Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Theory of goal setting and task performance

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Theory of Goal-Setting and Task Performance:
What is Locke and Latham's theory and how can it be applied?

Overview[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Goal Setting[edit | edit source]

A goal is something that you want to be, do, or have,that you currently are not, have not done or in possession of. 
              To me,if you write down a goal and you know how to achieve it, then, you are simply writing a to-do list. 
              You are fulfilling set tasks. What makes goals different is that they are something that you must grow as a person, in order to achieve them” (David Nixon, 2014)

It is common saying that the best lay plans often go array because no matter how detailed the preparation, a plan will always have a weak point and there will always be a way to exploit it. It could be related to career aspirations, lifestyle choice or general well-being, or even perhaps having that one thing that you have always dreamt of having but somehow, you have not been able to achieve. You have that feeling inside of you that you must maintain total control over risks, emotions and enemies, be that internal or external of yourself, because the single greatest threat to success, is losing sight of your goals. To set a goal means that you have made a decision to achieve. You have made a decision to fulfil that desire for change (Locke & Latham, 2006), to make your optimal outcome a reality.

Within the business world, the world of motivational speakers, life coaches and mentors, goal setting is a central focus for leaders, who adopt principals from psychological research and pass them onto clients or employees to drive productivity (Hsiaw, 2013). In the field of psychology, goal setting has been studied as a mechanism to achieve results to the standard required by the individual when associated with task performance (Koch & Nafziger, 2011). Goals relate to ability and motivation with a direct correlation to performance (Locke & Latham, 2006), which means that in order to set a goal for yourself, or if you are in a position to set a goal for another, there are variables which need to be considered.

Goal setting has been studied using over 40,000 subjects, in multiple countries and settings and different spans of time and variables (Locke, 1996). The evidence produced from these experiments have allowed for the theory of goal setting to be a robust method to achieve, with motivation being a central principle in the development and commitment of desired outcomes, and when coupled, allows for an outstanding success rate of 90% (Locke, 1996). The foundation of Locke and Latham's goal setting theory is that through encouraging people to chase a goal that is explicit and challenging, they will produce higher levels of performance than encouraging them to follow a specific, but easy goals, or to simply do the best they can (Kleingeld, Mierlo & Arends, 2011).

Locke & Latham's Goal Setting Theory[edit | edit source]

In the field of psychology, motivation is perceived as typically being a challenging topic to research, mainly because of the initial conclusions by researchers which stated that measuring and making inferences of an individuals’ consciousness was not considered a plausible scientific method (Locke, 1996). As time went on however, renowned psychology researchers including Albert Bandura, with his social-cognitive theory and Locke and Latham with goal setting theory have provided significant movement from this view through their work on motivation, goal setting and task performance. This was partly due to the fact that when it came to psychological research associated with motivation and goal setting, researchers shifted the behaviourist view that did not align goal setting with mental processes at all, to a cognitive process approach (Heath, Larrick & Wu, 1999).

Goal setting theory emphasises that task performance is a regulator for conscious goals that individuals are aiming to achieve in a particular undertaking (Locke & Latham, 1990). Hundreds of studies have tested Locke and Latham’s hypothesis that the harder and more specific the goal is to achieve, the better the performance, and that vague, simple or no goals at all, result in less effort to perform to a high standard (Klein, Wesson, Hollenbeck & Bradley, 1999). It is recognised and backed up by research, that if there is no commitment to a goal, it can result in having no effect on one’s motivation (Klein et al, 1999). For example, if you have a vague goal like 'I want to increase my fitness levels so every week I’ll do my best to wake up an hour earlier and run around the block'. It is suggested that you will not achieve to your highest ability because you have set a vague goal, and a goal that is riddled with a diverse range of outcomes (Locke, 1996). The goal needs to be broken down. Firstly, your goal is not to run around the block in under 15 minutes, your goal is to increase your fitness levels. In order for you to achieve that you have set yourself milestones along the way, so you can track your progress. We then need to track those goals, and allow for feedback through that tracking method. The more specific goal is now: 'every morning this week I will set my alarm to 530am, I will run a specific route, time it and every day I will record my time. Every week I will beat my time by at least 5 seconds until I reach my ultimate goal of 15 minutes'. Here you have a specific procedure, milestones to allow you to get to the main goal, and the motivating factor of setting an attainable goal. This example is one that demonstrates Locke and Latham’s theory, that in order for people to pursue goals effectively, a method of tracking development to their goal (Locke, 1996) is essential. Not only is tracking your performance a way to enhance it and to continue to pursue when faced with hurdles, it will allow for excuses or deviations from the ultimate goal to be more easily identified and rectified.

