Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Goal setting techniques
How do different goal setting techniques influence motivation and goal success?
- 1 Overview
- 2 Underlying theories of goal setting
- 3 Ways to structure goals
- 4 How to maintain goals over time
- 5 Common issues when setting goals
- 6 Goal setting strategies
- 7 Conclusion
- 8 Quiz questions
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Goal setting is a commonly used intervention for individuals needing to increase their motivation. A goal setting technique is a method or structure used to prompt individuals to consider the essential elements of goal setting theories when setting their goals. By addressing the steps that need to be taken to reach an end state (the goal), goal setting strategies improve an individual's chance at achieving their goal. By addressing each component of the goal setting process, goals can be better directed to suit the individual and the situation, leading to improved motivation and stronger goal success. There are two types of goals that should be considered when setting goals and these are performance goals and mastery goals. A performance goal relies on a measurable outcome such as running 10 seconds faster over a distance whereas a mastery goal relies on overall improvement and a focus on learning, for example, developing a new skill of painting.
This chapter brings together different types of goal setting research so the effects goal setting has on motivation and success can be easily identified. By providing a background to goal setting theory, an explanation of the essential structures needed and an outline of the common techniques used in the goal setting process, guidance can be provided on where to start and what to consider and avoid when setting a goal in order to have the best outcome.
Underlying theories of goal setting
Achievement goal theory
Achievement goals are competence-based aims that are developed within different settings and there are two types; performance goals or mastery goals. Roberts (2001) explains that achievement motivation is when goals function to motivate the intended activity. Dweck & Leggett’s’ Achievement Motivation Model (1988) shows how theories of intelligence have a strong influence on the type of goals that people set and demonstrates that the perceived ability an individual has strongly influences their motivation and in turn, their behaviour.
The Transtheoretical Model (TTM) is used to identify the stages that an individual will go through when acting on a new behaviour, in particular health behaviours. Developed by Prochaska and Di Clemente (2005) the model outlines six stages of change; (1) pre-contemplation, (2) contemplation, (3) preparation, (4) action, (5) maintenance and (6) termination. It is important to highlight that individuals can move to and from each stage over time, accepting for both progress and relapse. The influence of self-efficacy is shown through perceived ability, behavioural control and decisional balance explains how pros and cons change throughout different stages. By considering the foundations of behavioural change that the TTM highlights, goal setting programs can be more effectively developed.
Direct mechanist theory
Direct Mechanist Theory, developed by Locke & Latham, shows that goal setting is effective as it provides a focus for effort, thoughts and preparations, leading to an increase in long term persistence. By identifying the mechanisms through which goal setting influences performance, we can use this knowledge to manipulate and adjust the way that we set and structure goals. The four mechanisms and their application are listed in Table 1.
Table 1: Goal Setting Mechanisms and Their Application
|Goals direct attention and motivation||By focusing attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant activities productivity can be improved.|
|Goals have an energising function||High goals lead to greater effort than low goals. This influences the outcome of tasks that involve physical effort (such as running), those requiring repeated performance of cognitive tasks (such as work in a cooperate setting). The measurement of subjective effort and physiological indicators of effort can be used when setting and tracking goals.|
|Goals affect persistence||When individuals are in control of the time they spend on a task, harder goals have a prolonged effort showing that there is a trade-off between time and intensity of effort. For example, an individual may work fast and intensely for a short period or slowly and less intensely for a long period, but it would be unsustainable to work intensely and fast for a long period of time.|
|Goals lead to action||By stimulating arousal, and increasing discovery and the use of relevant knowledge, it is demonstrated that actions are the result of cognition and motivation.|
Ways to structure goals
Goal difficulty and performance have a linear relationship, such that when goal difficulty increases so does performance (Locke & Latham, 1990). One reason for this is that goal difficulty energises the performer, increasing their effort and persistence. Another reason is that a difficult goal directs attention, decreasing the chance that the individual will get distracted, bored, tired or frustrated. Setting difficult goals can be a challenge in itself as the right amount of difficulty needs to be achieved so that the performer is not over or under worked. For example, if the goal is too easy they may lose interest quickly or not take steps to improve their performance and if the goal is too difficult they may experience failure. This is important to consider as repeated failure can result in lowered self-confidence and motivation as well as decreased performance. Goal difficulty should be specifically tailored to the individual in order to achieve the best outcome. The relationship between goal difficulty and performance can be shown in Figure 1.
