Performance Architect update 6/2010

An introduction to theory in performance management: Goal Setting Theory

In my previous update I highlighted the benefits of increasing theory awareness in performance management practice. It has the potential to positively impact the process of selecting, developing and using performance management solutions. Over the next few months, I will gradually introduce some of these theories, in no particular order.

A very important theory informing performance management is the Goal Setting Theory, which is considered to be one of the most effective motivational theories. It was formulated inductively based on empirical research conducted over nearly four decades by Locke and Latham. Its roots are based on the premise that conscious goals affect action (Locke & Latham, 2002).

An important note to make is that the use of the term “goals” in this theory. Goals are considered here to be the object or aim of an action. As the terminology used in performance management as a discipline is loosely structured, the goal setting theory itself applies to objectives, Key Performance Indicators and targets as well.


There are four general principles that are linked to an increase in motivation, thus generating optimal performance:

  • Goals should be challenging, but attainable. Locke and Latham (2004) found a positive, linear function in that the most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance. They also found that performance decreased once the limits of ability were reached or when commitment to a highly difficult goal lapsed.
  • Goals should be specific rather than vague. Research by Locke and Latham (1990) showed that specific, difficult goals consistently led to higher performance than urging people to do their best. As specific goals vary in difficulty, goal specificity in itself does not necessarily lead to high performance, but reduces variation in performance by reducing the ambiguity about what has to be achieved. (Locke, Chah, Harrison, & Lustgarten, 1989).
  • Employees should be involved in the process of setting their own goals. When goals are self set, people with high self-efficacy set higher goals than do people with lower self-efficacy. They also are more committed to assigned goals, find and use better task strategies to attain the goals, and respond more positively to negative feedback than do people with low self-efficacy (Locke & Latham, 2002, Locke & Latham, 1990). The goal–performance relationship is strongest when people are committed to their goals.
  • Goals should be measurable in terms of being clearly understood by employees: quantity, quality, time, and cost. For goals to be effective, people need summary feedback that reveals progress in relation to their goals. If they do not know how they are doing, it is difficult for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires. Summary feedback is a moderator of goal effects in that the combination of goals plus feedback is more effective than goals alone (Locke & Latham, 2002).


Locke & Latham (2002) propose four mechanisms through which goals affect performance:

1. Directive function. They direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal irrelevant activities.
2. Energizing function. High goals lead to greater effort than low goals.
3. Impact on persistence. When participants are allowed to control the time they spend on a task, hard goals prolong effort (LaPorte & Nath, 1976). There is often, however, a trade-off in work between time and intensity of effort. Faced with a difficult goal, it is possible to work faster and more intensely for a short period or to work slower and less intensely for a long period.
4. Affect action indirectly by leading to the arousal, discovery, and/or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies (Wood & Locke, 1990).

While Goal Setting Theory is generally analyzed at individual level, its principles are considered relevant at organizational level, too. Locke (2004) argues that goal-setting is effective for any task where people have control over their performance. Research in this field currently explores goal setting theory at both individual and organizational level. Elements of the Goal Setting Theory are present in various degrees in all aspects that relate to performance management practice. Linking theory to practice is up to all of us.

Stay smart! Enjoy!

Aurel Brudan
Performance Architect,


LaPorte, R.E., & Nath, R. (1976). Role of performance goals in prose learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 68(3), 260-264.

Locke, E. A., Chah, D., Harrison, S., & Lustgarten, N. (1989). Separating the effects of goal specificity from goal level. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 43, 270–287.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Locke, E. A. and Latham, G. P., (2002), “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation”, American Psychologist, Vol. 57, No. 9, pp. 705–717.

Locke, E. A. (2004), “Goal setting theory and its applications to the world of business”, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 124-125.

Wood, R., & Locke, E. (1990). Goal setting and strategy effects on complex tasks. In B. Staw & L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior (Vol. 12, pp. 73–109). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Success in academia – Advice from 3 high achieving scholars

On the first day of the 2009 Academy of Management Conference, I attended a great panel discussion on the topic: “Success in Academia”. I might add “and Beyond”, as the advice given is also relevant to learning, personal productivity and career in general.

