The World of Work Project

Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory

Locke and Latham detail five key principles that support the creation of effective and motivating goals. These are: Clarity, Challenge, Acceptance, Feedback and Complexity.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Locke and Latham’s Principles of Goal-Setting

Locke and Latham worked both independently and collaboratively in their efforts to study goal-setting. In the 1968, Locke published findings that individuals were motivated by both appropriate goals and feedback, and a few years later Latham published further results that corroborated Locke’s conclusions.

Lock and Latham later collaborated on the topic, publishing their famous book, “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance”, in 1990. It’s in this book that they detailed their five principles of goal setting. We consider each principle briefly below:

Clarity

For goals to be motivating they need to be clear and they should be concise. Ambiguity or complexity reduce the ability of goals to be understood and to be motivating.

Challenge

A goal to lose 5lbs is motivating, a goal to lose 50lbs might not be.

Goals need to be challenging to the right level in order to be motivating.

To be motivated, individuals need to feel that their goals are stretching and that achieving them would feel like a genuine achievement. However, if goals are too challenging then individuals will not be motivated and will simply not try to achieve them.

Commitment

Goals will only be motivating for an individual if they are accepted by the individual. Just because someone proposes a goal doesn’t mean that an individual actually accepts it.

Goal acceptance occurs in different ways. Sometimes individuals may simply accept a goal proposed by someone else, but sometimes individuals will be more accepting of a goal if they help define it themselves.

Feedback

For individuals to be motivated by goals they need to understand how they are doing in relation to them. To understand how they are doing in relation to their goals, people need to have timely and accurate performance related feedback. This feedback can take many different forms, including metrics, data or feedback from others.

The specific type of feedback that is appropriate will depend on the type of goal being pursued, but some form of feedback is always beneficial.

Task-Complexity

Goals should be set at the right level of complexity. If single goals are set against highly complex tasks, then they are generally not as effective as when they are set against more simple tasks. Given this, it’s important to break goals down into bite-size, comprehensible chunks.

A complex goal like “Build a satellite” may be too daunting to be motivating. Instead, it should be broken down into smaller components.

The World of Work Project View

Goal-setting is a powerful tool for individuals and leaders. From an individual perspective, goal setting can help significantly with behavior change at a personal level, or with motivation and performance in the world of work. Similarly, from an organizational or leadership perspective, goal-setting is essential for the effective steering and motivation of a group of individuals.

Locke and Latham’s principles for goal setting are a great way to think about what makes a good goal. The principles are simple and effective, and can demonstrably improve motivation and performance at an individual or team performance.

Unfortunately, many leaders and organizations fail to put enough effort into setting effective goals. Instead, many goals are designed without due time and consideration, meaning they are simply an administrative burden which add no motivation and which do not improve performance.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on work originally produced by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. You can read more in their book: “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance“.

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