The Effect of Goal Setting on Group Performance: A Meta-Analysis
Eindhoven University of Technology Heleen van Mierlo and Lidia Arends
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Updating and extending the work of O’Leary-Kelly, Martocchio, and Frink (1994), with this meta-analysis on
goal setting and group performance we show that specific difficult goals yield considerably higher group
performance compared with nonspecific goals (d⫽0.80 ⫾0.35, k⫽23 effect sizes). Moderately difficult and
easy goals were also associated with performance benefits relative to nonspecific goals, but these effects were
smaller. The overall effect size for all group goals was d⫽0.56 ⫾0.19 (k⫽49). Unexpectedly, task
interdependence, task complexity, and participation did not moderate the effect of group goals. Our inventory
of multilevel goals in interdependent groups indicated that the effect of individual goals in groups on group
performance was contingent upon the focus of the goal: “Egocentric” individual goals, aimed at maximizing
individual performance, yielded a particularly negative group-performance effect (d⫽–1.75 ⫾0.60, k⫽6),
whereas “groupcentric” goals, aimed at maximizing the individual contribution to the group’s performance,
showed a positive effect (d⫽1.20 ⫾1.03, k⫽4). These findings demonstrate that group goals have a robust
effect on group performance. Individual goals can also promote group performance but should be used with
caution in interdependent groups. Future research might explore the role of multilevel goals for group
performance in more detail. The striking lack of recent field studies in organizational settings that emerged
from our brief review of trends in group goal-setting research should be taken into account when designing
future studies in this domain.
Keywords: goal setting, groups, teams, meta-analysis, group performance
Goal-setting theory (GST) is a well-established motivation the-
ory, as evidenced by a large body of research and widespread
application of goal-setting principles in organizational practice.
The main GST premise is that encouraging people to pursue a goal
that is specific and difficult will yield better performance than
encouraging them either to pursue a specific but easy goal or to
simply do their best (Locke & Latham, 1990). Numerous studies,
mainly focusing on individuals, have generated additional insights
into goal-setting mechanisms and boundary conditions. Specific
difficult goals have been shown to enhance individual performance
by directing attention toward desired end states, mobilizing effort
and persistence, and encouraging the development and use of task
strategies. The goal-setting effect has been shown to depend, at
least in part, on factors such as goal commitment, task complexity,
and feedback (e.g., Latham, Locke, & Fassina, 2002).
No matter how well established, GST as an individual motiva-
tion theory is not entirely aligned with current organizational
practice, in which individual jobs are giving way to teamwork
(Kozlowski & Bell, 2003). This observation inspired new research,
examining goal setting in work groups. O’Leary-Kelly, Martoc-
chio, and Frink (1994) conducted the only published meta-analysis
on goal setting in groups, reporting a large positive effect of group
goals on group performance (d⫽0.92, k⫽26). They derived this
effect by comparing the performance effect of group goals with the
effect of “no goals or low goals” (O’Leary-Kelly et al., 1994, p.
1289). Group goals included specific goals as well as goals for
which “the extent of goal specificity could not be determined”
(O’Leary-Kelly et al., 1994, p. 1294) and goals of varying diffi-
culty. Although this meta-analysis provided valuable insight into
the effect of group goals in general, it did not reflect the perfor-
mance effect of specific difficult goals compared with goals that
are either nonspecific or easy, and thus provided no comprehensive
test of the core goal-setting principles. Moreover, the qualitative
moderator analysis of O’Leary-Kelly et al. (goal specificity, goal
difficulty, participation, task interdependence, subject type, lab vs.
field setting, group type, time) yielded inconclusive results. We
therefore report a new meta-analysis on goal setting in groups,
providing a comprehensive up-to-date assessment of the effect of
specific difficult group goals on group performance. We include a
quantitative analysis of the moderators in O’Leary-Kelly et al.,
adding task complexity, a key moderator in goal-setting theory.
Finally, we examine the effect of individual goals on group per-
formance, because groups are multilevel goal environments (e.g.,
DeShon, Kozlowski, Schmidt, Milner, & Wiechmann, 2004)
where goals can be set for the group as a whole as well as for
individual group members.
This article was published Online First July 11, 2011.
Ad Kleingeld, Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation
Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, the Nether-
lands; Heleen van Mierlo and Lidia Arends, Institute of Psychology,
Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
We thank Harm van Vijfeijken for his input in the early stages of this
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ad Klein-
geld, Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, Eind-
hoven University of Technology, P.O. Box 513, 5600MB, Eindhoven, the
Netherlands. E-mail: email@example.com
Journal of Applied Psychology © 2011 American Psychological Association
2011, Vol. 96, No. 6, 1289–1304 0021-9010/11/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0024315
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