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Motivate Employee Performance
through Goal Setting
GARY P. L ATHAM
Goal setting theory (Latham and Locke, 2007 ) provides a framework that speciﬁ es the
most valid and practical ways of increasing employee motivation. This conclusion has
been reached by multiple authors working independently (e.g. Earley and Lee, 1992 ;
Miner, 1984 ; Pinder, 2008 ). The conclusion is based on the fact that the theory has been
shown in more than 1000 studies to predict, inﬂuence, and explain the behavior of thou-
sands of people in numerous countries (e.g. Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, England,
Germany, Israel, Japan, and the USA), in both laboratory and ﬁeld settings, involving
more than 100 different tasks in occupations that included logging, word processing,
engineering, and university scholarship (Locke and Latham, 1990 ; Mitchell and Daniels,
2003 ). Although developed as a theory of motivation in the workplace, it has been used
effectively in sport psychology (Weinberg, 1994 ). The theory has even been found use-
ful for promoting the motivational processes of brain - injured patients (Gauggel, 1999 ;
Prigatano, Wong, Williams, and Plenge, 1997 ).
The theory states that the simplest, most direct motivational explanation of why some
people perform better than others is because they have different performance goals
(Latham and Locke, 1991 ). The essence of the theory is four- fold (Locke and Latham,
1990 ). First, difﬁ cult speciﬁc goals lead to signiﬁcantly higher performance than easy
goals, no goals, or even the setting of an abstract goal such as urging people to do their
best. Second, holding ability constant, as this is a theory of motivation, and given that
there is goal commitment, the higher the goal the higher the performance. Third, person-
ality traits and incentives inﬂuence an individual ’s behavior, at least in part, to the extent
that they lead to the setting of and commitment to a speciﬁ c difﬁcult goal. Fourth, goal
setting, in addition to affecting the three mechanisms of motivation, namely, choice, effort,
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162 G ARY P. LATHAM
and persistence, can also have a cognitive beneﬁt. It can inﬂuence the motivation to dis-
cover ways to attain the goal (Seijts and Latham, 2005 ).
There are at least four subprinciples necessary for deriving the motivational beneﬁ ts of
goal setting. The goal must be challenging and speciﬁc, feedback must be provided on
progress in relation to goal attainment, ways must be found to maintain goal commitment,
and resources must be provided for and obstacles removed to goal attainment.
Set challenging speciﬁc goals
The goal must be both challenging and speciﬁc. Given adequate ability and commit-
ment to the goal, the higher the goal the higher the performance. This is because people
normally adjust their level of effort to the difﬁculty of the goal. In addition to being
targets to attain, goals are the standards by which one judges one ’s adequacy or suc cess.
Challenging goals facilitate pride in accomplishment. People with low goals are mini -
mally satisﬁed with low performance attainment, and become increasingly satisﬁ ed with
every level of attainment that exceeds their goal. This is also true for individuals with a
high goal. To be minimally satisﬁed, they must accomplish more than those who have
a low goal. Consequently, they set a high goal to attain before they will be satisﬁ ed with
their accomplishment. In short, to be satisﬁed, employees with high standards must accom-
plish more than those with low standards. In addition, an employee ’s outcome expect-
ancies are typically higher for the attainment of high rather than low goals because the
outcome one can expect from attaining a challenging goal usually includes such factors
as an increase in feelings of self - efﬁcacy, personal effectiveness, recognition from peers, a
salary increase, a job promotion, etc. As a result people, in most instances, readily commit to
a high goal if they believe they have the ability to attain it.
Goal speciﬁcity facilitates an employee ’s focus in that it makes explicit what it is the
individual should choose to do or try to accomplish. If the goal speciﬁes A, then B and
C will be downplayed. Speciﬁcity also facilitates measurement or feedback on progress
toward goal attainment. A drawback of an abstract goal such as “ do your best ” is that
it allows people to give themselves the beneﬁt of the doubt concerning the adequacy of
their performance (Kernan and Lord, 1988). Thus their maximum effort is not aroused.
For feedback to be used intelligently, it must be interpreted in relation to a speciﬁ c goal.
Goal speciﬁ city clariﬁ es for employees what constitutes effective performance.
For goal setting to be maximally effective, the goal and the measure of performance
effectiveness used must be aligned. Thus, if a logging crew wants to increase productiv-
ity by 15%, the performance measure must be the number of trees cut down divided by
the hours worked. If the director of an organization’s RandD division wishes to increase
line managers ’ satisfaction with the unit, the goal set can be a speciﬁc increase in the fre-
quency of behaviors emitted that have been identiﬁed through job analysis as necessary
for line management ’s satisfaction. Goals and the measures of their attainment that have
appeared in the scientiﬁc literature include physical effort, quantity and quality measures
of production, costs, proﬁ ts, and job behaviors.