Specific and measurable
Research has shown that specific goals lead to improved performance when compared to open ended goals. Goal specificity assists in drawing attention towards what needs to be achieved by reducing ambiguity in thoughts and variability in performance (Klein, Whitener & Ilgen 1990, Locke). By directing attention, strategic planning can be enabled and the steps that need to be taken can be identified. This concept is easily applied to goals in an exercise setting, for example, if a coach in a field sport told their team to aim for completed passes, the players will have something to aim for on the field compared to if their coach advised them to “try their best”.
Specific goals also have the ability to be easily measured, leading to improved motivation when striving for goals, when goals are achieved, and if needed, when goals are not reached (Schut & Stam, 1994). When a goal is achieved the individual gains a sense of accomplishment and now has the ability to set a new goal and strive for something greater. Without being able to measure goals, the sense of attainment is not likely to occur. This concept also applies when an individual does not achieve their goal and they need to regroup to attempt again (Locke and Latham, 2006). This is shown in the athlete/coach example used above, because a goal is measurable the athletes can understand if they have or have not succeeded in completing passes and can then use this knowledge to adapt their performance accordingly.
Goals that reflect an individual’s interests, needs, values and preferences are known as self-congruent goals and goals that neglect those constructs are known as self-discrepant goals. Self-congruent goals tap into the notion of intrinsic motivation, which explains that for intrinsic motivation to occur an individual’s psychological needs must be satisfied (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). These needs can be satisfied when autonomy, competence and relatedness are all addressed. Since people who are intrinsically motivated perform well and enjoy what they are doing it is essential that this intrinsic motivation is aimed for when setting goals. This can be achieved through goal setting by using the individual to set goals that relate to personal interest, personal preferences and their values. Setting goals for others can lead to goals that are controlling and pressure inducing. This can interfere with an individual’s autonomy by impacting intrinsic motivation, cognitive flexibility and creativity. As shown by Koestner et al. (2002), individuals that set self-congruent goals had better performance due to their motivation being intrinsic, increased energy, stronger persistence and better directed attention.
How to maintain goals over time
Short-term and long-term goals
Goal proximity affects the persistence and intrinsic motivation of both short- and long-term goals. It has been shown that there is no significant difference in performance among individual’s with short-term, long-term or a combination of both types of goals. However, it has been shown that both short- and long- term goals are essential in maintaining high levels of motivation over time (Weinberg et al., 1985). Short-term goals are important as they can provide feedback regarding progress towards long-term goals, provide immediate focus, and repeated commitment-boosting reinforcement once they are attained. Since long-term goals do not immediately provide these effects, setting short-term goals can assist in achieving long-term goals. Short-term goals also allow for the adjustment of future goals based on the attainment or distrainment or goals. Long term goals are important as they provide the direction and final destination for an individual. Long-term goals that follow the concepts of self-congruency provide intrinsic motivation, and as previously discussed, intrinsic motivation leads to increased energy, persistence and attention (Vallerand et al., 1985). The relationship between short- and long-term goals can be compared to a staircase, the present level is the bottom of the stair case, the short-term goals are the steps and once those short-term goals have been achieved, the long-term goal at the top can be reached.
