Locke and Latham's Goal Setting Theory

Dr. Edwin Locke published his theory on goal setting in 1968 in an article called “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives.” His theory was that employees were motivated by having a goal to work towards and that reaching that goal improved work performance overall. He showed that people work better when their goals are specific and challenging rather than vague and easy. For example, telling someone to ‘improve customer service’ is not specific. You might know what it means, but will the employee interpret it the same way? Instead, the goal should be clear, such as ‘reduce customer complaints by 50% over a five month period.’

In 1990, Locke and Dr. Gary Latham published “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance” in
which they identified five principles that were important in setting goals that will motivate others. These principles are:

 Clarity
 Challenge
 Commitment
 Feedback
 Task complexity

We’ll now look at each of these principles individually.


A clear goal is one that can be measured and leaves no room for misunderstanding. Goals should be very explicit regarding what behavior is desired and will be rewarded. Look at the goals listed in Figure 2 below to help you understand how to be clearer when setting goals.


What would give you a greater sense of accomplishment: achieving an easy goal or achieving one that was a real challenge? We are motivated by the reward that we believe we will receive for completing tasks. So if we know that a goal is a challenge and is also perceived as such by those that assigned it to us, we are more likely to be motivated to achieve it.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck with this principle. A goal should be challenging, but must still be achievable. If I don’t believe that I can meet a goal that you’ve given to me, I might not even be motivated to make an attempt. I will dread the goal rather than be motivated by it. You should also be sure that you have identified rewards that are appropriate for the achievement of challenging goals versus normal expectations. By positively rewarding the achievement of challenging goals, you encourage not just the achieving employee, but those other employees who witnessed the reward that was given for the achievement.


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