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163MOTIVATE EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE THROUGH GOAL SETTING
Challenging, speciﬁc goals affect effort and persistence (Latham and Locke, 1991 , 2007 ).
When no time limits are imposed, a speciﬁc high goal induces people to work harder or
longer than is the case when a low or abstract goal is set. Without time limits, a speciﬁ c
high goal induces people to work until the goal is attained. With time limits, difﬁ cult spe-
ciﬁc goals lead to more effort per unit of time. The American Pulpwood Association found
that when paper companies impose quotas on the number of days that they will buy wood
from pulpwood crews, the crews cut as much wood in the restricted number of days as they
do in a normal ﬁve- day work week (Latham and Locke, 1975 ).
In summary, setting speciﬁc challenging goals is important for increasing both job per-
formance and job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is the result of an appraisal of one ’s
performance against one ’s goals. Job satisfaction is not a result of the person alone or the
job alone, but of the person in relation to the job. To the extent that one ’s job perform-
ance is appraised as fulﬁlling or facilitating the attainment of one ’s goals, satisfaction is
high (Latham and Brown, 2006 ; Latham, Locke, and Fassina, 2002 ). For example, in a
study conducted in Germany, there were no data to suggest that those who had high goals
experienced feelings of exhaustion. Only those employees who perceived their goals were
difﬁcult to attain experienced an increase in positive and a decrease in negative effect,
an increase in job satisfaction, and perceptions of occupational success over a three - year
timeframe. An unexpected ﬁnding was that lack of goal attainment in one ’s personal life
was related to higher degrees of subjective well - being when the person experienced goal
progress on the job (Wiese and Freund, 2005 ).
Provide feedback in relation to goals
A truism attributed to the late Mason Haire is “ that which gets measured gets done. ” This
is because the act of measurement conveys cogently what the organization truly values ver-
sus what it may state that it values. However, the accuracy of Haire ’s statement is improved
through the insertion of the word goals: that which is measured in relation to goals is done.
Both goal setting theory and empirical research indicate that in the absence of goal setting,
feedback has no effect on performance. This is because feedback is only information; its effect
on action depends on how it is appraised and what decisions are made with respect to it.
For example, the Weyerhaeuser Company found that engineers and scientists who were
urged to do their best after receiving a performance appraisal performed no better than
their counterparts in a control group. A signiﬁcant increase in performance occurred only
among those engineers and scientists who received feedback in relation to speciﬁ c high
goals (Latham, Mitchell, and Dossett, 1978 ).
Feedback moderates the effect of goal setting. Without feedback, the positive beneﬁ t of
goal setting is minimized (Erez, 1977 ). This is because goals direct effort and persistence.
Feedback allows people to discern what they should continue doing, stop doing, or start
doing to attain the goal.
Gain goal commitment
Commitment is the sine qua non of goal setting. Without it, goal setting is a meaningless
exercise. Two primary ways to gain commitment are to focus on an individual ’s outcome
expectancies and self - efﬁcacy (see Chapter 10 , this volume) .
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164 G ARY P. LATHAM
A downside of setting challenging speciﬁc goals is that people may obtain tangible evi-
dence that they did not attain them. A teenager may have test scores that provide strong
evidence of failure in math. An employee in a consulting ﬁrm may have hours and hours
of wasted effort, non - billable hours, on a potential client who subsequently took the busi-
ness to a competitor. The result can be feelings of loss of control. People learn on the basis
of evidence (e.g. revenue, client surveys, staff turnover) that they have failed to attain their
goal no matter how much they truly tried to attain it. Through such repeated experiences
they typically “ learn ” to give up; they learn helplessness. Thus there are employees who
have learned that they cannot increase revenue from existing clients, they have learned
that they are poor at bringing in new clients, and that they are not able to work effectively
with staff. They have tangible evidence to support their conclusions that they should give
up their attempts to attain their goal.
The solutions for maintaining goal commitment are at least two - fold. A ﬁ rst step,
as noted above, is to focus on outcome expectancies. The role of a coach is to help people
see the relationship between what they do and the outcome of their actions; to help
people realize the outcomes that they can expect as a result of what they do. An early
example of how outcome expectancies affect goal commitment can be found in a study by
Lashley ( 1929 ). A man, after 900 repetitions, was still unable to master the alphabet. But
after he was offered 100 cigarettes if he could learn the alphabet in a week, he proceeded
to do so in only 10 trials.
