Goal Setting Theory Of Motivation [ Explained In Details]

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

What Is Goal Setting Theory

The Goal setting theory of motivation was develped by Edward Locke and Gary Latham. The purpose of this theory is to identify how setting a specific goal can help you perform the task at hand smoothly. The theory of goal setting states that setting a goal can motivate the people of an organization to work in a consistent, organised manner. Let's delve deeper and find out what Goal Setting Theory By Locke and Latham is all about.

What Does Goal Mean To Locke And Latham ?

The first thing that you should note in the Goal Setting Theory is Locke and Latham think of goals differently. When we talk about goals, we generally mean something that needs to be achieved, taken or done. Like you, as a student, have a goal of passing in the exams. On the other hand the goal of the Covid 19 researchers is to come up with a vaccine as soon as possible.

Locke and Latham think of goal as an intention behind doing a certain work. Every person works because she INTENDS to achieve something. So, basically, Locke and Latham are more interested in the ‘why’ of doing things, not the ‘what’.

Think about it. Your goal is to get good marks in exams. That exactly is your intention behind studying for so many hours a day! So goal can really be a synonym of intention.

How Can Managers Use Goal Setting Theory To Motivate Employess ?

According to Locke and Latham human beings and even animals indulge in actions because they are driven by purpose. So every action that a human being does has a purpose behind it. This purpose is what Locke and Latham describe as goal or intention in their Goal Setting Theor of Motivation. In the workplace, setting a specific, hard yet attainable goal motivaytes the employees to work hard and reach that goal.

In the workplaces too, people work because they have specific intentions in mind. And those intentions motivates them to work. But why do different people have different levels of motivations? That’s because not all persons have the same intention or goal in mind. Employee A might have the intention of making the company he works for more successful. But the goal of Employee B might simply be to get appraisals. Both of these goals help the respective employees work. But the power of these goals vary. so how can managers use the theory of goal setting to motivate employees? Read on...

It is the responsibility of the managers to make sure that all the employees have goals that align with the goals of the company. It is perfectly alright to set the goal of getting appraised. But the managers must remind that employee that he can get appraised only if the company bags that high profile deal. So, that employee must work in that direction. This is how, the managers can merge the personal goal of the employee with the goal of the company

Attributes of Goals

The theory of goal setting also attributes different features to the goals or intentions. When using goal-setting theory to motivate employees managers should be aware of these attributes of Goal setting theory by Locke.

  • Specific

  • Difficult yet,

  • Attainable

  • People must commit to the completion of the goal

  • Feedback

  • Specificity of A Goal -

This is one of the major attributes of the Goal Setting Theory of Motivation by Locke and Latham. If you set a goal of getting ‘good marks’ in an exam and your friend sets a goal of getting ‘ 70 out of 100’ marks in the exam, who do you think can study in a much more organized way? Ofcourse your friend. Why? Because he knows what chapters to read, how much to read and how much time should be devoted in order to get that particular mark. But you, on the other hand, don’t know how much marks are considered good marks. As a result you have no idea how much to read and what to read.

In the workplace too, if a manager says, “ Give your 100%” to all the employees, the levels of motivation among the employees will be different. Why? Because one employee’s 100% will not be similar to another employee’s 100%. But if the manager says that “ I need each one of you to sell at least 5 products everyday,” the employees will know what exactly they need to achieve - that is - selling 5 products per day. So , they will work accordingly. They will have a basic idea of how much work is needed to sell 5 products everyday. As a result, the motivation levels of the employees will be on the same plane.

  • Difficulty Of A Goal

If the goal is not difficult, employees won’t have much motivation to attain that goal. A goal should have the capability of bringing out that go-getter attitude in the employees. If the employees of a company usually are able to close 20 deals each month, then an easy goal for them would be to close 15 deals. Closing 14 deals in a month is rather too easy for the employees of that hypothetical company.

If the manager says that the employees have to close 25 deals then it is moderately difficult for the employees. And when the goal is to close 30 deals a month - it becomes a difficult goal. Now if the manager says that they have to close 50 deals in a month - it becomes impossible to achieve the goal.

  • Difficult Yet Attainable

Most of the employees would bring in the same level of go getter attitude as the level of difficulty of the goal. But when they see that the goal is impossible to achieve, the employees would lose motivation. So it is necessary to set a difficult yet attainable goal.

Difficulty of A Goal Varies From One Employee To The Other

The difficulty of a goal will not be the same for everyone in the company. Employee A might find it easy to close 5 deals a month. But Employee B might struggle in closing even 3 deals. So when it comes to goal setting, one size will not fit all. The managers or the CEO will have to keep the bigger picture in mind but he has to make sure that the goal appears attainable to each of the employees.

  • People Should Be Attracted To The Goal

The goal setting theory of motivation also states that people should be attracted to the goal - they should commit to the attainment of the goal. If an employee is not attracted to the goal then the motivation to reach that goal wouldn’t be there.

So how would you make people gain an attraction towards the goal? By assigning the goal with a rationale behind it. For example, if a manager asks his juniors to achieve 30% more target than the previous month without any background - the employees might find that goal to be just an instruction, not a goal.

Once again, we need to mention that in order to make people get attracted towards a goal - the goal should be specific. Without specificity, the rationale behind that goal cannot be made clear.

Then again, people will only take interest in the completion of the goal if they think that the goal is actually attainable. People will not commit to impossible goals. Take the example of me. I am an academic content writer. When I first started, my first employer used to ask me to complete 2000 words per day. Writing 2000 words academic articles is hard but attainable. So I worked day in and day out to attain the goal. But then after a few months, the employer started asking me to complete 3000 to 4000 words per day. You can easily understand, writing well researched articles of 3000 to 4000 words is humanly not possible. What did I do? I started losing interest in the job! And later I left the job altogether. Now I am with an employer who understands the difference between hard goals and impossible goals. So the goal should be hard but attainable in order to make the employees take interest in the goal.

  • The Role of Legitimate Authority To Assign A Goal

The employees would like to see some legitimate authority figure who would assign them the goal. Take the example of me again. If a person who is not an academic writer himself, wants me to write 3000 words per day, I would reject the goal. Because that person has no knowledge of the job. But if a person who is a content writer herself says that it is possible to write 3000 words per day - at least I would try ( But the fact is legitimate persons will assign goals that are attainable and not outrageously impossible).

  • Feedback Is Necessary

To complete a goal as smoothly and as quickly as possible, the employees must get constructive feedback. Without feedback the employees won’t know if they have to work harder, spend more time or put more focus. With feedback, the employees would know the gaps in their approach to the attainment of the goal.

So, this is the gist of the goal setting theory of motivation. Before Locke and Latham came up with this theory, ,many theories already existed - like- the Drive theory, Reinforcement Theory etc. But they all suffered from some major flaws. The reason why the goal setting theory of motivation is included in your syllabus is because this is a logical theory that is accepted by the majority of the people.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1994). Goal setting theory. Motivation: Theory and research, 13, 29.

Lunenburg, F. C. (2011). Goal-setting theory of motivation. International journal of management, business, and administration, 15(1), 1-6.

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