Self-efficacy[edit | edit source]

The value of our goals can be directly measured by our will to endure; we have a remarkable ability to resist fatigue, to withstand pain, to keep fighting as long as we don’t lose sight of what we are fighting for. Self-efficacy relates to the whether people concentrate their thought patterns on enhancing or debilitating themselves, if they can motivate and persevere when faced with complications, their emotive responses to their health and happiness, their susceptibility to stressors and thoughts of hopelessness, and the choices they make at important points in the process (Bandura & Locke, 2003).

When talking about self-efficacy, psychologists are referring to an individual being confident in tasks (Locke, 1996). Self-efficacy is a key factor of Bandura’s social-cognitive theory (Bandura & Locke, 2003), which states that “self-efficacy beliefs, control human functioning through cognitive, motivational, affective, and decisional processes” (Bandura & Locke, 2003). The particularly intriguing element of Bandura’s self-efficacy, is the fact that it contemplates individual variances that people have, and acknowledges that an approach taken to enhance motivation for one person, is not always an effective option for another (Locke & Latham, 2006). It is understood that in combination with goal setting, self-efficacy facilitates the things associated with other motivators including personality traits, feedback, involvement and decision making, independence and incentives (Locke & Latham, 2006). For those who exhibit higher levels of self-efficacy, they will set harder goals or accept more difficult goals that are assigned to them (Locke, 1996), which will generally lead increased persistence due to commitment, the longer period it will take to reach and expected obstacles faced (Locke, 1996). By being aware or prepared for these, individuals with high levels of self-efficacy are able to commit to a difficult goal and react with more determination when faced with distractors and find a way to strategies moving forward, in order to avoid negative impacts to their desired outcome (Locke, 1996). The level of self-efficacy an individual possesses at one time can be a reliable forecast of self-efficacy levels over a period of time (Bandura & Locke, 2003). Those who are able to maintain a high level of self-efficacy are more likely to power through difficulties or barriers that are acting as preventatives in maintaining task performance than those who have attempted, failed and given up (Bandura & Latham, 2006). Feedback is a certain area of goal setting which is a requirement for people to remain aware of their development and moderate their commitment to the goal of which they aim to achieve (Locke & Latham, 2006). Feedback is enhanced by an individual’s level of self-efficacy and their view of how important the goal is to them.

Giving & Receiving Feedback[edit | edit source]

When it comes to the workplace, performance discussions commonly include feedback discussions with your manager. In almost all organisations, feedback discussions are used in a way for managers to have conversations with their employees on their performance, with one of the main reasons for this being that decades of research in organisational management, human resource management and psychology show that feedback on performance is perceived as good practice and a recommended approach promoting a high standard of output through human capital. Feedback in goal setting is a requirement for people to remain aware of their development and moderate their commitment to the goal of which they aim to achieve (Locke & Latham, 2006), and is enhanced by an individual’s level of self-efficacy. The receiver of feedback’s view of how important the goal is to them and the use of feedback in goal setting is a tool that should be used to enhance overall performance (Erez, 1977). An important part of the feedback process is that the receiver takes on board the advice in order to improve performance and the person giving the feedback needs to be conscious that without a goal or personal standard someone expects of themselves, feedback will not be considered significant and will therefore not respond with action (Locke & Latham, 1990).