Because the concept of outcome expectancies is as useful in one ’s personal life as it is
in an organizational setting, allow me to share a personal example. I arrived home one
day to discover my four children on the front step. They greeted me with the warning
not to enter the house as Mom was in a horriﬁc mood. As she had walked across the
kitchen ﬂ oor, her foot had come out of a shoe that had stuck to dried milk. As she fell, her
hand braced her from injury as it slipped into an open dishwasher that oozed with leftover
To announce that I will solve the problem would not only have been lunacy on my
part, it would have fostered dependence: “ Let ’s wait until Dad gets here; he can ﬁ x any-
thing. ” To look for blame would have been equally fool - hardy on my part: “ So what did
you do to get your mother in such a bad mood? ” “ I don ’ t know. ” “ It wasn ’ t me. ” “ She is
always in a bad mood. ” I bet you did something, Dad. ”
The primary job of a coach is to improve performance rather than focus on blame.
This is done through increasing the person’s sense of control regarding the attainment
of their goals. It is done by helping people to realize the outcomes they can expect from
engaging in speciﬁc actions. Thus, I simply asked each of them: “ What can you do within
the next 30 seconds to improve Mom ’s mood? ” Setting a goal focuses attention on discov-
ering solutions to its attainment.
One son offered to clean the kitchen, another said he would get us both a drink, the
third said he would make dinner. My daughter quietly ran off to prepare a bath for my
wife. The outcome, as expected, was a dramatic upswing in my wife ’s affect and behavior.
A four cell empathy box can be used to understand: (1) the outcomes an employee
expects from committing to a goal, (2) the negative outcomes expected from goal com-
mitment, (3) the positive outcomes expected from sticking with the status quo, and (4) the
negative outcomes expected from doing so. Understanding outcome expectancies enabled
a forest products company to shift the dishonest (theft) to honest behavior in the workforce
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165 MOTIVATE EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE THROUGH GOAL SETTING
FIGURE 9.1 The empathy box
(Latham, 2001 ). The empathy box is shown in Figure 9.1 . The ﬁ ve questions asked
are as follows: (1) What positive outcomes do you expect from committing to and pursu-
ing the goal? (2) What negative outcomes do you expect from committing to and pursuing
the goal? (3) What positive outcomes do you expect from rejecting or ignoring the goal?
(4) What negative outcomes do you expect from rejecting or ignoring the goal? (5) What
would have to change for you to commit to the goal (look for answers in cells 2 and 3)?
This empathy box provides a systematic way to “ walk in another person’s shoes. ” To
the extent that you understand the outcomes an individual or team expects, you will begin
to understand their behavior. To the extent that you are able to change the outcomes they
expect, you will be able to change their behavior – given the person or team has the conﬁ -
dence they can do so. This leads us to the second concept, self - efﬁ cacy.
A second step to maintaining goal commitment is to increase the person’s self - efﬁcacy
(Bandura, 1997 ; 2001). Self - efﬁcacy is the conviction that one can mobilize one ’ s resources
to attain a speciﬁc performance level. “ I can cause . . . , I can bring about . . . I can make
happen. . . . ” Self - efﬁcacy is different from self - esteem in that the latter refers to judgments
of self worth: How much does Pat like Pat? Further, self - esteem is a general trait where as
self - efﬁ cacy is task speciﬁ c. The two are not necessarily directly related.
Pat may have low self - esteem due to a variety of events that have occurred in Pat ’s
past. Pat has said and done things that are deeply regretted. For these reasons no one dis-
likes Pat today more than Pat. Nevertheless, Pat believes (high self - efﬁ cacy) that there is no
one who is as effective in bringing in new business to the ﬁrm. Conversely, Pat may love
Pat, yet she may have low self - efﬁcacy in the ability to make a persuasive presentation to a
potential client. Furthermore, because self - efﬁcacy is task speciﬁc, an individual may have
high self - efﬁ cacy on ability to work effectively with staff, low self - efﬁ cacy on working effec-
tively with clients, and moderate self - efﬁ cacy on ability to work effectively within the ﬁ rm.
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166 G ARY P. LATHAM
People who have problems with self - esteem should be referred to a clinical psychol ogist.
People who have low self - efﬁcacy for attaining a speciﬁc, high goal can be coached by you
in the workplace.
Bandura ( 2001 ) has shown that it is not just our ability that holds us back or propels
us forward, it is also our perception of our ability. People with low self - efﬁcacy look for
tan gible evidence to abandon a goal. A failure is conﬁrmation that it is useless to persist
in goal attainment. Conversely, people with high self - efﬁcacy commit to high goals. They
view obstacles and setbacks to goal attainment as challenges to overcome, as sources of
excitement to be savored.
A possible indicator of low self - efﬁcacy is self - denigration of one ’ s ability. Statements
such as “ I can’t deal with a personal computer ” may indicate low self - efﬁ cacy.
High self - efﬁcacy can be induced in the workplace in at least three ways, enactive
mastery, modeling, and persuasion from a signiﬁcant other. Enactive mastery involves
sequencing a task in such a way that all but guarantees early successes for an individual.
