Locke's Goal-Setting Theory

Setting Meaningful, Challenging Goals

Learn how to set effective goals,
in this short video.

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

Henry David Thoreau, American author and philosopher.

Many of us have learned – from bosses, seminars and business articles – the importance of setting ourselves SMART objectives. We know that "SMART" stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. But are these the only factors to consider if we want to achieve our goals?

Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham spent many years researching the theory of goal setting, during which time they identified five elements that need to be in place for us to achieve our goals.

In this article, we'll look at their research, and find out how to apply it to our own goals.

About Locke and Latham's Theory

In the late 1960s, Locke's pioneering research into goal setting and motivation gave us our modern understanding of goal setting. In his 1968 article "Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives," he showed that clear goals and appropriate feedback motivate employees. He went on to highlight that working toward a goal is also a major source of motivation – which, in turn, improves performance.

Locke's research showed that the more difficult and specific a goal is, the harder people tend to work to achieve it.

In one study, Locke reviewed a decade's worth of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting and performance. He found that, for 90 percent of the time, specific and challenging (but not too challenging) goals led to higher performance than easy, or "do your best," goals.

For example, telling someone to "try hard" or "do your best" is less effective than saying "try to get more than 80 percent correct," or "concentrate on beating your best time." Likewise, having a goal that's too easy is not motivating. Hard goals are more motivating than easy ones, because it feels more of an accomplishment to achieve something you've worked hard for.

A few years after Locke published his article, Dr Gary Latham studied the effects of goal setting in the workplace. His results supported Locke's findings – that there is an inseparable link between goal setting and workplace performance.

In 1990, Locke and Latham published their seminal work, "A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance." In this book, they repeated the need to set specific and difficult goals, while outlining five other characteristics for successful goal setting.

Locke and Latham's Five Principles

According to Locke and Latham, there are five goal setting principles that can improve our chances of success:

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

Let's look at each of these elements, and explore how you can apply them to your personal goals and to your team's objectives.

1. Setting Clear Goals

When your goals are clear, you know what you're trying to achieve. You can also measure results accurately, and you know which behaviors to reward. This is why SMART is such a useful mnemonic.

However, when a goal is vague – or when you express it as a general instruction like "take initiative" – it isn't easy to measure, and it isn't motivating. You may not even know you've achieved it!

How to set Clear Goals

Personal Goal Setting Team Goal Setting
  • Write your goal down and be as detailed as possible. Use SMART, and consider putting your goal into the form of a personal mission statement   for added clarity.
  • Think about how you'll measure your success toward this goal. What specific metrics will you use?
  • Once you've set your goal, examine how it makes you feel. Are you excited? Does the challenge motivate you? If you don't feel strongly about the goal, you might need to clarify it or change it entirely.
  • Set clear goals that use specific and measurable standards. For example, "reduce job turnover by 15 percent."
  • Write down the metrics   that you'll use to measure your team members' success. Be as specific as possible, and make sure that everyone on your team understands how you'll measure success.

2. Setting Challenging Goals

People are often motivated by challenging goals, however it's important not to set a goal that is so challenging it can't be achieved.

How to set Challenging Goals

Personal Goal Setting Team Goal Setting
  • Look at your goal. Is it challenging enough to spark your interest?
  • Develop self-discipline  , so that you have the persistence to work through problems.
  • Identify ways that you can reward yourself when you make progress. Incremental rewards for reaching specific milestones will motivate you to work through challenging tasks.
  • Before taking on a major goal, research it thoroughly. This will help you be realistic.
  • Use the Inverted-U model   to find the best balance between pressure and performance when you set goals.
  • Think about how you'll reward   team members when they achieve challenging goals.
  • If possible, create some friendly competition between team members or departments. Competition can encourage people to work harder.

3. Securing Team Commitment

To be effective, your team must understand and agree to the goals – team members are more likely to "buy into" a goal if they have been involved in setting it.

This doesn't mean that you have to negotiate every goal with your team members and secure their approval. They're likely to commit to it as long as they believe that the goal is achievable, it is consistent with the company's ambitions, and the person assigning it is credible.

How to Secure Commitment to Goals

Personal Goal Setting Team Goal Setting
  • Stay committed by using visualization   techniques to imagine how your life will look once you've achieved your goal.
  • Create a treasure map   to remind yourself why you should work hard. Visual representations of your goal can help you stay committed, even when the going gets tough.
  • Allow team members to set their own goals. This will increase their sense of commitment and empowerment.
  • Use Management by Objectives   to ensure that your team's goals align with the organization's goals.
  • Use Amabile and Kramer's Progress Theory   to enhance your team's motivation and commitment with small wins.

4. Gaining Feedback

In addition to selecting the right goals, you should also listen to feedback, so that you can gauge how well you and your team are progressing.

