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Goal Setting Theory Explained

Goal Setting Theory Explained

Author: Soma Jurgensen
  • Identify key components in goal setting theory.
  • Illustrate how these components make a difference in motivation.

You've heard about goals most of your life. In high school you're asked what your educational goals are. In college you're asked what your career goals are and in the workplace you're asked what you're advancement goals are.

Think about the sayings that have to do with goals:

  • Keep your eye on the prize.
  • Picture yourself at the finish line.
  • Think it and be it.

Why all this focus on goals?

According to Goal Setting Theory setting a clear, specific goal can increase motivation.

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S.M.A.R.T goals

The premise of goal setting theory is that not all goals increase motivation. In fact, there are some requirements. Goals need to be S.M.A.R.T.


Check out this packet on creating S.M.A.R.T goals.


Now that you know how to set the right kind of goals. What about these goals increase motivation?

Setting Goals Lead to Success

Have you ever said to yourself, “I need a new ______.” Let’s say in this case it’s a new computer that you need. “I need a new computer.” Three months later and you might still be making do with the one you have. Now, consider this statement, “I need a new laptop, that I can afford with at least 3-4 hours of battery life and a webcam before school starts in the fall.” Which statement will lead to you achieving the goal? If you said the second one, then you understand the benefits of Goal Setting Theory.

Persistence, Passion, Productivity

Setting and communicating a clear goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (remember SMART goals?) increases persistence, passion, and productivity. These characteristics are crucial for turning an idea into reality.


When specific goals are set, people will prioritize those actions and behaviors that allow them to succeed. In other words, “what gets measured gets done.” Employees will work longer toward goals that will get them clear rewards. Timely deadlines lead to a faster pace than loose deadlines. SMART goals make people strive for success. To increase persistence, try the following:

  1. Have employees make their goals public.
  2. Set SMART goals to show trust in the ability of your employees.
  3. Make the vision of the project, effort, and/or company clear to employees so they know how their goals impact the success of the organization.
  4. Provide feedback to employees throughout the process as it allows them to adjust their efforts and keep working toward their goals.


Where goals are absent, establishing SMART goals as a goal intervention can energize people. The American Pulpwood Association was trying to find ways to motivate independent logger. These loggers, although paid on piece rate, had considerable room to increase their productivity, measured by the number of cords per employee. The results were impressive. Crews who were given high, yet realistic goals and a tally to measure their progress bragged to other workers and their families about their effectiveness. Productivity for these crews far outpaced the crews that were instructed to “do their best.” Now that’s passion.

Keep in mind these loggers were unskilled and uneducated. The question arose whether applying Goal Setting Theory would work in more complex jobs where knowledge was the muscle needed to get things done. What’s the answer? Yes, it does, but with a few conditions.


There are some conditions for effective goal interventions that increase productivity.

  1. The person must have the ability and knowledge to reach the goal. If not, the leader’s job is to make sure he/she gets the needed training and resources.
  2. When people are learning a new job, industry, or skill, output goals should be replaced with learning goals. An example of this condition is to set a goal like, “discover five new ways to reach a new market with a current product.” This would be more effective than setting a goal of increasing market share for current products by 10%. The lesson here is that when learning is occurring, a learning goal prioritizes attention on problem-solving.
  3. If a stretch goal is quite a way in the distance, set sub-goals for quick successes to keep people committed. Especially in times of change, sub-goals allow people to gauge their efforts against what is required of them to attain their goals.

What’s the “bottom line?” Ensure your people have what they need to succeed, and if there are obstacles in the way of their success, work together to find a way around them.

Adapted from the article:

Latham, G. (2004). The motivational benefits of goal-setting. Academy of Management Executive , 18 (4), 126-129.

Goal Setting from Theory to Practice

What happens when you face a set back? Afterall, if goal setting were so easy everyone would be doing it and succeeding. What causes goal setting initiatives to fail? This presentation brings the theory in practice with specific recommendations.