For example, to increase conﬁdence in the use of a laptop, the following steps should be
followed: (a) open/close, (b) on/off, (c) keyboard skills, (d) save. Early successes through
“ small wins ” build conﬁ dence that “ I can do this, my goal is indeed attainable. ”
An effective coach does not abandon an employee during the early stages of learn -
ing to attain a goal. To leave the employee to master keyboard skills before teaching the
process of “ save” is to provide the employee with a reason for abandoning the laptop in
favor of pen and paper. All that was typed is lost forever when the laptop is turned off
in the absence of knowledge of the necessity to “ save. ”
The concepts of outcome expectancy and self - efﬁcacy are often applied together. If the
person hates the traditional “ snail ” mail system, show how hitting a key on the computer
will send material any place in the world in seconds. In short, enable the person to see
the relationship between mastery of the laptop and the desired outcome the person can
expect. Then give the person conﬁ dence to do so through the sequencing of the tasks.
A second way to increase self - efﬁcacy regarding goal attainment is through the use of
models. The job of coach is to ﬁnd people with whom the goal setter identiﬁ es, who have either
mastered the task or are in the process of doing so. Note that the word identiﬁes is italicized.
Directing a manager who is struggling in the development of staff to another manager who
has the “ magic touch ” with staff may not increase self - efﬁcacy. It may even backﬁre as a
coaching technique if this is all that is done. The person who is struggling may give up after
concluding that “ I will never acquire that ‘ magic touch ’ . ” Directing this manager to visit an
additional colleague who has struggled recently in the past, and has subsequently improved
the performance of staff, is more likely to increase the belief that “ if she can, so can I. ”
For the same reason, visiting a benchmark company can sometimes be a demotivat-
ing experience. The idea underlying benchmarking is to minimize reinventing the wheel
on the part of people in other organizations. Through benchmarking, the acquisition of
knowledge is accelerated. But, the downside of benchmarking is that visitors can leave full
of admiration for what they have witnessed, and demoralized because they are convinced
that they do not have the ability to model it: “ Their management system is different from
ours. Their union contract is nothing like ours. There is no way that we can be like them. ”
To increase their self - efﬁcacy you must ﬁnd an organization, in addition to the one that
will be used as a benchmark, with whom employees can identify – an organization that has
previously done poorly but has signiﬁcantly improved its performance relative to
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167 MOTIVATE EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE THROUGH GOAL SETTING
that benchmark, or is in the process of doing so. Finding and visiting this additional
organization increases the belief that “ if they can, so can we. ”
The American Pulpwood Association found that supervisory presence and support is also a
key to goal commitment and productivity (Ronan, Latham, and Kinne, 1973 ). When the
goal is assigned by a supportive authority ﬁgure, goal commitment and performance are
high (Latham and Saari, 1979a ). These ﬁndings are supported by a meta - analysis that
showed a 56% average gain in productivity when management commitment to a MBO
program is high versus a 6% increase when their commitment is low (Rodgers and Hunter,
1991 ). Thus, it is not surprising that Bandura (see Chapter 10 ) found that a third way of
increasing self - efﬁcacy is through persuasion from a signiﬁcant other. People tend to behave
in accordance with the expectations of those people who are signiﬁcant to them. Assigned
goals themselves usually lead to high goal commitment because listening to the assignment
without objection is in itself a form of consent (Salancik, 1977 ). Assigning the goal implies
that the recipient is capable of attaining it, which in turn increases the person’ s self - efﬁ cacy
regarding the task.
Bandura, a past president of the American Psychological Association, and a past hon-
orary president of the Canadian Psychological Association, addressed a classroom of
executives as follows:
We know that intelligence is ﬁxed. You either have it or you don’t. We are going to
put you through a simulation consisting of tasks that you typically confront as CEOs.
I know you will ﬁ nd these tasks frustrating and seemingly impossible.
In an adjoining room, he addressed the other half of the class of executives as follows:
We know that intelligence is not ﬁxed. Intelligence is the ability to apply what you
have learned on previous tasks to present ones. We are going to put you through a
simulation consisting of tasks that you typically confront as CEOs. I know that you will
ﬁ nd these tasks challenging and fun.
Several hours later he pushed back the dividing wall. The people in the second group
were laughing among themselves as to how similar the simulation was to their daily work
lives, and how much they had learned from their experiences that afternoon. The people
in the ﬁrst group were truly angry and frustrated. They demanded to be allowed to go
through the same simulation as the second group before their four weeks of executive
education at Stanford came to a close. The simulation that they had gone through, they
claimed, was not similar at all to what they encountered on their jobs, and hence was a
waste of their time.
In short, both groups behaved in accordance with Bandura ’s expectations of them,
despite the fact that the simulation was identical for both groups. In less than a minute,
Bandura ’s expectations of one group of executives ruined their afternoon and for the
other group he had the opposite effect.
