Locke's Goal Setting Theory

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Do you ever have trouble motivating your team? They're a smart and creative group ... sometimes. When you give directions like, "Get more leads" or "Improve our social media campaigns" or even "Try harder", you tend to get lackluster results. You may even end up micromanaging, because no one seems to be on the same page and motivation has gone out the window.

Crack the whip all you want, but until you get on board with Edwin A. Locke's goal-setting theory, you'll continue to make this common and entirely fixable management mistake. According to Locke, you're not setting clear and specific goals for your team, which is crucial to motivating them. Locke's goal-setting theory also states that employees do best when goals represent somewhat of a challenge, which decreases boredom and kicks their internal motivation into high gear.

Learning more about Locke's goal-setting theory can give you the tools you need to help your team perform their best and elevate your business growth. Here's what you need to know.

History of Locke's Goal-Setting Theory

Locke first published his initial thoughts and findings on goal-setting as a means of motivation in an article called "Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives", which appeared in the May 1968 edition of Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. Dr. Gary Latham was an early adopter of Locke's theory, putting into practice among his own team and reaping the benefits. Locke and Latham collaborated in the late 1980s to further develop the theory of goal-setting and feedback as key motivators for employees. Ultimately, they co-authored a book published in 1990 called "A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance."

Locke's goal-setting theory is essential reading for small business owners and managers alike, as it unravels the mystery of motivation. Since they were first introduced, his theories have experienced widespread application, to the extent where you may feel like many of his findings are obvious. But at the time, Locke's theories were groundbreaking. The fact that most managers follow his method is a testament to its accuracy.

Locke's 5 Principles of Goal-Setting

True to the goal-setting theory itself, Locke and Latham clearly outline the necessary steps for creating a successful goal in the workplace:

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Feedback
  5. Task Complexity

Here's exactly how to use each principle to increase the chances of the goal being met:

1. Clarity of the Goal

First, the goal needs to be clear and specific. Bring your KPIs into the picture for clarity. What can you track in order to know when the goal has been met? Although there are exceptions, if a goal doesn't have a trackable statistic, it's either not clear enough or needs to be broken down into smaller goals. A time limit helps clarify the goal as well.

For example, if you want to "improve your social media campaign," don't just say, "increase our followers". Tell your social media marketing team exactly what you want to see and when you want to see it. For example, you might set goals like:

  • 100 new Facebook followers in the next two weeks
  • A 5% increase in Twitter followers over the next month
  • At least one Instagram post with 1,000 organic engagements in the next month

2. Creating Challenging Goals

Next, Locke's goal-setting theory states that goals must be somewhat challenging in order to help employees feel intrinsically motivated. The key is to find a balance. If it's not challenging enough, employees might feel bored. On the other hand, if a goal represents too much of a challenge, employees might give up prematurely.

The level of challenge depends on the employee responsible for completing the goal. One employee's perfect challenge is another employee's pure boredom. You want your employees to push themselves out of their comfort zones a little bit in order for them to feel personal satisfaction when they complete the goal.

So if you know that getting 100 new Facebook followers in two weeks is no sweat for your team, shorten the deadline. Or, increase the number of followers you want them to attract. Although you really want them to try to achieve the goal, Locke states that it's important that you don't punish your team for not completing a challenging goal, because doing so is counterproductive and de-motivates your team.

3. Getting Employees to Commit to the Goal

The third principle of goal-setting says that employees need to fully commit to the goal in order to successfully achieve it. While this does mean that self-discipline is needed to do the work and get things done, this principle primarily refers to personal buy-in. Locke and Latham's research indicates that employees are more likely to commit to a goal if they feel some autonomy about creating the goal.

In other words, simply assigning goals to your team members isn't as effective as collaborating with them or allowing them to create the goals themselves. There will be instances when you need to assign goals for the sake of time or to simplify proceedings, but the more often you involve your employees in the goal-setting process, the more they will trust you and feel committed to assigned goals.

Start by collaborating as much as possible until you feel like employees have a good handle on creating clear and challenging goals. Then, allow them to create their own goals, which you can review and approve in the initial stages.