Feedback is essential in goal setting to track performance and assists in the development of emotional importance. Firstly, both goals and feedback are required to maximise an individual’s performance and without feedback, tracking goals and adjusting them over time would be near impossible (Bandura & Cervone, 1983). The correlation between goals and feedback helps to create an emotionally engaging and meaningful condition. This is because goal attainment leads to emotional satisfaction and goal failure leads to emotional dissatisfaction, both of which can motivators for further progress (Bandura, 1991). Take an example of a child learning maths in school, they have received positive feedback regarding their results and their feelings of competence and self-achievement have increased. This will motivate them to continue to work towards new and more difficult goals. This is known as the discrepancy-creation process. A similar effect, known as the discrepancy-reduction process, occurs when negative feedback is received, where dissatisfaction and unease stimulate greater effort in the future. It is particularly important when setting goals to consider goal difficulty, specificity and congruency, as when these constructs are misaligned the benefits of feedback cannot be utilised and time spent striving for improved motivation or performance will be wasted.
Leading on from feedback, it is important to recognise when a goal becomes unattainable and should be adjusted or abandoned. Knowing when to stop or change a goal path is important to ensure motivation and performance is maintained overtime. The attainability of a goal may change over time for many reasons, some common examples include goal conflict, injury and hardship. Goals can also be unattainable due to an issue when originally structuring the goal, such as difficulty or lack of congruency. Goal disengagement, defined as the reduction of effort and goal commitment and is the opposite of goal adoption or goal setting (Wrosch et al., 2003). When individuals have an unattainable goal there are usually three ways in which they will direct their effort. One method is to maintain effort and commitment and the second is to give up effort and maintain commitment, both of which have potential for developing psychological or physiological stress. The third option, to give up both effort and commitment, is seen as the most beneficial situation as it opens up space for new, alternative and stronger goals to be set and strived for. This avoids burn out and promotes wellbeing, increasing the potential for success and decreasing the risk of harm.
Common issues when setting goals
Lack of engagement
Ensuring goals are engaging is essential in goal setting because if an individual is not engaged, they are not motivated and their goals are less likely to be reached. As previously mentioned, goals work best when they are set by the individual, are attainable yet challenging and give reward over time (through feedback). If these aspects are not achieved the individual may loose interest and the goal may be ignored. In addition, research by Wood, Mento & Locke (1987) showed that typical goal setting procedures work best when tasks are uninteresting and require a straightforward procedure by generating motivation that the task itself does not. An opposing argument by Bandura & Wood (1989) explained that highly structured methods of goal setting do not work as well for goals that involve problem solving or require creativity. These activities respond well to mastery goals rather than performance goals, as the nature of the tasks stimulates the generation of effort, attention and planning on their own. For example, an individual may aim to mastery the art of learning to paint, provided this goal is self-congruent, challenging and allows for change and measurement over time, it has the potential to be a strong goal. To ensure that goal setting is engaging, it is important to consider the type of goal someone is trying to achieve in conjunction with the methods and structures that are used in the goal setting process.
Goal conflict is the degree to which individuals feel that their multiple goals are incompatible (Locke et. al., 1994) and can impact goal setting in three primary ways. These include when externally imposed goals conflict personal goals, when multiple goals are asked of a single task and when there are several outcomes with multiple goals (Slocum et al., 2002). Goal conflict is found to have an influence on performance through its relationship with goal commitment. Goal commitment, which is a person’s determination or attachment to a goal, is a leading factor in determining their strength to overcome challenges and to avoid abandoning or lowering a goal over time. This directly relates to the strength of one’s motivation. An example of goal conflict can be seen when a mother attends university, both striving to be successful parent and a successful student are difficult goals in their nature. By considering her intrinsic motivations, and monitoring potential goal conflict, the mother can plan and adjust her goals over time to ensure she is successful. If goals are set with consideration to goal structures and maintenance over time, motivation can be maintained and goal conflict can be avoided.
Goal setting strategies
The SMART Goals framework is a practical way to use the concepts of difficulty, specificity and congruency. It is believed that the concept was originally developed by George Doran in 1981 and it works by separating the concepts of goal setting into five sections so that goals can be shaped with the best chance of success. By keeping in mind these mechanisms, goals can be developed to influence performance and these goals can be well aligned with the intended outcomes. The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. The SMART structure is most commonly used in project management, employee-performance management and personal development. Since this is a popular method in goal setting it is important to understand its benefits and flaws.