A coach may or may not be a signiﬁcant other for the person who is being coached.
Thus a role of you as a coach is to determine the identity of the person’s signiﬁ cant other,
and have that individual or individuals communicate, if true, why they believe the person
can attain a speciﬁ c high goal.
The most powerful signiﬁcant other is one ’ s self. Verbal self - guidance (VSG) or functional
self - talk can increase or debilitate self - conﬁdence in goal attainment. We are often our
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168 G ARY P. LATHAM
worst enemy. Millman and Latham ( 2001 ) trained displaced managers to systematically
monitor their self - talk to exclude negative comments and increase positive ones with
respect to job attainment. Within nine months, 48% of the people who were trained
obtained a job that paid $ 10,000 of their previous job; only one person of eight in the
control group was able to do so. The self - efﬁcacy of the participants in the group who
were trained in functional self - talk was signiﬁcantly higher than those in the control group.
Similar results have been obtained for Aboriginals in Canada (Latham and Budworth,
2006). Training in VSG also turned highly competitive MBA students into team players
(Latham and Brown, 2006 ).
The order in which these two steps, outcome expectancies and self - efﬁ cacy, should be
implemented varies by individual. If outcome expectancies are already high, this step may
be skipped. Focus immediately on ways of increasing self - efﬁcacy if the person lacks con-
ﬁ dence that the goal is attainable.
Provide resources needed to attain the goal
Goals are unlikely to be attained if situational constraints blocking their attainment are
not removed. Thus the organization needs to ensure that the time, money, people, and
equipment necessary for goal attainment exist. Most importantly the measurement system
must not only allow accurate tracking of goal progress, it must be aligned with and be
supportive of goal attainment.
For example, a newly hired professor may set a goal to receive a mean score of 5 or
higher on a 7 - point scale of teaching effectiveness rated by students. If the measurement
system for promotion and tenure focuses primarily on publications in mainstream aca-
demic journals, and resources are provided primarily for conducting research, commit-
ment to this teaching goal may quickly wane.
Arguably, among the most important resources necessary for accruing the positive
beneﬁts of goal setting is the employee ’s ability. Organizations must provide the neces-
sary training to give people the knowledge and skill to attain the goal. This is because the
relation of goal difﬁculty to performance is curvilinear. Performance levels off after
the limit of ability has been reached (Locke, Fredrick, Buckner, and Bobko, 1984 ).
Learning vs performance goals
Consistent with the above ﬁndings regarding an individual ’s ability are studies by Earley,
Connolly, and Ekegren ( 1989 ) as well as Kanfer and Ackerman ( 1989 ). They found that
when people lack the requisite knowledge to master a task, because they are in the early
stages of learning, urging them to do their best results in higher performance than set-
ting a speciﬁ c difﬁcult goal. The reasons are at least three - fold (Latham, Seijts, and Crim,
2008). First, such tasks are complex for people. Thus the direct goal mechanisms of
effort, persistence, and choice are no longer sufﬁcient to ensure high performance. This
is because people have yet to learn the correct strategy for performing effectively. Second,
such tasks require primarily learning rather than motivation. People have no problem -
solving processes for these tasks to draw upon. Third, people with speciﬁc high goals feel
pressure to perform well immediately. As a result, they focus more on their desire to get
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169 MOTIVATE EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE THROUGH GOAL SETTING
results than on learning the correct way of performing the task. In short, tasks that are
straightforward as well as those that are complex for an individual require attentional
resources, but the resource demands of the latter tasks are greater than those of the
former (Kanfer, 1990 ). Where tasks fall within the problem - solving abilities of people,
as in cases where they have had experience performing the tasks effectively, speciﬁ c dif-
ﬁcult performance goals readily lead to the development and execution of task - speciﬁ c
strategies. Truck drivers at Weyerhaeuser found ways to increase truck loads (Latham and
Baldes, 1975 ) and to decrease truck turnaround time (Latham and Saari, 1982 ) after being
assigned a speciﬁ c difﬁcult goal. They drew upon the knowledge they already possessed to
attain the performance goal.
This was not the case in a study by Winters and Latham ( 1996 ) using a new (for them)
complex class scheduling task developed by Earley ( 1985 ). Winters and Latham found a
deleterious effect of a speciﬁ c, difﬁcult goal for performance because the wrong type of
goal was set. When a high learning goal was set in terms of discovering a speciﬁ c number
of ways to solve the task, performance was signiﬁcantly higher than it was when people
were urged to do their best or had set a performance outcome goal. This is because a
learning goal requires people to focus on understanding the task that is required of them
and developing a plan for performing it correctly. As Oppenheimer noted during the
development of the atomic bomb, determining how to get to one ’s destination is often
more important than the critical target. Research on goal setting theory shows that high
performance is not always the result of high effort or persistence, but rather high cogni-
tive understanding of the task and strategy or plan necessary to complete it (Seijts and
Latham, 2005). A learning goal is especially beneﬁcial for people who score low on cogni-
tive ability (Latham et al., 2008). As John D. Rockefeller said years ago, a goal of good
management is to show average people how to do the work of superior people. A learning
goal can raise the performance of people who score lower on cognitive ability to that of
those who score higher on cognitive intelligence.
