Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation

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Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation
Fred C. Lunenburg
Sam Houston State University

ABSTRACT Locke and Latham provide a well-developed goal-setting theory of motivation. The theory emphasizes the important relationship between goals and performance. Research supports predictions that the most effective performance seems to result when goals are specific and challenging, when they are used to evaluate performance and linked to feedback on results, and create commitment and acceptance. The motivational impact of goals may be affected by moderators such as ability and self-efficacy. Deadlines improve the effectiveness of goals. A learning goal orientation leads to higher performance than a performance goal orientation, and group goal-setting is as important as individual goalsetting.

Goals have a pervasive influence on employee behavior and performance in organizations and management practice (Locke & Latham, 2002). Nearly every modern organization has some form of goal setting in operation. Programs such as management by objectives (MBO), high-performance work practices (HPWPs), management information systems (MIS), benchmarking, stretch targets, as well as systems thinking and strategic planning, include the development of specific goals. Furthermore, goal setting is the underlying explanation for all major theories of work motivation—whether that be Vroom’s (1994) VIE theory, Maslow’s (1970) or Herzberg’s (2009) motivation theories, Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory, or operant-based behaviorism (Skinner, 1979). Managers widely accept goal setting as a means to improve and sustain performance (DuBrin, 2012). Based on hundreds of studies, the major finding of goal setting is that individuals who are provided with specific, difficult but attainable goals perform better than those given easy, nonspecific, or no goals at all. At the same time, however, the individuals must have sufficient ability, accept the goals, and receive feedback related to performance (Latham, 2003).


INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT, BUSINESS, AND ADMINISTRATION 2_____________________________________________________________________________________

General Model
Edwin Locke and Gary Latham (1990), leaders in goal-setting theory and research, have incorporated nearly 400 studies about goals into a theory of goal setting and task performance. Figure 1 depicts a simplified view of goal-setting theory. According to the theory, there appear to be two cognitive determinants of behavior: values and intentions (goals). A goal is defined simply as what the individual is consciously trying to do. Locke and Latham postulate that the form in which one experiences one’s value judgments is emotional. That is, one’s values create a desire to do things consistent with them. Goals also affect behavior (job performance) through other mechanisms. For Locke and Latham, goals, therefore, direct attention and action. Furthermore, challenging goals mobilize energy, lead to higher effort, and increase persistent effort. Goals motivate people to develop strategies that will enable them to perform at the required goal levels. Finally, accomplishing the goal can lead to satisfaction and further motivation, or frustration and lower motivation if the goal is not accomplished.

Satisfaction and Further Motivation


Emotions and Desires

Intentions (Goals)

Directed Attention Mobilized Effort Persistence Strategies

Behavior or Performance


Frustration and Lower Motivation

Figure 1. General model of goal-setting theory.

Implications for Practice
Under the right conditions, goal setting can be a powerful technique for motivating organization members. The following are practical suggestions for managers to consider when attempting to use goal-setting to enhance motivation and performance (DuBrin, 2012; Greenberg, 2011;...
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