Providing feedback on performance can serve the individual in two ways: (a) It can dictate behaviour to keep the individual on course; and (b) it can act as an incentive to encourage more effort (Kim & Hamner, 1976). Feedback from someone you respect personally or within your chosen industry can be a true motivator for adaptive behaviour, with evidence indicating that feedback is not a driver in enhanced performance unless delivered in a way that aligns with a person’s goals or at least contributes to the evaluation of the goal (Kim & Hamner, 1976). Further, it is important that the person who is in the position of giving the feedback understands that in giving feedback on performance, they must let the receiver respond and consider what the receiver is experiencing because when those who have performance related goal perceive the feedback as having failed, they tend to feel the negative affect of the feedback and withdraw concentration from the goal (Cianci, Schaubroeck & McGill, 2010). When a performance goal leads to success however, a positive sense of self-efficacy will be prompted and individuals will continue to seek improvement to their performance in order to demonstrate proficiency (Reeve, 2009). This is not to say that all feedback should be positive and negative or constructive feedback should remain silent. Feedback needs to be delivered in a way in order to maintain the motivational factor in goal setting feedback needs to be done in an encouraging, informative way in order to dictate on course behaviour.

Beware of the tunnel[edit | edit source]

Beware of the Tunnel

I was recently a victim of tunnel vision. I became so caught up on one part of my overall goal that I lost sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes we become so focused on reaching our goals and the milestones that make up the foundation to achieving them, that we can find ourselves looking straight ahead and not realising there are important factors we also need to consider on the peripheral. I spoke with someone who saw me work toward my goal every day. This person saw my frustrations with meeting this particular milestone. They knew that I was a determined person, who does not like to let things get in the way of what I want to achieve. In order to overcome tunnel vision, I needed to remember what my main goal was, and ask myself if by taking more time to work on this set back properly, and perhaps rearranging the timeframes around my goal, would this affect my overall achievement? The answer, while frustrating was no. I needed to be able to learn from those around me who have experienced setbacks similar to mine before, to learn about how I can work to overcome them and come back stronger. On reflection of the feedback I received and by taking action myself, it was evident that I was not fully equipped with the skills required to be able to perform at my optimum level, and I needed to focus on reaching this part of my goal through education.

Locke and Latham (2006) tell us that in many cases the reason for non-achievement is simply you don’t have the learning and development required to complete the goal to an ideal standard. You need to make sure that you have acquired the knowledge, and continue to acquire knowledge surrounding the goal in order to gain the best results possible. For example the person who helped me with my goal couldn’t do that effectively from just doing the minimum requirement. They are continually learning from colleagues, educational sources, experts in their field and applying that knowledge to their work, in order to demonstrate understanding of current and past learning experiences in their specialised field.

Think of the person who you deem a success at this moment - It could be someone in the sporting world, business world or a person who you see as a happy, fulfilled person, it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as to you they are a role model or success to you. That person did not wake up one day and just know how to perform in a way that inspires you and probably others; they would have learnt the basics, made goals and worked on comprehending what was needed to further their knowledge. They would have built on lessons learnt, skills obtained and continued still to this day to find ways to become or in your eyes continue to be a success. It is important therefore to ensure that when writing your goals that you are not deceiving yourself or setting yourself up for failure. They need to be realistic, measureable and achievable because a goal built on deception is an arteries endeavour, and wherever passion and treachery meet, disillusion begins.

Set the bar high[edit | edit source]

When you are committed to your goal and the goal is not perceived by you to be easily achieved, there will be a spike in overall performance (Klien, et al., 1999). Hard to achieve goals alone will not allow you to perform at your peak; you have to be committed to achieving. The same approach is relevant to if you have a high level of commitment however the goal you have set is too easy. Research has indicated that while individuals may have a high level of commitment, if their goal is one that is too easy for them to achieve, performance will suffer (Klien, et al., 1999). Gomez-Minambres' (2012) research confirms past research conducted by Locke and Latham which proposes that those who set high goals have higher expectations of themselves and if they are not meeting their own standards, become more dissatisfied than those who hold a lower level of expectation relating to their abilities or strengths. Furthermore, people set standards applicable to their perceived capabilities and associate it to performance, in turn setting a goal that they understand will be difficult, but not impossible to achieve (Gomez-Minambres, 2012). This would therefore promote the impression that an easy goal can only be rewarding for those whose personal standards are low. In support of the claim, Klein (1999) have indicated through their studies that where goals are set too high standard and commitment to that standard matches that of the goal, the risk of variance is low.