Among the biggest impediments to goal setting is environmental uncertainty (Locke and
Latham, 1990 ). This is because the information required to set learning or outcome goals
may be unavailable. And even when such information is available, it may become obso-
lete due to rapid changes in the environment. Thus as uncertainty increases, it becomes
increasingly difﬁ cult to set and commit to a long - term goal.
In a simulation of such a situation, Latham and Seijts ( 1999 ) replicated the ﬁ ndings of
Earley, Wojnaroski, and Prest ( 1987 ) and Kanfer and Ackerman ( 1989 ) using a business
game where high school students were paid on a piece - rate basis to make toys, and the
dollar amounts paid for the toys changed continuously without warning. Setting a speciﬁ c
high performance goal resulted in proﬁ ts that were signiﬁ cantly worse than urging the stu-
dents to do their best. But when proximal performance goals were set in addition to the distal
goal, proﬁt was signiﬁcantly higher than in the other two conditions. This is because in
highly dynamic situations, it is important to actively search for feedback and react quickly
to it (Frese and Zapf, 1994 ). In addition, Dorner ( 1991 ) has found that performance errors
on a dynamic task are often due to deﬁcient decomposition of a goal into proximal goals.
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170 G ARY P. LATHAM
Proximal goals can increase what Keith and Frese ( 2005 ) call error management. Errors
provide information to employees as to whether their picture of reality is congruent with
goal attainment. There is an increase in informative feedback when proximal or sub - goals
are set relative to setting a distal goal only.
In addition to being informative, the setting of proximal goals can also be motivational
relative to a distal goal that is far into the future. Moreover, the attainment of proximal
goals can increase commitment, through enactive mastery, to attain the distal goal (Seijts
and Latham, 2005 ).
Don’t expect people to willingly stretch themselves by committing to a very high goal if
the outcome they expect is criticism for making an error. One or more errors are bound to
occur in the active pursuit of a time - sensitive difﬁcult goal. On tasks that are complex for
people, Frese ’ s research (Frese, 2005 ; Keith and Frese, 2005 ) shows that performance actually
increases if errors are encouraged ( “ the more errors you initially make, the more you learn ” ).
USE THE HIGH PERFORMANCE CYCLE
The usefulness of goal setting theory for everyday applications in work settings is shown in
Figure 9.2 . The high performance cycle (Locke and Latham, 1990 ; Latham et al., 2002 )
or HPC ’s usefulness for motivating employees in the public sector was demonstrated by
Selden and Brewer ( 2000 ). It is a diagnostic tool or framework for understanding why
employees are or are not motivated. For example:
Task complexity rewards
difficult goals on
meaningful tasks SatisfactionContingentPerformance
in addition to
Direction of commitment and
attention willingness to
Effort accept future
FIGURE 9.2 The high performance cycle
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171MOTIVATE EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE THROUGH GOAL SETTING
(a) Do people have speciﬁ c high goals?
(b) Are the tasks “ drudgery ” or growth facilitating?
(c) Do people have the conﬁdence so that they can attain the goals set (self - efﬁ cacy)?
(a) Have people been trained adequately? Do they have the ability to perform the
tasks required of them?
(b) Are they committed to goal attainment?
(c) Do they receive feedback on goal progress?
(d) Do they have the resources to attain the goal or are there situational constraints?
(a) Are they rewarded for their accomplishments?
(b) Are they satisﬁ ed with their rewards?
(a) Are they committed to their organization’s effectiveness?
(b) Are they willing to accept future challenges?
ISSUES IN IMPLEMENTATION
For what should goals be set?
As a theory of motivation, a goal refers to a desired outcome in terms of level of perform-
ance to be attained on a task. Goal content refers to the object or result that is sought after
(Locke and Latham, 1990 ). Thus performance goals should be set for outcomes that are
critical or valued by the individual or the organization in which the person is employed.
An employee may have a career goal, a job goal, a ﬁnancial goal, as well as psychological
goals including job satisfaction and self - efﬁ cacy. A learning goal should be set for discover-
ing the processes and strategies for reaching a desired outcome when the person lacks the
knowledge to do so. Behavioral goals, identiﬁed through a job analysis, are more effective
than a learning goal when the critical behaviors are known (Brown and Latham, 2002). To
set a learning goal in this instance is to encourage paralysis through analysis. Behavioral
goals are especially appropriate for job satisfaction and self - efﬁ cacy.
