Motivation & Goal Setting Theory

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A manager's challenge is to instill motivation among her employees. Even with the best strategy in place, an organization is only effective if employees are motivated to perform well. Ed Locke and Gary Latham are leading researchers and developers of goal-setting theory, which describes how managers can motivate employees.

Goal-Setting Theory

According to "Contemporary Management" by Gareth R. Jones and Jennifer M. George, goal-setting theory "focuses on identifying the types of goals that are most effective in producing high levels of motivation and performance and explaining why goals have these effects." Managers find that when subordinates take part in the goal-setting process they are more likely to accept and reach those goals and are more motivated and perform better.

Specific Goals

Specific goals are preferable to vague goals. For, example it can be a shoe salesperson's goal to sell $500 worth of merchandise on a daily basis or an author's goal to complete a novel in one year—both lay out in certain terms what they want to accomplish. They are typically more effective than vague goals, such as selling as much as you can or doing your best. Another way to create more specific, focused goals is to draw up action plans, such as timetables or schedules, to push you to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

Difficult Goals

Difficult goals also lead to increased motivation and are described by Jones and George as "hard but not impossible to attain." Everyone can reach an easy goal, and perhaps half of all people can achieve a moderately difficult goal, which is why they have less motivational power than a difficult to accomplish goal.


Employees need to receive feedback from their superiors about their progress toward achieving their goals. Another approach is 360-degree feedback, in which managers, peers, subordinates, customers and clients all offer their take on the employee's progress.


Recent research suggests that goal-setting theory may not be effective at all times. According to George and Jones, "When people are performing complicated or very challenging tasks that require them to focus on a considerable amount of learning, specific, difficult goals may actually impair performance." Also, when there work is creative and uncertain, difficult goals may be detrimental.