Goal specificity is central to goal-setting theory. I would expect task complexity to have a significant impact on the optimal degree of goal precision: the more complex an activity - hence the less clear the effort-performance link is - the more arbitrary and risky I assume to be the setting of very specific goals, given that the individual cannot directly link his inputs to the goal attainment. Is in those cases more effective to shift from setting goals as specific-result parameters to setting more generic targets in line with underlying interests?
Goal setting theory states that assigning difficult, specific goals on simple or routine tasks results in performance increases. However, today's organizations are characterized by increasing complexity, therefore a critical issue in work settings is how to help people perform well when dealing with difficult and complicated tasks. Goal orientation theory may help address this issue. Goal orientation refers to two types of super-ordinate goals people can hold during task performance: a learning goal orientation[i] and a performance goal orientation[ii]; while in the former the individual is not directly focused on the concrete final outcome of his performance, in the latter he is specifically concerned with the results achieved. Substantial research[iii] suggests that one goal orientation might not be superior in all circumstances, and that several factors including the cognitive load of the task - determined by its complexity and difficulty - might play a role in the efficacy of different goal orientations. Steele-Johnson et al. claimed that a learning goal orientation is relatively more beneficial when cognitive load is high and vice versa. In their study, they examined the role of task complexity in goal orientation effects on performance, motivation, and satisfaction; their threefold hypothesis was that goal orientation and task complexity interact affecting performance, intrinsic motivation, and satisfaction with performance. Their study was based on a sample of 199 undergraduate students (79 M, 120 W) from a mid-western university and used a 2 (simple/complex task) X 2 (learning/ performance goal orientation) X 4 (trial blocks) design. All the hypotheses were tested using a 2 (task complexity) X 2 (goal orientation) X 4 (trial blocks) repeated measures ANOVA analysis. Results supported the hypotheses that task complexity and goal orientation interact in their effects on performance and satisfaction with performance: the study showed that individuals with a performance goal orientation outperformed those with a learning orientation on a simple task, while no goal orientation effects were observed in the complex task condition; moreover, while individuals with a performance goal orientation were more satisfied with their performance on a simple than on a complex task, those with a learning goal orientation were unaffected by task difficulty. This implies that striving to achieve a tangible/specific goal when facing a complex task results in worse performance and may even turn out to be frustrating, therefore setting more generic targets in line with underlying interests might produce better outcomes. These findings might represent the basis on which to conduct future research on the relation between the optimal degree of goal specificity and task complexity: my assumption is that, being individuals with a performance goal orientation more affected by the complexity of the underlying task, an excessive goal specificity could significantly affect their performance when confronted with difficult and complex tasks. Although this study alone cannot fully support my assertion, it lays the ground for subsequent analysis. In his 1991 dissertation[iv], Caryn J. Block analyzes the effects of task complexity in goal setting. She starts from the assumption that challenging and specific goals do not lead to performance improvements when tasks are particularly complex - the reason...
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