Locke and Latham’s goal setting theory details 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

Goal Setting

Goal-setting is a hugely powerful tool and there are different types of goals. Setting goals well can help organizations and leaders achieve their objectives. Similarly, personal goals are motivating for individuals and help them achieve their own goals.

Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory

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

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


For goals to be motivating they need to be clear and they should be concise. Ambiguity or complexity makes it harder for people to understand goals. This, in turn, makes them less motivating.


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. They need to believe that achieving their goals would feel like a genuine achievement. However, individuals will not be motivated if their goals are too challenging. If goals are too stretching, individuals will give up before the start and not even try to achieve them.


To be truly motivating, goals need to be accepted by the individual tasks with achieving them. 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.


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. That said, some form of feedback is always beneficial.


Leaders should set goals at the right level of complexity. Leaders should use multiple goals for complex tasks and objectives. If single goals are set for highly complex tasks, they tend not to be effective. Given this, it’s important to break goals down into bite-size, comprehensible chunks.

Learning More

There are many different types of goals and they are all important for organizations, leaders and individuals. We think Locke and Latham’s Goal Setting Theory is one of the most useful ways to think about goals. That said, we also know some people love the concept of SMART goals. Some also love Zig Ziglar’s seven steps of goal setting.

Ultimately, goals are about helping individuals or organizations achieve an objective. Motivation is often key in helping individuals achieve their goals. Behavior Change and Habits also come into play in helping individuals achieve goals.

As well as the podcast shared at the top of this post, you might enjoy this podcast on behavior change.

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 Goal Setting Theory and its 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.

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Sources and Feedback

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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