One of my blog readers asked me to write more about goal-setting and performance against goals. In response, I studied the work of University of Maryland’s Edwin Locke and University of Toronto’s Gary Latham, two renowned researchers on goal-setting. Here is a summary.
Goals Impact Performance in Several Ways
- Goals can help direct: A person’s goals should direct his/her attention, effort, and action toward goal-relevant actions at the expense of less-relevant actions.
- Goals can help motivate: A person’s goals can motivate him/her to pursue specific outcomes. The person can be motivated only when his/her goals are sufficiently challenging and can nudge him/her to put in special efforts.
- Goals can help persist: A person is likely to persist at his/her efforts when his/her goal is worthy enough to attain.
- Goals can trigger learning: Goals can either activate a person’s knowledge and skills that are relevant to performance or induce the person to acquire such knowledge or skills.
Best Practices for Goal-Setting and Performance
- Specific, difficult, but attainable goals lead to better performance than easy, vague, or abstract goals such as the general-purpose exhortation to “do your best.” Hard goals motivate because they require a person to achieve more in order to be content with his/her own performance.
- Goal specificity and performance share a positive, linear relationship. When a person’s goals are specific, they direct and energize his/her behavior far more effectively than when they are vague and unspecific.
- Performance is directly proportional to the difficulty of a goal as long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability and resources to achieve the goal, and does not have conflicting goals.
- Taking on excess work without access to the necessary resources to realize the goals (“overload”) can moderate the effects of goals.
- A team performs best when the goals of the individuals on the team are compatible with the team’s goal. Therefore, when an individual’s goals are incompatible with his team’s, his/her contribution to the team will be subpar.
- The goal need not be in focal awareness all the time. Once a goal is accepted and understood, it resides in the periphery of the person’s consciousness and serves to guide and give meaning to his/her actions.
- While long-term goals are relevant and helpful, most people find short-term goals more effective because they channel a person’s immediate and direct efforts and provide quick feedback. This suggests that it’s best to divide long-term goals into concrete short-term objectives.
- Self-efficacy plays a key role in the achievement of goals. A person is much more likely to buy into and pursue goals if he/she believes himself/herself to be competent enough to reach those goals. The most effective goals must therefore embrace a person’s strengths—such goals help him/her strive towards success by leveraging the best of who he/she is and what he/she can do.
- One reason a person may lack self-efficacy is his/her past failures with undertaking similar goals. Such a person may believe that he/she may never reach his/her goals and should first undertake a series of small, near-term goals instead of difficult, distant goals. The person’s success with a series of smaller goals can boost his/her confidence and can inspire him/her to undertake larger goals. For example, a chain-smoker will find the goal of smoking cessation daunting. He should therefore focus on smaller goals like gradually cutting down the number of cigarettes he smokes every day. Experiences of goal achievement can build up momentum to tackle the larger goal.
- Goals are not effective by themselves. Feedback is the most important moderator of goal-setting because it tracks the progress of performance towards goals and creates new sub-goals. If a person finds his/her progress towards a goal unsatisfactory, the feedback he/she receives can drive corrective efforts to develop new skills or pursue the goal in a new way.