While setting a high level goal is something that is looked favourably on, it is important to also understand that setting a goal too high can be detrimental to the end state. Fear motivates and paralyses the best of us, and in a struggle between fear and indecisiveness, the difference between success and defeat comes down to confidence. If a person analyses the goal and perceives it as a difficult, yet achievable then all is well but, if they assess it as threatening it will affect their overall performance in reaching it (Locke & Latham, 2006). While it is important to feel challenged, too much of a challenge can be too debilitating for someone and in the forefront of your mind when setting goals needs to be attainment is possible otherwise goal commitment will fade and so too the value of the overall meaning to the goal (Locke & Latham, 1990). This is often more apparent when someone else is setting goals on behalf of an individual and they are not taking into account the person’s individuality. While in setting your own goals you have the advantage of knowing your self-efficacy levels and motivation levels, there is room for you not setting a goal as high as someone else would who is educated and experience enough to see your true potential (Locke, 1996). Research suggests that goal setting without being provided feedback can have little effect on performance in the longer term (Locke & Latham, 1990). By having someone you trust or look up too set your goals for you, you will be allowing for your performance to be tracked honestly and ensure that tunnel vision is not apparent in your plan. Locke and Latham (1990) further agree that with the input of someone you trust or look up too comes the realisation that your goals are now public and in turn can increase your motivation and commitment to achieving your goal. This is further discussed in Bandura’s social-cognitive theory in that your goals that were once personal are now available to role model scrutiny and therefore an increase in levels of wanting to achieve become more apparent (Locke & Latham, 1990).

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic motivation suggests that the higher a person’s intrinsic motivation is, the greater the dedication to the task at hand will be (Reeve, 2009). When a person possesses intrinsic motivation, they generally demonstrate a higher level of enthusiasm towards task performance and will put in more effort to enhance chances of achievement (Lee, McInerney, Liem & Ortiga, 2010). In other words, intrinsic motivation will allow a person to have an understanding of their goal, why they want to achieve it, and have a plan on how to get there. Setting intrinsic goals will put an individual in a good position to perform to a high standard, while exhibiting a healthy amount of psychological well-being in comparison to an individual who holds extrinsic goals (Reeve, 2009).

Extrinsic motivation arises from some consequence that is separate from the activity itself (Reeve, 2009). A person who is motivated by extrinsic motivations generally has a different motive than that of someone with intrinsic motives. Extrinsic motivation means that the person has set a goal or task because of the external reward that it will offer them. Put simply, in setting an extrinsic goal, you are setting a goal that emphasises the thought pattern of ‘if I do this, I’ll get that’ (Reeve, 2009). Extrinsic motivation comes from environmental motivations and consequences, like money or acclamation, rather than doing something in order to experience the gratification it has to offer. Furthermore, those who engage in extrinsic motivators are less likely to continue the path of achieving their goal than someone with intrinsic motivation, because once the reward expires there is no motivation to continue (Lee,, 2010).

Be specific & Commit[edit | edit source]

Goal specificity is the extent to which a goal requires a detailed level of expectation relating to performance, which prepares you for potential variances in your overall performance (Klein,, 2011). For example if you work on commission, your goal might be to sign six new clients per fortnight. With this task, you are aware of what your ultimate goal is and it reduces the possibility of discrepancy in your understanding of what is required.

It is also important to recognise that if you are setting a goal for someone else, generally goal commitment is higher in situations where goals are self-set (Klein et al., 2011). Working with a person to set challenging yet achievable goals that the person is committed to achieving is an important underlying factor in this process. To be a coach, mentor, friend, or to tell yourself to just do the best that you can do is a vague statement that doesn’t provide the goal achiever enough information to perform to a high standard (West, Welch & Thorn, 2001), or to commit to the goal. It is recognised that where there is no commitment to a goal, there will be no motivational effect on the individual (Klein et al., 1999) because high performance will only occur when your goal difficulty is at a challenging level and your commitment to reach that level is just as high.