The participants were three Academy of Management Laureates, each of them with an academic career spanning over 40 years.
• Distinguished Professor Michael A. Hitt, from Texas A&M University
• Emeritus Professor Edwin A. Locke, from The University of Maryland, College Park
• Distinguished Professor Fred Luthans, from The University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The discussion focussed on the journey to become an independent scholar. I have structured their advice into 5 sections:

1. Learning through apprentiship

• Stage 1 – Learn to analyse data by analysing existing datasets. Research assistantship is a useful step in this direction. “Data analysis is not just a science, it is also an art.” Edwin Locke
• Stage 2 – Get involved in the design of studies.
• Stage 3 – Know how to write. The method and results sections are considered to be the easiest. The introduction is the most difficult to write. Reviewers have a hard time getting past the data.
• Stage 4 – Write the discussion section – the easiest to write.
• Stage 5 – Job search preparation. At The University of Maryland a job preparation seminar takes place several times a year, addressing the topic of what it is like to be a professor. All candidates are requested to try 2-3 times their job interview presentation.
• Stage 6 – Seek individual advice customised to personal values, interests. Doctoral students are very poor at introspection.

2. Guidance through mentoring

• Senior academics are interested to provide help with questions about ethics, strategies, getting citations, making tenure upon finishing with the dissertation, etc.
• Professor Michael A. Hitt supervised 85 doctoral students over 40 year career. His mentoring methods changed from early, mid to late stage in the career.
• PhD. students fall in two categories:
1. Irrational type – fixed idea, can’t get out of it.
2. Smart and creative – you can have a rational discussion with them.
Assistant Professors are more rigid.

3. Mistakes made by young researchers

• Junior faculty not getting involved in research soon/early enough. They are unlikely to get tenure as a result. Some don’t get it and some don’t want to.
How to avoid it: An option is to volunteer to review research and make comments.
• Research students lock in on a topic way too quickly after the first exposure to a seminar – topic.
How to avoid it: Take at least one year of review and thinking before locking in a PhD. research topic.
• Not a good idea to select a topic the supervisor has done work in.
How to avoid it: Instead the following rule should be used: pick a topic that interest you; if the supervisor has some knowledge or interest, will supervise.
• Researchers don’t do parallel research. They start one project and stick to that. The linear process is a disaster. The tunnel vision doesn’t work. The duration between design and acceptance extended from 1 to 5 years now due to reviews and reviewers. An assistant professor has about 6 years to make tenure.
How to avoid it: Need to hedge your risks, especially under time pressure. Always work on multiple projects. 5-7 projects at the same time.
• PhD. students shouldn’t be involved in reviewing papers for academic journals. An unexperienced reviewer has tunnel vision, often picks on one thing and expands on it, while missing the point of the article. There are many junior faculty members on the editorial boards of journals. One reviewer didn’t know what self-efficacy meant.

4. Personal research productivity. Personal habits that help being productive.

1. Productivity takes effort, time, concentration and motivation.
2. There is no substitute for hard work. Hard work trumps intellect.
3. To be a world class expert you need 10,000 hours of effort in that field.
4. Avoid procrastination , although it is common in any field around the world.
5. It helps to choose – when and where to work to be productive.
6. You need uninterrupted time to work on research.
7. Establishing rituals and goals works for research productivity. You have got to set up and customise rituals and routines – specific times and specific behaviours. We all use them in day to day life – from being an athlete to brushing teeth. Examples:
• 7-11pm every night in the office at home.
• Stay at home on a particular day: i.e. Thursday.
• Write early in the morning: 7-11am.
• University office time late in the afternoon.
• Rule – only work in the office.
• 5pg./day = x pages/year.
8. Once you have a ritual, feel good for doing it or feeling guilty for not going it.
9. Collaboration is also important. Working with others is important as you get a lot more done – division of labour helps. Need to be sure the uni tenure doesn’t penalise collaborative research.
10. Delegation. Data analysis can be delegated to others. There are new mantas – hierarchical linear regression. The method should reflect what you need.
11. Motivation. To be a good researcher for a long time you have to love it. The entire process – conceptualising, designing, writing , dealing with reviewers. You have to love writing and the process of discovery. You also need to be tenacious in the face of failure.
12. Develop ability to work fast.
13. Keep up to date with business news – Business Week, Fortune magazine.

5. Career Advice

• Career success comes from research – this is how you get distinguished professorship. A large portion of the pie for research. In the order of priority: 1. Research, 2. Teaching, 3. Committee work
• Goal in research – do good work. Not fame and popularity.
• Exposure from textbooks helps a lot for promotion and tenure.
• On teaching: not value in listing tools and listing theories. A better way to teach management is to teach principles. Write chapters around principles. Integrate knowledge into principles and sub principles.
• The data is not what you want.
• Need to be open in the approach to research.
• Pay attention to what is being done, not just doing it
• Insert a set of values in what you do.