Locke's Goal Setting Theory

Edwin Locke's theory of goal setting has many practical applications, in and outside of the business environment. A professor at the University of Maryland, Locke's theory defines characteristics that encourage success. While the theory rings of psychology, its applications in the business world have been profound and enduring.

The Influence of Ryan

Locke’s goal-setting theory was created on the premise, originally set forth by professor Thomas A. Ryan, that “conscious goals affect action." As quoted in Locke’s “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation,” Ryan argued that human behavior is affected by conscious purposes, plans, intentions, tasks and the like.

Basic Definition

Locke’s theory operates on the premise that individuals create goals by making careful decisions to do so and are compelled toward those goals by virtue of the goal having been set. Basically, Locke’s theory states that if an individual sets goals, he will be motivated to achieve those goals by virtue of having set them. Several elements must exist in order for the goal-setting effect to take place. Goals must be clear, challenging and attainable, and there must be some method of receiving feedback. Locke finds that the goal itself is not the motivator, but rather the perceived difference between what was actually attained and what had been planned for.

Goal Difficulty and Performance

Locke, and professors Steve Motowidlo and Phil Bobko found that “higher expectancies lead to higher levels of performance,” which is in accordance with Vroom’s valence-instrumentality-expectancy theory. Somewhat contradictorily, they also showed that when expectations are low but goal level is high, performance would be high also.

Goal Mechanisms

Goals serve four primary functions: 1. By specifying a goal, one must direct focus toward that goal and away from activities unrelated to that goal. 2. The setting of a goal is a behavior-stimulating act. According to Locke, “high goals lead to greater effort than low goals.” 3. Goals have a positive effect on persistence. However, there is an inverse relationship between time and intensity. 4. Goals subconsciously direct the person toward discovering better ways of doing things, be they calculations or physical acts.

Goal Moderators

Locke’s theory states that, in order for a goal to be successful, the person must be committed to it wholly and possess self-efficacy. This self-efficacy must be boosted initially by the fact that the person was assigned the task and thus believed to be capable of its completion. He also found that “for goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires.” Task complexity also moderates the effects of goals because more complex goals require the review of more complex strategies than lower difficulty goals. Lastly, more complex goals require proximal goals rather than a singular distal goal. Basically, the complex goals should be broken down into several smaller goals. The setting of proximal goals also promotes progress feedback.


As noted by Locke, his goal-setting theory has several limitations: 1. Goal conflict. Sometimes an individual has several goals, some of which may be in conflict. When this occurs, performance will suffer. 2. Goals and risk. More difficult goals/deadlines can spur riskier behaviors and strategies. 3 Personality. Goal success is largely effected by self-efficacy. Also, personality plays a large role in goal determination and approach. 4. Goals and subconscious motivation. Subconscious motivators affect people regularly, but how these subconscious motivators affect goal performance has not been studied.


About the Author

Renee O'Farrell is a freelance writer providing valuable tips and advice for people looking for ways to save money, as well as information on how to create, re-purpose and reinvent everyday items. Her articles offer money-saving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics. O'Farrell is a member of the National Press Club and holds advanced degrees in business, financial management, psychology and sociology.