By following the SMART framework individuals can set structured goals giving them a better chance of goal success. The SMART structure gives individuals guidance to set self-congruent goals, as goals that an individual sets themselves are more likely to be achieved compared to externally set goals. By following the structure individuals can ensure their goals include the key structures of goal setting such as specificity, measurability and difficulty (attainability). Furthermore, the SMART structure prompts the individual to ensure that their goals are relevant to what they are attempting to achieve and that there is a time restraint. For example, a young male setting a fitness goal to lift heavier weights should set a specific and measurable target, such as add five kilograms to each lift. By ensuring that the target is attainable they are more likely to experience the discrepancy-creation process which will motivate them to achieve future goals. By adding a time frame to this goal, for example three weeks, motivation increases and potential goal disengagement can be managed. The SMART structure is a great balance between providing guidance for goal setting but allowing individuals to tailor their goals.
The SMART structure, while great for addressing constructs of typical goal setting,has issues as using the model can lead to goals that are too rigid or oversimplified. Firstly, the SMART structure does not work well for mastery goals, such as learning to paint or learn to surf, as these types of goals are loosely measured and do not follow a strict time schedule (Ames & Archer, 1988). If the SMART structure was followed for a mastery goal the individual may have increased anxiety and unrealistic levels of goal attainment leading to decreased motivation and early goal disengagement. Secondly, not all personality types respond well to structured goal setting. Research by Phillips and Gully (1997) highlighted that those with a focus on performance goal orientation will respond well to specific targets whereas those who prefer to learn holistically will respond better to mastery goals. Thus, those who respond well to targets should use the SMART structure to guide their goal setting and others should refer to the concept of mastery goals below to ensure they have the best chance at achieving their goal outcomes. In addition to this, the SMART structure could be improved by accounting for feedback over time and goal conflict. The underlying research behind SMART goals is hard to find as the concept has been predominantly developed through pop-psychology and is primarily published in management blogs. SMART goals make sense when tied to Locke and Latham's goal setting theory and SMART goals have been proven in certain contexts to be beneficial but it is important to recognise that the structure itself has not been developed or tested through a sound scientific realm.
Like the SMART structure, the GROW model is an acronym designed to prompt the individual to account for multiple factors when setting goals to promote goal success. Often used for goal setting, problem solving and coaching, the GROW model channels intrinsic motivation and aims to improve performance by increasing knowledge and awareness. GROW stands for Goal, Reality Obstacles/Options and Way forward. The stages of the GROW model are outlined below in Table 2.
Table 2: The stages of the GROW model and their application
|Goal||This is the final stage that the individual is aiming for. A clear and well-defined goal should be outlined here.|
|Reality||This is the current stage that the individual is in. The issues, challenges and distance from the end goal should be identified here.|
|The challenges that the individual may face should be recognised so that they can be planned and accounted for.
The ways in which obstacles can be tackled should be addressed to ensure the best chances of success.
|Way Forward||Once the obstacles/options have been outlined, a plan to progress from reality, past obstacles to the end goal should be identified.|
The GROW model is a great structure to ensure progress can be achieved over time, and assists to identify an end goal as well as smaller challenges, that can be developed into short term goals, that may arise on the track to the long term goal. The GROW model however does not directly address the basic structures of goal setting such as congruency, specify and difficulty. For goal setting to be successful when using the GROW model these aspects should be used within each stage.
