Goal setting

Understanding Locke and Latham’s 5 principles of goal-setting

By on July 26, 2017

Goal setting is a powerful tool that can be used to motivate and challenge employees, towards achieving the company’s strategic targets. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about setting up goals. Well set goals are clear and you can objectively determine whether or not the goal has been reached. Poorly set goals are not clear and you can’t always tell what it will look like once the goal has been achieved. The latter results in frustration and a lack of effectiveness.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham performed much of the research that has informed our theories of goal-setting, showing how goals and feedback can be huge motivating factors for employees. Through their research, Locke and Latham settled on the five principles of goal-setting.

What is Locke and Latham’s goal-setting theory?

Locke and Latham’s goal-setting theory is based on the assumption that conscious, well-defined goals affect behavior positively, and lead to improved task performance. The theory emphasizes that clear, challenging goals together with appropriate feedback contribute to higher and better task performance.

The 5 principles of goal setting are:


Clarity – Setting clear and precise goals

A clear goal is one that can be measured and leaves no room for misunderstanding. Goals should be very explicit regarding what outcome is desired and how it will be measured. Similar to the SMART goal-setting principle, clear goals should help with understanding the task at hand, measuring the results, and achieving success.


Adopt new technology to reduce the time required to manufacture products from 15 mins to 12 mins by the end of the financial year.


Reduce the time required to manufacture products.

Challenging goals – Raise the stakes

Setting challenging goals requires a careful balance to ensure the right degree of challenge. Goals that are either too easy or too difficult negatively affect motivation and decrease performance. The highest level of motivation is achieved when goals are somewhere between easy and difficult.

When you next set goals ensure they are challenging yet realistic, difficult yet attainable. When setting goals ask yourself. Are they challenging enough? Are they big enough to be motivating? Are they realistic and attainable?


Convert 70% more prospects to customers in Q3 FY 2017-18 as compared to Q2 FY 2017-18

Easily achievable: 

Convert 10% more prospects to customers in Q3 FY 2017-18 as compared to Q2 FY 2017-18

OKR methodology, one of the most popular goal setting framework, emphasizes on setting challenging goals so that employees are motivated to give their best every time. It is one of the key reasons the methodology has proven to be successful.

Commitment – Rational as well as emotional

Whether you are setting a goal for yourself, your employees, teammates, or whoever else, in order to accomplish your goals, you must first fully understand and agree to them. Oftentimes, 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.


Project manager and his or her team engineer decide the expected outcome in a meeting depending on the subordinate’s capability


Project manager dictates goals to all his or her team members without considering their bandwidth and capabilities

Feedback – Determine your progress

In addition to selecting the right goal, you should also listen to feedback to determine how well you’re doing. This allows you to adjust the goal and your approach in reaching it. Feedback doesn’t necessarily have to come from other people. It can come from self-judgment as well.


Check-in weekly to monitor the progress of the design department and give feedback about whether they are on track or need to expedite the process.


Set a deadline and forget about the task till this deadline approaches.

Task Complexity – Don’t exceed beyond a limit

Be careful in adding too much complexity to your goals as complexity can impact morale, productivity and motivation. Highly complex goals can become overwhelming for people. For such goals, people need to be provided sufficient time to work toward the goal, improve performance, practice, or learn what is necessary for success. Reassess the complexity and difficulty of your goal and modify it. If necessary, break your goal into smaller sub-goals and/or decrease the difficulty of the goal.


For sales, break down the target and distribute it among all salespersons as per their capability to make sure they collectively achieve it within a particular time.


Assign the entire target to one salesperson and expect it to be completed within a specific duration.

How to Use Goal-Setting Theory in the Workplace?

Goal setting can help create a motivated and engaged workplace. According to Locke and Latham’s goal-setting theory, when employees have clear and challenging goals, they’re more likely to be motivated and engaged in their work. This can lead to higher productivity and performance, as well as a more positive and enjoyable work environment.


Here’s how you can use the theory effectively:

Develop Clear, S.M.A.R.T. Goals

Aim for clarity when setting goals. The use of S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals can ensure the precision and understanding necessary for effective goal setting. 

Be specific about what you want to achieve, ensure that it is measurable to track progress, and make it achievable to maintain motivation. It should also be relevant to the wider business objectives and time-bound to give it urgency and focus.

Instead of setting a vague goal such as ‘improve sales’, a S.M.A.R.T. The goal would be ‘increase sales by 15% over the next quarter by expanding into two new market regions.’

Foster Goal Alignment

In the context of an organization, individual goals should align with broader departmental and organizational goals. This goal alignment promotes a unified direction, leading to mutually beneficial outcomes. 

By understanding how their work contributes to the organization’s objectives, employees are more likely to be committed and motivated.

If your company’s goal is to improve customer satisfaction, an aligned individual goal could be: Decrease customer service response time to under one hour, thus contributing to enhanced customer service.

Set Stretch Goals

Introducing stretch goals can significantly improve performance because they push employees out of their comfort zones. However, remember to balance ambition with achievability. Setting goals that are too far out of reach may demotivate rather than inspire.

For a team that typically brings on ten new clients a month, a stretch goal could be to ‘acquire 15 new clients per month for the next three months”. 

Cultivate Commitment and Accountability

Getting employee buy-in is crucial. When employees participate in the goal-setting process, they’re likely to feel more committed. In addition, fostering a culture of accountability encourages employees to take ownership of their goals and increases the chances of goal attainment.

To cultivate commitment, involve employees in goal-setting discussions. For accountability, introduce regular check-ins where employees can share their progress. For example, an employee could commit to ‘improve coding skills and contribute more effectively to software development projects’. Bi-weekly chats can be scheduled to check in on their learning progress.

Use Regular Feedback and Evaluation

Regular feedback is at the center of effective goal setting. Constructive feedback helps employees understand their performance in relation to their goals. It also offers an opportunity for necessary course corrections. 

Implement a systematic process of evaluation and feedback to keep your employees focused and informed about their progress.

Suppose a goal for your social media manager is to “increase social media engagement by 20% in 6 months”. Regular feedback could involve monthly reviews of the engagement metrics and discussions on what strategies are working and what could be improved.

Recognize and Reward

Celebrate goal attainment with rewards and recognition. It not only motivates the individual employee but also sets a positive example for others. When employees see their hard work being recognized, they are more likely to repeat that behavior.

For instance, a salesperson surpassing their sales target could be rewarded with a bonus or publicly recognized in a team meeting. 

Build Self-Efficacy

Encourage and nurture your employees’ beliefs in their abilities to complete tasks and reach goals. This can be done through training, mentoring, and positive reinforcement. With increased self-efficacy, employees will be more willing to take on challenging goals and see them through to completion.

To build self-efficacy, provide opportunities for learning and development. For instance, if an employee’s goal is to ‘lead a project team within the next year,” they could be asked to manage small projects or parts of a larger project, building confidence in their leadership skills.

The workplace is a fitting arena to apply Locke and Latham’s goal-setting theory. With clear goals that align with organizational objectives, coupled with a culture of feedback, recognition, and self-efficacy, you can create an engaged, productive workforce that consistently achieves its goals.

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