using a multiplier between instrumentalities and valence, it is possible to measure motivational force.

Motivational Force = Expectation x Instrumentalism x Valence.

When all 3 are high, your motivation will be high leading to better performance and a higher probability of success.

Commitment to specific difficult goals
Commitment to specific difficult goals

Using the goal setting theory of motivation in the workplace

The goal setting theory is not just a tool that can be used for personal goal setting, it is also great in the workplace.

Set goals for employees

Every employee is going to be different and require different goals.

Using the same method for setting goals, such as the SMART method, determine a goal that is specific and challenging for the employee.

Create a plan for the employees to reach their goals

Goals are worthless without action. Creating plan will make the goals more viability and also build self confidence with team members.

Part of the goal setting theory is building confidence since employees will perform better when they are properly motivated.

Breaking goals down into smaller tasks is a critical part of the goal setting theory.

Based on the nature of this method, you're creating challenging goals for the team so making them easier by breaking them into smaller tasks is a necessity.

It will build confidence and built commitment to the process.

Provide employees with tools and resources they need to accomplish the goals

Just like the action plan, not having the right tools and resources will hold any team back from accomplishing their goals.

Without the proper tools and resources, the employees will be ad a disadvantage. The goal will be more challenging to accomplish and will take longer than originally planned.

Give feedback

An important step of the goal setting theory is providing feedback. This is especially important when working in a team setting.

Depending on the structure of the team, it may be you or others providing the feedback but it's important to inform employees on things are progressing.

Feedback will aid in boosting performance since the employee will know if they are on the right path to completing the goals.

If their performance is lacking, you can or the team can help lead them back towards success.

Even positive feedback will strengthen the process and achieve quicker results.

Disadvantages of the goal setting theory

Nothing is perfect and even the goal setting theory has some drawbacks. I think you will find the pros to far outweigh the cons though.

  • Proper planning does require time and effort although this typically has a high ROI in the long term.
  • More challenging goals can lead to risky behavior and human performance may suffer. It's important to follow the steps and provide related feedback to the person or yourself.
  • There is a high level of commitment required that can lead employees or some people to fall behind

How Last Plannr can help with goal setting

Last Plannr is a productivity app that puts all it's emphasis on goal setting and completition.

We understand that goal setting and task management go hand in hand. Setting random goals and hoping they lead to bigger and better things is a pipedream. At the same time, random task lists often do little to help your progress.

At the end of the day, better performance comes from a proper goal setting system.

Since Last Plannr is all about the system behind goal setting, it fits with this method perfectly.

When you're creating your goals, make sure they are specific goals and clarify them with detail. Don't forget to make them challenging goals as well.

After you set your specific goals, you can go ahead and create the tasks for each goal. Most productivity software are just task lists or to dos, they aren't goal focused.

With Last Plannr, you put the goals first, then the tasks. You make sure the tasks are related to each goal. When you complete a task, it puts you closer to accomplishing the goal.

As you can see, this makes Last Plannr a very good fit for the goal setting theory.

Locke's goal setting theory of task motivation Final Thoughts

If you struggle with setting goals and following through on the completion, it might be worth exploring the Locke's goal setting theory of task motivation.

The research has shown the power and effectiveness of this method. You'll experience better motivation and higher performance from more specific and challenging goals.

Better feedback and task management aid in the overall system. It makes everything more thorough and lessons the chance of failure.

While you may think it seems like overkill for goal setting, research and psychology have shown that it works.

So, if you struggle with goal setting and commitment, I highly suggest giving this goal setting theory a try.

Higher performance goal setting
Higher performance goal setting

TL:DR Goal Setting Theory

Don't feel like reading the whole article? Here is a brief overview

The goal setting theory, which was developed by Dr. Edwin Locke, is one of the most powerful productivity theories we have.

It takes goal setting and shows how behavior and work motivation can drastically increase the likelihood of successful outcomes.

By setting specific and challenging goals, commiting to the goals and process, providing effective feedback, and create a plan that breaks down the goals into smaller tasks, you'll build a powerful system for completing goals.

While it adds more steps and requires management through the process, it's a goal setting system that leads to more motivation and better performance.

Locke's goal setting theory is something that works not only at the personal level but it also works in the workplace with teams as well.

With this goal setting method, you're accomplishing more difficult goals with better performance. It's something that can drastically improve your life and improve your level of achievement.

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