Last two weeks, we saw how goal setting is a powerful way of motivating people and of motivating managers. Today, the value of goal setting is so well recognized that entire management systems, like Management by Objectives (MBOs), have goal setting basics incorporated within them.
We also talked extensively about setting Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART) goals. With the information you gained, it may seem natural to you to assume that by setting a goal that’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound, you will be well on your way to accomplishing it.
But is this really the best way of setting goals?
To answer this, let us look to Dr. Edwin Locke’s pioneering research on goal setting and motivation in the late 1960s. In his 1968 article ‘Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives’, he stated that employees were motivated by clear goals and appropriate feedback. Locke went on to say that working toward a goal provided a major source of motivation to actually reach the goal – which, in turn, improved performance. This information does not seem revolutionary to most of us some 46 years later but it shows the impact his theory has had on professional and personal performance.
In this article, let us look at what Locke had to say about goal setting.
Goal setting theory
Locke’s research showed that there was a relationship between how difficult and specific a goal was and people’s performance of a task. He found that specific and difficult goals led to better task performance than vague or easy goals.
Telling someone to “Try hard” or “Do your best” is less effective than “Try to get more than 80 percent correct” or “Concentrate on cutting your costs by 15 percent.” Likewise, having a goal that’s too easy is not a motivating force. Hard goals are more motivating than easy goals because it’s much more of an accomplishment to achieve something that you have to work for.
A few years after Locke published his article, another researcher, Dr. Gary Latham, studied the effect of goal setting in the workplace. His results supported exactly what Locke had found and the inseparable link between goal setting and workplace performance was formed.
In 1990, Locke and Latham published their seminal work, ‘A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance’.
Below is a summary of what has been found in goal-setting research:
3When confronted with task goals, people automatically use the knowledge and skills they have already acquired that are relevant to goal attainment. For example, if the goal involves cutting logs, loggers use their knowledge of logging without the need for additional conscious planning in their choice to exert effort and persist until the goal is attained.
3If the path to the goal is not a matter of using automatized skills, people draw from a repertoire of skills that they have used previously in related contexts and they apply them to the present situation. For example, it was found that truck drivers who were assigned the goal of increasing the weight of their truck loads made modifications to their trucks so that they could better estimate truck weight before driving to the weighing station.
3If the task for which a goal is assigned is new to people, they will engage in deliberate planning to develop strategies that will enable them to attain their goals.
3People with high self-efficacy are more likely than those with low self-efficacy to develop effective task strategies. There may be a time lag between the assignment of the goal and the effects of the goal on performance, as people search for appropriate strategies.
3When people are confronted with a task that is complex for them, urging them to do their best sometimes leads to better strategies than setting a specific difficult performance goal. This is because a performance goal can make people so anxious to succeed that they scramble to discover strategies in an unsystematic way and fail to learn what is effective. This can create evaluative pressure and performance anxiety. The antidote is to set specific challenging learning goals, such as to discover a certain number of different strategies to master the task.
When people are trained in the proper strategies, those given specific high-performance goals are more likely to use those strategies than people given other types of goals; hence, their performance improves. However, if the strategy used by the person is inappropriate, then a difficult performance-outcome goal leads to worse performance than an easy goal.
The goal–performance relationship is strongest when people are committed to their goals. Commitment is most important and relevant when goals are difficult. This is because goals that are difficult for people require high effort and are associated with lower chances of success than easy goals.
Two key categories of factors facilitating goal commitment are (a) factors that make goal attainment important to people, including the importance of the outcomes that they expect as a result of working to attain a goal and (b) their belief that they can attain the goal (self-efficacy).
There are many ways to convince people that goal attainment is important. Making a public commitment to the goal enhances commitment, presumably because it makes one’s actions a matter of integrity in one’s own eyes and in those of others. Goal commitment can also be enhanced by leaders communicating an inspiring vision and behaving supportively.
Monetary incentives are one practical outcome that can be used to enhance goal commitment. However, there are important contingency factors. The first is the amount of the incentive; more money gains more commitment. Second, goals and incentive type interact. When the goal is very difficult, paying people only if they reach the goal (i.e., a task-and-bonus system) can hurt performance. Once people see that they are not getting the reward, their personal goal and their self-efficacy drop and consequently, so does their performance. This drop does not occur if the goal is moderately difficult or if people are given a difficult goal and are paid for performance (e.g., piece rate) rather than goal attainment.
Self-efficacy enhances goal commitment. Leaders can raise the self-efficacy of their subordinates (a) by ensuring adequate training to increase mastery that provides success experiences, (b) by role modelling or finding models with whom the person can identify and (c) through persuasive communication that expresses confidence that the person can attain the goal. This may involve giving subordinates information about strategies that facilitate goal attainment. Transformational leaders raise the efficacy of employees through inspiring messages to and cognitive stimulation of subordinates.
For goals to be effective, people need a 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. When people find they are below target, they normally increase their effort or try a new strategy. Summary feedback is a moderator of goal effects in that the combination of goals plus feedback is more effective than goals alone.
The revelations of Locke and Latham are food for thought for enterprising managers.
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)