Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory: Setting Goals And Improving Motivation

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Setting goals for yourself, your team, and your organisation can help to keep everyone engaged and motivated.

Key Points:

  • Locke’s goal-setting theory sets out five principles needed to create goals that inspire your team to achieve.
  • The idea is that when a goal achieves all five key principles, it’ll result in a higher-performing workplace.
  • Using Locke’s goal-setting theory can be really beneficial for leaders who need to find a way to motivate their employees.

Who is Locke?

American psychologist Dr Edwin Locke is internationally renowned for his theories on successful goal setting. Publishing over 320 articles on the topic, Locke has established himself as an expert in the field and is held in high esteem for his work on goal achievement and job satisfaction.

He is currently the Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Motivation at the University of Maryland.

Locke worked with Dr Gary Latham on the goal-setting theory that has been embraced by people around the world.

He found that in 90% of cases, having specific and challenging goals in place led to higher performance than setting goals which can be reached easily.

What does the theory entail?

Locke’s goal-setting theory sets out five principles to help you make goals you can stick to. They are:

  • Clarity
  • Challenge
  • Commitment
  • Feedback
  • Task complexity

The idea is that when a goal achieves all five key principles, it’ll result in a higher-performing workplace.

Let’s take a look at each one.

1) Creating clear goals

Clarity is essential when you’re setting goals for yourself or others. A vague goal is unlikely to motivate anyone and isn’t easy to measure.

Rather than saying to your team, ‘Try to network more,’ say, ‘I’d like you to attend two networking events this quarter and make ten connections at each one.’

If any part of the goal is unclear, you should clarify it with your team, and make any reasonable adjustments.

2) Set yourself a challenge

According to Locke, challenging goals are more motivational than easy ones.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to make it realistic and attainable too, so it shouldn’t be completely out of reach.

Instead, it needs to improve on previous performance and set challenging tasks to take your team to the next level.

3) Commit to the goal

You’ll need to get the whole team on board to commit to the goal, otherwise, there won’t be enough motivation behind it.

If someone has reservations about their ability to reach the goal, they’ll be less likely to stay focused on the task at hand. Talk things through with your team to get everyone on board, and give them ownership over their part in achieving the goal.

4) Get feedback on your goal

Getting feedback from your team is essential to help everyone get on the same page. If you don’t give people the chance to offer feedback, they may not be able to air their views on whether they think they’re able to achieve it.

It should also be shared with the wider team to ensure it aligns with the rest of the business. This will avoid you working in a silo, and brings everyone together to make the goal a success.

5) Think about task complexity

Although your goal should be challenging, it shouldn’t be too complex that it’s overwhelming for your team. Their mental health should be balanced with realistic goals they’re motivated to complete.

Task motivation is key to Locke’s theory, and if a task is too complicated, the motivation of the team will undoubtedly drop. If you’ve received feedback that the goal is out of reach, break it up into smaller goals to help your team move closer towards it. For instance, if your goal is to have 1000 new email subscribers by the end of the year, breaking it down to monthly goals instead can help the task become much more manageable.

How does Locke’s theory differ from SMART goals?

SMART goals have no express connection with the motivation of teams and individuals, whereas Locke’s theory suggested that goals by themselves can be motivational.

Whether it’s goals for your team, organisation, or more personal goals, they should matter enough to you that you’re excited to make it happen.

Following a SMART goals framework, you may be able to set goals that matter to you, but you may not have the intrinsic motivation needed to achieve them. A goal has to be meaningful enough that you want to go after it, and won’t let yourself be distracted from the aim.

Set yourself a goal you care about and you’ll be motivated to achieve it.

How can leaders use it to improve performance?

Using Locke’s goal-setting theory can be really beneficial for leaders who need to find a way to motivate their employees.

Including them in the process and setting clear, challenging, and achievable goals can be a key part of the business strategy. Giving appropriate feedback along the way also allows your people to adjust their approach if they aren’t making headway with the goals you’ve set.

Improving your team’s motivation and engagement can lead to an increase of 18% in productivity and 23% in profitability, according to a report from Gallup.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Locke’s theory?

There are clear advantages of using Locke’s theory to motivate your team and increase their performance. Engaging them in the goal-setting process can help to make aims realistic and attainable, as well as an exciting prospect for them.

But, it depends upon the individual and the extent to which the achievement of goals is a personal driver or not. If someone on your team isn’t invested in achieving goals, it’ll be more difficult to use this theory to engage them.

Picture of Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew is TSW's Head of Leadership & Management. He’s coached and mentored leaders and the senior management teams at international brands.
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