Sunday, March 31, 2013

Goal-Setting Theory

Written by: Bryan Baines

The ability to concentrate and to use your time well is everything if you want to succeed in business--or almost anywhere else for that matter” (Lee Iacocca). As one of the most prolific businessmen in the world, Lee Iacocca was an advocate of setting goals. He practiced what he preached when he was working at Ford and also when he was president and CEO at Chrysler. Goals are often credited for successes, and the lack of goals is often blamed for failures. The word is used so much that the meaning loses its intended impact. A goal is the difference between victory and defeat in sports; it’s a benchmark for dreamers and achievers; or it can be the finish line for others. While a goal may seem like an overused term, its meaning should not be diluted in our lives. Goal setting is one of the most important motivators that we utilize in our every day lives.
                  Goal setting is often applied in the workplace. When employees are given assignments, they decide how much effort they will give for the assignment and what their desired outcome will be as a result of that effort. According to the textbook, the theory of goal setting “views goals as the primary drivers of the intensity and persistence of effort.” In other words, goals are the motivator behind our performance. The text also goes on to describe how specific and difficult goals actually produce better results from workers than simple goals or even no goals at all. The argument being that if people have a specific benchmark they need to reach – for example, a report that needs to be done by 2:30 on Wednesday – they will know exactly how much effort they will have to give to achieve the desired results. They could even use that deadline as a motivator and try harder to get it done ahead of schedule.
                  Setting goals should not be limited to only work tasks. Goals can be a great way to improve our lives on many different fronts. In an edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham published the article “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory” in which they describe 4 mechanisms of the relationship between goals and performance. “High goals lead to greater effort than do easy goals…Goals direct attention towards goal-relevant actions at the expense of non-relevant actions…Goal effects depend on having the requisite task knowledge and skill…And goals may motivate one to use one’s existing ability or to ‘pull’ stored task-relevant knowledge into awareness.” Locke and Latham explain that goals can be the motivating force that causes people to want to perform better and, if they don’t have the required knowledge, they may seek to obtain the required knowledge. They also explain that goals along with self-efficacy often enlist the effects of other motivators like autonomy, feedback and personality traits.
                  Having the wrong focus when setting goals can have worse effects than not having goals set at all. Making a goal looking only from the business perspective can cause unwanted behaviors to attain the goal. Goal setting needs to be a result of a balance between the business perspective (efficiency, accuracy) and the human psychological perspective (realistic deadlines and workload). The end result is what Bill Lycette and John Herniman are calling the new goal-setting theory. Goals are strongly linked to business metrics, which is ideally: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed (SMART). Lycette and Herniman are saying that SMART is not adequate to produce the best results. The say that to achieve superior results, metrics also need “to have a single owner who takes accountability for the metric, be clearly articulated in an easy to understand and reusable format, and be applicable to all levels of the organization (Lycette & Herniman, 2008).” Their new dynamics help address the human psychological aspect of goal setting and business metrics in addition to the already-established metric model. These new characteristics help to make the employees feel equal and autonomous in the workplace. By having an equal goal model from top to bottom of an organization will help the social dynamic in the business as well.
                  While setting goals is often an effective method of optimizing productivity, some are saying that setting too many goals becomes a problem. Since businesses rapidly adopted the idea of goal setting, it quickly escalated into more. Professor Schweitzer, who wrote “Goals Gone Wild” which was published in the journal Academy of Management Prospectives stated that “The proponents of goals focused on the benefits of the goals, not the harm, and too many businesses went too far, saying ‘Here’s what we want you to accomplish,’ and implicitly saying, ‘We don’t care how you got there’ (Tugend, 2012).” He was hinting that this was leading into unethical behavior. This brings up the important idea that, if goals are the only way that one’s performance will be measured, what incentive does one have to go above and beyond when their deadline or benchmark is already met? “Besides possibly leading to unethical behavior — a lawyer being told to bill a certain number of hours a week will be tempted to fudge the numbers — too much emphasis on goals can inhibit learning and undermine intrinsic motivation (Tugend, 2012).” Goals are important in the workplace, but they cannot be the only measure people have in order for performance and, more importantly, the quality of their performance to be optimized.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Retrieved from .
Lycette, B., & Herniman, J. (2008). New goal-setting theory. Industrial Management, 50(5), 25-30,5. Retrieved from

Tugend, A. (2012, October 05). Experts’ advice to the goal-oriented: Don’t overdo it. . Retrieved from

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