Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation

The theory was developed by psychologist Edwin Locke who also has a background in motivation and leadership research. Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation provides a framework for setting effective and motivating goals. Locke was able to demonstrate that goal setting was linked to performance.

Understanding Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation

When an individual set challenging goals and received feedback on their progress, productivity and motivation increased. Locke also discovered that high performance was reliant on goals being specific. Indeed, the setting of more simple, general, or vague goals decreased motivation.

To guide goal-setting, Locke created five principles. In the next section, we will take a look at each.

The five principles of goal setting

  1. Clarity. Motivating goals are clear and concise goals. A lack of clarity means ambiguity which makes goals harder to understand. Most individuals utilize the SMART system of specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goal setting.
  2. Challenge. Defining the right level of challenge is a balancing act. Goals must be challenging enough that reaching them feels like a genuine achievement. However, they must not be so challenging that the individual becomes daunted at the prospect of achieving them and quits.
  3. Commitment. This can be created by sharing the goal with someone else to increase accountability. Employee commitment can also be increased through early buy-in where rewards are offered for hitting milestones. Visualization of the benefits of achieving the goal can also foster commitment.
  4. Feedback. As we noted earlier, feedback is critical to Locke’s goal-setting theory. Both positive and negative feedback should be received regularly. To this end, periodic meetings should be scheduled to monitor progress and provide guidance where necessary.
  5. Task-complexity. Ensure that the task is as uncomplicated as possible. If this is not feasible, then complex goals should be broken down into smaller parts. It is also important that individuals be realistic and give themselves enough time to learn complex concepts. 

Advantages and disadvantages of Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation


  • Task prioritization. Employees who have mastered the skill of effective goal setting spend time on the most important tasks first. Employees who do not squander time on meaningless tasks drive the business forward with purpose and momentum.
  • Self-awareness. Since Locke’s model advocates continuous constructive feedback, the individual receives important insights on their particular strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Direction. Meaningful goal setting involves creating a plan for the future. Without direction, the individual or the business has no clear idea of what constitutes success.


  • Time-consuming and expensive. Some goals require a high degree of planning to ensure that the level of challenge and complexity is demanding, but not too demanding. Some businesses will inevitably choose to set simpler, more general goals instead.
  • Performance pressure. Irrespective of whether a goal is achievable, some employees will not be able to perform under pressure. Conversely, others may become so obsessed with high performance that they develop tunnel vision. They may miss new opportunities or fail to identify threats ahead of time.

Key takeaways

  • Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation explains how individuals can set meaningful goals and be motivated enough to achieve them.
  • Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation demonstrates that specific goal setting is related to high performance. Conversely, non-specific goal setting is related to low performance.
  • Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation allows employees to prioritize tasks and increase self-awareness. However, some businesses will not be prepared to spend money ensuring that goals have the right mix of ingredients.

Connected Business Concepts And Frameworks

Andy Grove, helped Intel become among the most valuable companies by 1997. In his years at Intel, he conceived a management and goal-setting system, called OKR, standing for “objectives and key results.” Venture capitalist and early investor in Google, John Doerr, systematized in the book “Measure What Matters.”
First proposed by accounting academic Robert Kaplan, the balanced scorecard is a management system that allows an organization to focus on big-picture strategic goals. The four perspectives of the balanced scorecard include financial, customer, business process, and organizational capacity. From there, according to the balanced scorecard, it’s possible to have a holistic view of the business.
The theory was developed by psychologist Edwin Locke who also has a background in motivation and leadership research. Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation provides a framework for setting effective and motivating goals. Locke was able to demonstrate that goal setting was linked to performance.
A SMART goal is any goal with a carefully planned, concise, and trackable objective. To be such a goal needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Bringing structure and trackability to goal setting increases the chances goals will be achieved, and it helps align the organization around those goals.
Businesses use backcasting to plan for a desired future by determining the steps required to achieve that future. Backcasting is the opposite of forecasting, where a business sets future goals and works toward them by maintaining the status quo.
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.

Read Next: Mental ModelsBiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon EffectDecision-Making Matrix.

Related Strategy Concepts: Go-To-Market StrategyMarketing StrategyBusiness ModelsTech Business ModelsJobs-To-Be DoneDesign ThinkingLean Startup CanvasValue ChainValue Proposition CanvasBalanced ScorecardBusiness Model CanvasSWOT AnalysisGrowth HackingBundlingUnbundlingBootstrappingVenture CapitalPorter’s Five ForcesPorter’s Generic StrategiesPorter’s Five ForcesPESTEL AnalysisSWOTPorter’s Diamond ModelAnsoffTechnology Adoption CurveTOWSSOARBalanced ScorecardOKRAgile MethodologyValue PropositionVTDF FrameworkBCG MatrixGE McKinsey MatrixKotter’s 8-Step Change Model.

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