Locke and Latham’s 5 Principles of Goal Setting

In 1968, Dr. Edwin Locke published an article based on his own research titled, Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives. In this article, he demonstrated that having a clear goal in sight and receiving appropriate and/or positive feedback provided people with the motivation they needed to help them complete their goal(s). Locke also concluded in his report that working towards accomplishing a goal was motivating in-and-of-itself, and inevitably helped to improve performance. In short, Locke’s work suggested that people tend to work harder to accomplish a goal that is more specific and more difficult, particularly in the workplace. 

Some years later, Dr. Gary Latham set out to conduct his own study of goal setting in the workplace. He, like Locke, determined that there must be a direct link between setting goals and employee performance in the workplace. The two joined forces in 1990 to compose and publish their most fundamental work, A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Along with re-emphasizing the importance of setting a specific and challenging goal, the two also came up with a set of principles that determine successful goal setting. So when you are getting down to determining your goals, be they individual or team oriented, remember to bear these five things in mind.

1. Clarity

The first characteristic of your goals is that they should be clear and concise. When you know exactly what you are trying to achieve, you can more easily work to achieve it because you are better able to measure your results. For example, if your goal is too vague, as in, “do your best,” it is much harder, if not impossible to measure your progress.

To help you set a specific, and challenging goal, use the SMART philosophy: the goal must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Then think about how you will measure your results and how you feel about your goal; does it excite you? Is it challenging enough? Are you motivated to complete it by just thinking about it? If you find you are not as excited as you thought you might be, you may want to think of another goal that you want to accomplish, and see how that pans out for you.

2. Challenge

According to Locke and Latham, having a goal that is both challenging, and to a degree, difficult, is one of the most effective ways to help you stay motivated in your quest to achieve it. When you are determining your goals, whether personal or professional, remember to ask yourself whether or not the goal actually interests you. Once you know what you are going for (clarity), you can start creating milestones to help yourself as you go along. You should also create a reward system to encourage yourself to keep going whenever you make some progress.

3. Commitment

Whether you are setting a goal for yourself, your employees, teammates, or whoever else, in order to accomplish your goal(s), you must first fully understand and agree to them. Often times, particularly in a team setting, people are more likely to work harder for a goal if they have had some hand in setting it. As long as the goal is actually achievable, and consistent with the aspirations of everyone involved, you should have no problem in staying motivated to reach the end.

4. Feedback

Providing people with feedback is one of the best ways to ensure that you and your teammates are still focused and determined in achieving your goal(s). Particularly in a team setting, providing feedback helps you to measure you and your team’s progress, while at the same time offering up the opportunity to clarify people’s expectations. Take some time each week to review your progress; look over your achievements and also your failures to determine what is working in helping you achieve your goal, and what is not working. You can then easily make any necessary adjustments that will help you continue to advance towards achieving your overall end goal(s).

5. Task Complexity

Perhaps it is just human nature, but whenever someone is given more responsibility than they can handle, they are still raising their hands to volunteer for more work. While this shows a high degree of commitment and determination, it can also lead to lower quality work and poor performance in the long run. It is important, therefore, to ensure people are not tasked with too much work.

When working on a team or personal goal, remember to break down larger tasks into smaller, more attainable steps, so as not to become flustered or frustrated as you go along. There is nothing wrong with modifying your goal(s) in order to make the effort in achieving them a little less stressful. As long as you and your teammates continue to work effectively, your end goal(s) will be achieved.