Because a goal is the object or aim of an action, the completion of a task can be a goal.
As noted by Locke and Latham ( 1990 ), in most goal setting studies the term goal refers to
attaining a speciﬁc standard of proﬁciency on a given task within a speciﬁ c timeframe.
This has resulted in practitioners of goal setting creating the acronym SMART, namely,
goals that are s peciﬁ c, m easurable, a ttainable, relevant, and have a timeframe (Mealiea and
Latham, 1996 ). The framing of a goal is especially important for implementation with
regard to the stress that it can cause. Frame the goal positively, for example in terms of
something a person can learn to perform well. Don’t frame it negatively, as something a
person may have difﬁculty attaining. A negatively framed goal ( “ Try not to miss answering
3 of these 15 anagrams ” ) leads to worse performance than a positively framed one ( “ Try
to make words from 12 or more of the 15 anagrams ” ; Drach - Zahavy and Erez, 2002 ;
Roney, Griggs, and Shanks, 2003) .
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172 G ARY P. LATHAM
Who should set the goals?
A seminal study at the General Electric Company (Meyer, Kay, and French, 1965 ) revealed
that it is not so important who sets the goal as it is that a speciﬁc challenging goal in fact be
set. However, subsequent laboratory and ﬁeld experiments revealed contradictory ﬁ ndings.
Erez and her colleagues (e.g. Erez, 1986 ; Erez and Arad, 1986; Erez, Earley, and Hulin, 1985 )
found that goal commitment and subsequent performance are higher when employees
participate in the setting of the goal than was the case when the goals were assigned.
A series of 11 studies by Latham and his colleagues (e.g. Latham and Saari, 1979a , b; Latham
and Steele, 1983 ) found that when goal difﬁculty is held constant, goal commitment and per-
formance are the same regardless of whether the goal is assigned or set participatively.
In what is rare if not unique in science, the two antagonists, Erez and Latham, did
a series of collaborative studies, with Locke as a mediator, to discover the basis for their
conﬂ icting ﬁndings (Latham, Erez, and Locke, 1988 ). They found that their methodol-
ogy was highly similar in the way in which the goals were set participatively, yet highly
different in the way in which the goals were assigned. In what would be expected, based
on Greenberg ’s organizational justice principles (see Chapter 14 , this volume), when the
assigned goal was given tersely and without any rationale, it had a negative effect on per-
formance relative to participatively set goals. When an assigned goal from an authority
ﬁgure included a logic or rationale, it had the same positive effect on goal commitment
and performance as did a participatively set goal. (For an overall summary of the research
on the effects of participation, see Chapter 24 , this volume.)
Subsequent research by Latham, Winters, and Locke ( 1994 ) revealed that Erez had been
correct in arguing the beneﬁ t of participation in goal setting, but for the wrong reason. The
beneﬁt is primarily cognitive rather than motivational. Employee participation in decision
making has a positive effect on performance to the extent that it increases self - efﬁ cacy and
the discovery of task relevant strategies. When this does not occur, when these two variables
are partialed out, participation in decision making has a negligible effect on performance.
Training self - regulation
The management of oneself lies at the core of goal setting theory. Setting a goal and
taking action to attain it is a volitional process. Holding goal difﬁculty constant, self - set
goals are as effective in increasing performance as are goals that are assigned or set par-
ticipatively (Locke and Latham, 1990 ). This ﬁnding is the basis for training people skills in
self - management.
The University of Washington
The University of Washington trained their maintenance employees (carpenters, mechanics,
electricians) in self - regulation to increase their job attendance (Frayne and Latham, 1987 ).
The training took place in a group setting one hour a week for eight weeks. In the ﬁ rst ses-
sion, the principles of goal setting were explained to the trainees. In Session 2, the trainees
c09.indd 173 6/17/09 6:44:07 PM
173 MOTIVATE EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE THROUGH GOAL SETTING
generated reasons for their low job attendance. The third session focused on the value of
setting behavioral and outcome (days present) goals for attendance. In the fourth session,
the importance of self - monitoring one ’s behavior was discussed. Speciﬁ cally, the trainees
were taught to use charts and diaries to record (a) their own attendance, (b) the reasons for
missing one or more days of the week, and (c) the steps that were followed to subsequently
return to work. The trainees identiﬁed rewards and punishers in the ﬁfth session that they
would self - administer contingent upon their attendance. In the sixth session the trainees
wrote a behavioral contract with themselves. The contract speciﬁed writing the goal(s) to
be attained, the timeframe for attaining the goal(s), the outcomes of attaining or failing
to attain the goal(s), and the task strategies necessary for attaining the goal(s). The seventh
session emphasized maintenance. That is, discussion focused on issues that might result in
a relapse in absenteeism, planning for such situations should they occur, and developing
strategies for dealing with such situations. During the ﬁnal week of training, the trainer
reviewed each technique presented in the program, answered questions from the trainees
regarding these skills, and clariﬁ ed expectations for self - management.
