Goal Setting Theory of Motivation (Locke and Latham)

Goal Setting Theory of Motivation - Toolshero

Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation: this article provides a practical explanation of Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory, which was created by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. It covers what Goal Setting Theory is, what its five principles are and provides a summary. After reading, you will have a better understanding of this theory. Enjoy reading!

What is the Goal Setting Theory of Motivation?

In the sixties, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham conducted research into setting specific and challenging goals which are time bound. This resulted in the goal-setting theory, which shows how goals and feedback can be highly motivating factors for employees.

Essentially, this theory states that goal setting is linked to task performance.

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Meaning that the way employees are performing the tasks, will indicate whether or not the tasks will be completed successfully. Goal setting is therefore directly connected to employee performance. Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory was created based on five principles.

The Goal Setting Theory of Motivation is also known as the 4CF Goal Setting Method or Locke and Latham’s five principles.

Goal Setting Theory of Motivation: five principles

According to Locke and Latham, there are five goal-setting principles that can increase the chance of success:

Edwin Locke's goal-setting theory - toolshero

Figure 1 – Five Principles of Locke’s Goal Setting Theory of Motivation

1. Clarity

  • A clear goal can be measured; no room for misunderstandings;
  • Explicit goals with regard to which result is desired and how it will be measured;
  • Comparable to the SMART principles that help to understand the task, measuring the results and achieving success.

Goal Setting Theory of Motivation in workplace

  • Clear: accept new technology to reduce the time required to produce the product from 15 minutes to 12 minutes by the end of the financial year.
  • Unclear: shorten the time required to manufacture the product.

2. Challenge

Setting challenging goals demands an accurate balance to guarantee the right level of challenge. Goals that are either too easy or too difficult negatively influence the motivation and decrease performance. The highest level of motivation is reached when goals are somewhere between easy and difficult.

  • Setting challenging goals demands an accurate balance to guarantee the right level of challenge;
  • Goals that are too easy or too difficult negatively impact motivation and may reduce the performance;
  • The highest level of motivation is achieved upon the right balance between easy and difficult.

When you set next goals, make sure these are challenging yet realistic, difficult yet achievable. Ask yourself the following questions when setting goals. Are they challenging enough? Are they significant enough to be motivating? Are they realistic and achievable?

Locke’s goal setting theory in workplace

  • Challenging: convert 70% more potential customers to customers in AB1 2017-18 compared to AB2 2017-18
  • Easily achievable: Converting more prospects into customers in AB3 FY 2017-18 compared to AB2 FY 2017-18

3. Effort

  • Fully understanding and coordinating the set goals;
  • Motivation due to own input when setting goals;
  • People have the tendency to work harder for a goal when they were involved in setting it, particularly in a team;
  • Staying motivated as long as the goal is actually achievable and is in accordance with the aspirations of all those involved.

Locke’s goal setting theory in workplace

  • Correct: the project manager determines the expected results in a meeting, depending on the possibilities of the subordinate.
  • Incorrect: the project manager prescribes goals to all his/her team members without taking into account their bandwidth and possibilities.

4. Feedback

In addition to selecting the right goal, you must also listen to feedback to determine whether you’re doing it right. This allows you to adjust the goal and your approach to achieve it. Feedback doesn’t necessarily have to come from other people. Feedback can also come from within.

  • Listening to feedback to check whether you’re headed in the right direction;
  • If necessary, adjusting the goal and approach to achieve the goal;
  • Feedback both from others and yourself.

Locke’s goal setting theory in workplace

  • Correct: checking in weekly to inspect the progress of the design department and providing feedback as to whether they’re on schedule or the process needs to be speed up.
  • Incorrect: setting a deadline and forgetting about the task until this approaches the deadline.

5. Task complexity

  • Takes into account the complexity of the goals, given the fact that complexity can influence morale, productivity and motivation;
  • Complex goals can be overwhelming to people;
  • Make sure there’s enough time, allowing everyone enough time to work towards the goal and improve the performances;
  • If necessary, adjusting the complexity and level of difficulty of the goal.


  • Correct: before sale, break down the goal and divide it amongst all salesmen based on their capacity to ensure that they collectively reach the goal in a certain time period.
  • Incorrect: appoint the entire goal to one salesman and expect it to be completed within a specific time period.

Goal Setting Theory of Motivation summary

The Goal Setting Theory of Motivation emphasises the important relationship between goals and performance; a goal setting theory of performance management.

It supports predictions that seem to result in the most effective performances, when the goals are specific and challenging, when they are used to assess the performances and are linked to feedback.

Finally, look at the results and ensure commitment and acceptance. The motivation impact of goals can be influenced by moderators, such as capability and self-reliance. Setting effective goals is a great tool in reaching job satisfaction under employees.

Increased job satisfaction leads to better performance. Additionally, deadlines improve the effectiveness of goals.

Focus on a learning goal (goal commitment) leads to higher performances than an objective and group goal, where mindset is just as important as individual goal setting.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the Goal Setting Theory of Motivation or do you have anything to add? Are you able to setting effective goals? Do you often have to work with vague goals? When do you think this theory will be effective? What do you believe are success factors that contribute to the practical application of this theory?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.
  2. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1994). Goal-setting theory. Organizational Behavior 1: Essential Theories of Motivation and Leadership, 159-183.
  3. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

How to cite this article:
Sari, J. (2018). Goal Setting Theory of Motivation (Locke and Latham). Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/personal-development/goal-setting-theory/

Original publication date: 11/07/2018 | Last update: 01/31/2024

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Jessie Sari
Article by:

Jessie Sari

Jessie Sari is a content writer at ToolsHero. Jessie studies Trade Management in Asia at the Hogeschool van Rotterdam. As part of her education, she focuses on building fundamental skills, including marketing, importing and exporting products and services in Asia, economy, finance, management, consultancy and project management.


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