Test Your Knowledge[edit | edit source]

1 What is the main emphasis of Locke & Latham's goal setting theory?

the harder the goal is to achieve, the better the performance
intrinsic motivation is a must in achieving your goals
the easier the goal is to achieve the better the performance because people feel more confident
goal setting is not effective

2 Those who exhibit higher levels of self-efficacy generally ?

are unable to accept feedback
doubt their abilities
set harder goals or accept more difficult goals that are assigned to them
can accept harder goals being assigned to them but find it difficult to self-set goals

3 Providing feedback on performance can serve the individual in two ways: (a) It can dictate behaviour to keep the individual on course; and ?

it can act as an incentive to encourage more effort
it can demotivate the individual
it can initiate rebellious behaviour
it can drive the person to pace themselves better for higher performance

4 Intrinsic motivation suggests

motivation arises from some consequence that is separate from the activity itself
the person has set a goal or task because of the external reward that it will offer them
the higher a person’s intrinsic motivation is, the greater the dedication to the task at hand will be
intrinsic motivators are less likely to continue the path of achieving their goal than someone with extrinsic motivation

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bandura, A. (1991). Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 248- 287.

Bandura, A., & Locke, E.A. (2003). Negative Self-Efficacy and Goal Effects Revisited. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (1), 87 – 99.

Cianci, A. , Schaubroeck, J.M, & McGill, G. (2010). Achievement Goals, Feedback, and Task Performance, Human Performance, 23:2, 131-154, doi:10.1080/08959281003621687.

Dysvik, A., & Kuvaas, B.(2013). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as predictors of work effort: The moderating role of achieving goals. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 412- 430.

Gomez-Minambres, J. (2012). Motivation through goal setting. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33, 1223 – 1239.

Heath, C., Larrick, R.P., & Wu, G. (1999). Goals as Reference Points. Cognitive Psychology, 38, 79 109.

Hsiaw, A. (2013). Goal-setting and self-control. Journal of Economic Theory, 148, 601 – 626.

Klein, H.J., Weeson, M.J., Hollenbeck, J.R., & Alge, B.J. (1999). Goal Commitment and the Goal Setting Process: Conceptual Clarification and Empirical Synthesis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84 (6), 885 – 896.

Kleingeld, A., Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The Effect of Goal-setting on a Group Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (6), 1289- 1304. doi: 10.1037/a0024315.

Kim, J.S., & Hammer, W.C. (1976). Effect of Performance Feedback and Goal Setting on Productivity and Satisfaction in an Organizational Setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 16 (1), 48 – 57.

Koch, A.K., & Nafziger, J. (2011). Self-regulation through Goal Setting. Journal of Economics, 113 (1), 212-227. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9442.2010.01641.

Lee, J.Q., McInerney, D.M., Liem, G.A.D., Ortiga, Y.P. (2010). The relationship between future goals and achievement goal orientation: An intrinsic-extrinsic motivation perspective. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35, 264- 279.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Association for Psychological Science, 15 (5) 265 – 268.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P.(2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. European Psychologist, 12 (4), 290-300. doi: 10.1027/1016-9040.12.4.290.

Locke, E. A. (2006). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied & Preventative Psychology, 5, 117 – 124.

Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied & Preventative Psychology, 5 117 – 124.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). Work Motivation and Satisfaction: Light at the End of the Tunnel. American Psychological Society, 1 (4) 240- 246.

Nixon, D. (2014). You have to be pissed off for change. David Nixon – Movement and Mindset. Retrieved from

West, R.L., Welch, D.D., & Thirn, R.M. (2001). Effect of Goal Setting and Feedback on Memory Performance and Beliefs Among Older and Younger Adults. Psychology and Aging, 16 (2), 240- 250. doi: 10.1037//0882-7974.16.2.240.