Mastery goals focus on achieving a level of competence through self-improvement or skill development by encouraging the individual to strive for task-related improvement or mastery of a skill. Research by Seijts and Latham (2001) demonstrated that specific and difficult goals do not always lead to improved performance and simply urging people to try their best can result in a positive outcome. Compared to performance goals, mastery goals are not strictly measured, this can assist in decreasing pressure on the individual and opening up the potential for functional over-reaching, where the individual may surpass the level of achievement they were expecting (Poortvliet, 2016). Goals that are better suited to this open-ended structure are often creative goals and are dependent on situational motivation. For example, an athlete may aim to have more fun within their games or a musician may want to learn to play a new instrument. Mastery goals also aim to avoid the issue of tunnel vision, where focusing on reaching a goal suppresses the acquisition of the skills required to reach the goal, ultimately leading to goal failure. By removing the specific target, individuals have a better chance to learn and strive for achievement at their self-directed pace. It should be noted that both mastery and performance goals can be used together and that they can assist in achieving goals dependent on the situation and the individual.
The best way to influence motivation and ensure goal success is to assess if the individual or situation is best suited to a performance or mastery goal and once that is known, the type of goal should be matched with a goal setting technique such as SMART goals, the GROW model or using an open-ended structure. It is important that the techniques used consider the basic structural components of goal setting; difficulty, specificity, measurability and congruency, in order to maintain or improve motivation over time. Once the goals have been set, it is important to ensure that both short-term and long-term goals are in synergy, and feedback is incorporated throughout the process. By highlighting the importance of goal disengagement and the effect that a lack of engagement and goal conflict can have, issues can be addressed promptly to minimise their negative influence on motivation and goal success. Whilst the research supporting goal setting theory is strong, improvements should be made in developing clear and useful literature so that the structural components of goal setting can be easily applied ensuring novice goal setters have an easy to follow structure.
To to test your knowledge on goal setting attempt the quiz below.
- Achievement goal orientation and academic motivation (Book chapter, 2014)
- Goal conflict and emotion (Book chapter, 2014)
- Goal setting (Book chapter, 2013)
- Goal setting and happiness (Book chapter, 2011)
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Doran, G. T. (1981). "There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives". Management Review. AMA FORUM. 70(11): 35–36.
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Klein, H. J., Whitener, E. M., & Ilgen, D. R. (1990). The role of goal specificity in the goal-setting process. Motivation and Emotion, 14(3), 179-193.
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Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.
Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2006). Enhancing the benefits and overcoming the pitfalls of goal setting. Organizational dynamics, 35(4), 332-340.
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Phillips, J. M., & Gully, S. M. (1997). Role of goal orientation, ability, need for achievement, and locus of control in the self-efficacy and goal--setting process. Journal of applied psychology, 82(5), 792.
Poortvliet, P. M. (2016). Mastery Goals. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1-4.
Prochaska, J. O., & DiClemente, C. C. (2005). The transtheoretical approach. Handbook of psychotherapy integration, 2, 147-171.
Roberts, G. C. (2001). Advances in motivation in sport and exercise. Human Kinetics.
Schut, H. A., & Stam, H. J. (1994). Goals in rehabilitation teamwork. Disability and rehabilitation, 16(4), 223-226.
Seijts, G. H., & Latham, G. P. (2001). The effect of distal learning, outcome, and proximal goals on a moderately complex task. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 22(3), 291-307.
Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 482.
Slocum Jr, J. W., Cron, W. L., & Brown, S. P. (2002). The effect of goal conflict on performance. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 9(1), 77-89.
Vallerand, R. J., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation in sport. in K.B Pandolf (Ed.), Exercise and sport science reviews (Vol. 15, pp. 389-425). New York: Macmillan.
Weinberg, R., Bruya, L., & Jackson, A. (1985). The effects of goal proximity and goal specificity on endurance performance. Journal of Sport Psychology, 7(3), 296-305.
Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The importance of goal disengagement in adaptive self-regulation: When giving up is beneficial. Self and Identity, 2(1), 1-20.
Wood, R. E., Mento, A. J., & Locke, E. A. (1987). Task complexity as a moderator of goal effects: A meta-analysis. Journal of applied psychology, 72(3), 416.
- Ted Talk: John Dooer's Why the secret to success is setting the right goals (ted.com)
- Key Article: Locke and Latham's New Directions in Goal Setting (journals.sagepub.com)
- YouTube: DescisionSkills' SMART Goals - quick overview (youtube.com)