4. Providing Feedback During Goal Completion

According to Locke, managers continue to play a crucial role in goal completion even after a clear, challenging goal has been set and the employee is committed. At this point, the employees carry most of the load. Locke's theories support the importance of autonomy in the workplace, which advocates against micromanagement and encourages managers to give employees free rein to carry out goals in a way that makes sense to them.

But, distractions happen. The manager's job is to check in often to make sure the goal remains in sight and to provide feedback if it seems like the employee is trailing off course. Give encouragement to assist with motivation, provide instructions if the employee seems at a loss for what to do next or clarify expectations if roadblocks occur. Keep your feedback positive and solution-oriented.

Of course, you should also be open to feedback as well. If the goal turns out to be far too challenging, your team should be comfortable telling you. That way, you can make adjustments to future goals. Schedule a regular feedback session to collect comments about goals and tasks, and maintain a high level of trust and respect with your employees so they can come to you with feedback at any time.

5. Evaluating Task Complexity

The fifth and final principle that Locke and Latham deemed crucial for goal-setting and motivation is task complexity. While a goal needs to be challenging, it can't be impossible, or else the employee's motivation will eventually sink to an all-time low. Impossible goals occur when a manager hasn't considered whether the employee has all the tools, training and resources to complete it.

For example, let's say you want your social media team to generate a performance report. Their job will be far easier if they have access to tools that give statistics about their accounts. As a manager, it's your responsibility to provide them with these tools, or else adjust your expectations.

Likewise, you can't expect someone who hasn't been trained in creating a performance report to know exactly how to do it. Nor is it fair to ask someone to take on a 10-hour task when their 40-hour workweek is already stuffed to the gills. Make sure your employees have what they need, including the time, to complete the goal. The only major thing they should have to do is to push themselves out of their comfort zone a little bit for that motivating sense of personal satisfaction.

Building on Locke's Theory: SMART

Once Locke published his groundbreaking theory in the late 60s, the door opened for other researchers to build on his theory. One popular goal-setting method called SMART, first introduced in 1981, may prove useful when tackling the "Clarity" and "Challenging" principles of goal setting. SMART is an acronym that typically stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

As you can see, there's some overlap between SMART and Locke's goal-setting principles. Attainable and realistic goals are challenging but not too challenging, and specific, measurable and time-based goals fall under the principle of clarity. Some managers use SMART in conjunction with Locke's principles of goal-setting because the acronym is easy to remember. However, SMART only covers the first two principles of goal-setting, and all five are needed in order to maximize success.

Building Motivation With Small Wins

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer also built on Locke's theories to explore employee motivation. Their 2011 book called "The Progress Principle" reinforces Locke's principles of commitment, feedback and task complexity.

The authors' research shows the importance of avoiding micromanagement and allowing autonomy among employees, which backs up Locke's own findings. According to Locke, autonomy seals in an employee's commitment to a goal, and although feedback from the manager is important, it cannot take the form of micromanagement. Amabile and Kramer also discuss how crucial it is for employees to have adequate resources to do their job.

But their major contribution to Locke's research zeroes in on principle number two: challenge. Amabile and Kramer's research indicates that setting small, attainable goals is a great way to build up your employees' confidence and motivation. Thus, you can build the challenge alongside their motivation. Starting out with bite-sized goals with relatively quick rewards can have great payoffs later.

Putting It Into Practice

Ready to start using Locke's goal-setting theory in practice? You don't necessarily need to give your team a slideshow presentation about each principle. However, because you do want your employees to eventually enjoy autonomy while setting their own goals, you should spend some time explaining the first principle: clarity.

Work together with your employees to establish clear and challenging goals, and check in more often in the beginning to assess whether the challenge level was appropriate. You also need to make sure you get feedback about the task complexity: do your employees have what they need to achieve these goals? Any gaps in your procedures or resources should come to the surface fairly quickly.

Putting Locke's goal-setting theory to good use is initially an exercise in collaboration, and later morphs into a streamlined process that builds trust alongside motivation. As long as you remain open to feedback and remember that a little push outside of their comfort zone can lead to your employees' growth, you can successfully implement each of the five principles.