Observe that the training took explicit account of goal setting moderators and sub-
principles discussed earlier in this chapter. Goal commitment was the focus of Sessions 5
and 6, where rewards and punishers were selected, and a behavioral contract was written.
Feedback through self - monitoring was emphasized in Session 4. The complexity of the task
and the situational constraints were the focus of Session 2 where employees speciﬁed in writ-
ing the behavior that they believed would enable them to get to work, and Session 7 where
they outlined possibilities for a relapse and what could be done to overcome such issues.
Participatory group discussions occurred throughout the eight weeks of training. The
main beneﬁt of participation, as noted earlier, is cognitive; thus the training focused the
attention of each person in the group on identifying effective strategies for overcoming
obstacles to attaining the goal. In this way, self - efﬁcacy was increased. Self - efﬁ cacy cor-
related signiﬁcantly in the study with subsequent job attendance. Three months later
employee attendance was signiﬁ cantly higher in the training than in the control group.
The University of Washington conducted a six - month and a nine - month follow - up
study to determine the long - term effects of this training. Employees who had been trained
in self - management continued to have higher job attendance than those in the control
group. Moreover, when the people in the control group were subsequently given the same
training in self - management, but by a different trainer, they too showed the same positive
improvement in their self - efﬁcacy with regard to coping with obstacles perceived by them
as preventing them from coming to work. Moreover, their job attendance increased to the
same level as that which the original training group had achieved three months after it
had been trained (Latham and Frayne, 1989 ).
When are goals ineffective? The answer to this question is given throughout this chap-
ter. For example, both the American Pulpwood Association and Weyerhaeuser found that
when the goal is abstract such as urging loggers to do their best, productivity is lower than
setting a speciﬁ c difﬁcult goal (Latham and Kinne, 1974; Latham and Yukl, 1975 ). They
also found that when goals are set and supervisory supportiveness is lacking, turnover is
high, people quit (Ronan, Latham, and Kinne, 1973 ). When speciﬁ c challenging perform-
ance goals were set before people have acquired knowledge and skill to perform the task,
the performance of Air Force cadets dropped (Kanfer and Ackerman, 1989 ). In short,
goals do not work when the principles we have discussed are not applied.
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174 G ARY P. LATHAM
A limitation of theories of consciously set goals is that they fail to take advantage of the
subconscious, a storehouse of knowledge, and values beyond that which is found in aware-
ness at any given point in time. This is a limitation because unlike the conscious mind, the
subconscious has an enormous storage capacity. This storage capacity frees the conscious
mind to focus on new facts and make new integrations. Priming may be a method for set-
ting subconscious goals.
People were primed to diet through exposure to a room ﬁlled with exercise and dieting
magazines. People in the control group entered a room ﬁlled with magazines about poli-
tics and economics. Participants in the primed condition subsequently chose an apple over
a candy bar. They had no awareness of why they made that decision (Fishbach, Friedman,
and Kruglanski, 2003 ). Employees in a call center were given written instructions over a
backdrop photograph of a woman winning a race. They subsequently raised signiﬁ cantly
more dollars than did employees whose instructions were written on an otherwise blank
sheet of paper (Shantz and Latham, 2009 ).
Speciﬁc challenging goals are motivational regardless of whether they are self - set,
set participatively, or assigned. If the person has the knowledge and skill necessary
to perform the task, performance goals should be set. If the requisite knowledge
or skill is lacking, learning goals should be set. If the moderators and subprinciples
described in this chapter are taken into account by practitioners of goal setting, the
probability that performance and satisfaction will increase is above .90 (Locke and
Latham, 1990 ). No other theory of motivation has been found to be as consistently
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Group exercise – goal setting
Randomly divide people into three groups. Tell one group (in writing in all cases), so no
person will know the others ’ goals, to think of 14 ways to improve their business (UG
or MBA) program or their business unit ’s effectiveness in two minutes. (Give all subjects
actually three minutes to show the effects of persistence of the hard goal: the hard goal
group will still be working.) Give a second group the goal of 4 and tell the third group to
do their best. Calculate the mean score of each group at the end. (It is best to use lined
sheets numbered 1 to 14 or 1 to 4) for the goal groups and a blank sheet for the do best
group. (This helps prevent people from setting their own personal goals.)
Group exercise – subconscious priming
Give one group a photo of a woman winning a race and give the other group a blank sheet
of paper. Ask both groups to come up with as many uses for a coat hanger as they can in
two minutes. Count the scores of the two groups. This exercise is designed to measure the
effects of subconscious priming.