Career Development

How To Utilise Goal-Setting Theory in the Workplace

May 12, 2021

Goal-setting theory is a productive way to work towards achievements and build morale in the workplace. Using goal-setting theory, you can put together specific and measurable goals for yourself or your employees. These goals will have actionable small steps and you should be able to easily define when they are met.

What is goal-setting theory?

Goal-setting theory, which Edwin A. Locke developed in his 1986 book ‘Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentive', is the idea that success comes from setting specific goals - rather than vague and unclear goals.

Locke is a strong advocate for setting any clear goal, even ones that the employee may not feel that they can achieve. Locke argues that if any employee has a seemingly unrealistic goal, they will still work harder to achieve it. Even if they don't reach the ultimate goal, they will strengthen their workplace skills and feel more accomplished overall. For Locke, specific goal setting is the catalyst for this.

Principles of goal-setting theory

Locke has five principles of effective goals.

Clarity: goals should be specific and goal-setters should be very clear with what they want to achieve. For example, say you have a beauty studio in Bondi Beach. A clear goal would be “I want to get my homepage to number one on Google for the keyword ‘beautician Bondi Beach” not just “I want to improve my Google rankings”.

  1. Challenge: All of your goals should be challenging enough to keep you focussed and thinking about the bigger picture. If your goal is too easy, you might become demotivated.
  2. Commitment: The goal should be something that you or your employees have an understanding of. It should be something that aligns with your morals and passions, so you have a sense of commitment to the goal.
  3. Feedback: You and other employees should have regular feedback to ensure that your daily work is on track to achieving the correct goal.
  4. Task Complexity: This is the idea of breaking down goals into smaller goals. When you achieve smaller goals you should evaluate how this has helped you reach a larger goal.

How to use goal-setting theory

Look at the purpose of the goal

There are various reasons to set a goal. The goal could be to help you gain more skills with the hope of eventually securing a promotion or to help you complete a certain project.

For example, if you work in marketing, you may want to try out new forms of digital marketing. These could include Instagram reels and TikTok and your goal could be to post one video on each platform. The purpose of this goal would ultimately be to reach more potential customers through modern methods of media and marketing.

Meet with the employee

If you are setting a goal for an employee, make sure you meet them to discuss goal-setting theory. You should take some time to explain the idea of goal-setting theory and work with them to create short and long term goals using the theory.

If you are setting a personal goal, you can have this meeting with yourself. Write some short and long-term goals down and use this post as a guide to make sure that your goals abide by Locke's directions.

Use the SMART model to make plan

SMART is a popular model that professionals use to set goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, aggressive, realistic and time-bound.


Your goal should be as clear and specific as possible. For example, if you work as a car salesperson, your goal shouldn't be simply to ‘sell more cars'. Instead, it should be to ‘sell 25 cars this month'. With this specific goal, you will be able to clearly work out if you are on track to meet it or not.


There should be particular ways to measure your progress when it comes to meeting your goals. If you look at the example above, there are two measurables — the number of cars and the time span.

This means that if you have sold 14 cars in 2 weeks, you will be able to recognise that you are well on the way to achieving your goal.


Your goals should be challenging. Locke considers challenging goals to be more motivating and engaging. This means that the goal of ‘selling 25 cars in a month' should be applied to somebody who is currently selling around 20 cars, not somebody who is selling 23 or 24 cars per month.


However, goals should be realistic. Even if you don't think that it is likely that you will achieve the goal, there has to be a possibility of achieving it. For example, if you currently sell eight cars per month, you shouldn't expect to suddenly be able to sell 25 if there has been no exterior change. However, making sure your goal is relatively ambitious should help you to improve your car-selling methods.


You should have a timeframe for your goal. Make sure that you know your deadline for reaching the goal, so you can revisit it when the time has passed. For example, rather than just stating ‘I want to increase my turnover by 20%', you could set the goal ‘I want to increase my turnover by 20% in the next six months'.

Advantages of goal-setting theory

Using goal-setting theory can be very advantageous to a productive workplace. Advantages include:

  • Increasing engagement and employee morale in the workplace.
  • Clear guidelines set out for achieving specific goals. Short term goals help employees see a road to achieving a long-term goal.
  • Generally, goal-setting helps the workplace to be more productive, which in turn improves employee performance.
  • One of goal-setting's central premises is constructive feedback. This helps employees to assess their growth and gives them room to develop further.
  • When you or your employees have achieved your goals, you will likely feel proud and accomplished. This will add a positive atmosphere to the office.

Disadvantages of goal-setting theory

While goal-setting theory is generally very effective in the workplace, there are some disadvantages.

  • If the goals are difficult and employees do not achieve them, workplace morale may fall. To combat this, you should make sure that all employees are aware that developing the skills necessary to tackle the goal is an achievement in itself.
  • If you or an employee personally thinks that you cannot achieve your goal - even if others in the workplace believe you can - this may hinder your motivation to achieving the goal. Goal-setting is, therefore, most effective for people who already have a good grounding of self-belief.
  • Some employees may buckle under the stress of meeting a goal before a certain deadline. They may work too hard or even undertake risky activities to try and meet their goal on time.

Tips for goal-setting theory

There are a few things that you can do to ensure that these prospective disadvantages do not happen to yourself or to your employee to whom you are assigning a goal.

Make sure that you know the employee well

To set goals for an employee, you should know them reasonably well. Have a good idea of their confidence in their job and anticipate how they will react to ambitious goals. If they have been with your company for a while, you might want to look back at other times when they have had goals set. Think about whether they achieved them or how they reacted if they didn't reach them.

You can do this for yourself, as well - before setting yourself a goal, think about previous goals that you have either set yourself or that somebody set for you. Evaluate how you reacted and use your findings to come up with new goals for yourself.

Stress that it is not all about achieving the goal

When setting goals for employees, ensure that they know that achieving the goal is not the most significant thing. Tell them that it is much more critical that they develop the skills necessary to achieve the goal and that should be their main focus.

To illustrate this, a new runner may set themselves a goal to run 10 kilometres in 70 minutes within three months. If they start the three months barely being able to run at all and by the end of the three months, they can run 10 kilometres in 80 minutes, this is still a considerable achievement. They may not have met their goal, but they have still improved vastly.

Make sure that your employees know that if they do not meet their goal, they should still celebrate any progression.

Set ground rules for achieving the goal

Of course, the idea of goals is to encourage yourself or your employees to work harder. However, if one of your employees starts to work late every evening and seems to be losing their work/ life balance in order to achieve the goal, it's time to intervene.

Set some rules regarding how much employees can work and stress the importance of taking time off. This will ultimately benefit you, as it will prevent employee burnout in the future.

Goal-setting can be an excellent way to encourage yourself and employees to develop their skills and improve their work. However, it's essential to make sure that you set goals strategically and to highlight the importance of small steps towards progress.


View More 

What are Strategic Plans? Definition, Method and Examples

Discover what are strategic plans, the purpose of strategic plans for businesses and how to develop, apply and review them, with an example of a strategic plan.

Training Program Examples (With Step-by-Step Guide)

Learn about the different types of employee training programs and discover steps for designing a training program including company training program examples.