Feedback gives you the opportunity to clarify people's expectations and adjust the difficulty of their goals.

Keep in mind that feedback doesn't have to come from other people. You can check how well you're doing by simply measuring your own progress.

How to Give Feedback on Goals

Personal Goal Setting Team Goal Setting
  • Schedule time once a week to analyze your progress and accomplishments. Look at what has and hasn't worked, and make adjustments along the way.
  • Learn how to ask for feedback   on your progress from others.
  • Use technology to track and measure your progress. Apps like Lift are a good place to start.
  • Measure progress by breaking difficult or large goals down into smaller chunks, and seek feedback when you reach each milestone.

5. Considering Task Complexity

Take special care to ensure that work doesn't become too overwhelming when goals or assignments are highly complex.

People who work in complicated and demanding roles can often push themselves too hard, if they don't take account of the complexity of the task.

How to set Complex and Challenging Goals

Personal Goal Setting Team Goal Setting
  • Give yourself plenty of time to accomplish complex goals. Set deadlines that apply an appropriate amount of pressure, while still being achievable.
  • If you start to feel stressed   about meeting your goals, they might be too complex or unrealistic. Reassess both of these areas and modify your goals if necessary.
  • Break large, complex goals down into smaller sub-goals. This will stop you feeling overwhelmed, and it will make it easier to stay motivated.
  • Your team members might need additional training before they work toward their goal. Give everyone a training needs assessment   to identify any knowledge or skills gaps.
  • If you notice that any team members are overwhelmed, consider putting them into a coaching   or mentoring   relationship with a more experienced colleague.

Key Points

Goal setting is something that many of us recognize as a vital part of achieving success.

By understanding goal-setting theory, you can apply Locke and Latham's principles to your goals. Their research confirms the usefulness of SMART goal setting, and their theory continues to influence the way that we measure performance today.

To use this tool, set clear, challenging goals and commit yourself to achieving them. Be sure to provide feedback to others on their performance towards achieving their goals, and reflect on your own progress as well. Also, consider the complexity of the task, and break your goals down into smaller chunks, where appropriate.

If you follow these simple rules, your goal setting will be much more successful, and your overall performance will improve.

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Comments (21)
  • abdulghayas wrote Over a month ago
    This article is very helpful for me.
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Felicia, the article references AUTHORSHIP as:
    Sarah Pavey and the Mind Tools Team. Citing it I would use Mind Tools the ULR and the retrieval date. good luck with your paper.
  • Felicìa wrote Over a month ago
    Who is the author of this article, I am using a piece in my paper and I want to cite correctly. Any help?
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Mistenns113,
    Thanks for the feedback. Is there any particular piece of advice that you are planning to implement or already implement? How does it work for you?
  • Mistenns113 wrote Over a month ago
    very good article with a lot of advice. This is something to consider or dismiss if it does not seem to marry the current situation and routine one might currently be in.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    It will probably depend on who is doing the puzzle.
  • Alen wrote Over a month ago
    Actually that example is wrong. Complexity does include challenge, but not vice versa. A puzzle with numbers is NOT complex. It's trivial.
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!


  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Dipti,

    Qualitative measures do require a bit more creative thinking for sure. And sometimes you can try and quantify a qualitative goal. For your goal think about how you would know if you were successful. What would your team do differently or better that would indicate they were behaving more positively? Would there be fewer complaints from parents? Would there be more compliments from parents? Maybe you could send out a quick survey to parents asking a few key questions and then send the survey again in six months and a year to see if there has been improvement. Do you use a discipline book? Might there be fewer incidents that need to be recorded? Maybe you could keep a log of the positive interactions you see. Ask your team to log their own positive experiences. Keep track over the first few months and note improvements and what people were doing to make a difference.

    With the creative activities you could again ask for parental feedback on the things that their kids take home. Survey them about the creativity now and then do it again in a few months to see if they notice any changes. Here again keeping a log could be useful. Note the enthusiasm of the kids at craft time. Note the interactions and attitudes of staff. Develop a little rating scale for level of interactivity, child enthusiasm, staff engagement, etc... and then see if the ratings go up over a period of time.

    Hopefully some of this helpful, at least as a starting point, for thinking about what could work. Let us know what you think.

  • diptikanani wrote Over a month ago
    How would one think about goal setting in the childcare sector. I am a partner in a Nursery/School and the children who attend are from the ages of 3 to 6. One of my goals this year is to be more positive around the children and I want to encourage the same from my team. My business partner wants to introduce more creative activities for the children. What are the specific challenges I should set around these goals to keep us motivated and how should I define them? I feel it gets a little more difficult when the outcomes are very qualitative (in terms of children's security and happiness).

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