Goal Setting: A Tool for Employee Motivation

Many organizations take a moment after the festivities of the holiday season to stop and reflect on the past year. Leaders review previous goals, measures of success, and opportunities for improvement. The next logical step for the business is a specific rite of passage – generally considered a necessary evil – for all members of the organization: setting individual and team goals for the following year.

Most of us have worked in organizations in which we were part of the common mass of employees – there was nothing about our position that differentiated us from another. I know that in my case, my goals were very similar, if not identical, to those of my cohorts. As a result, I didn’t learn from these goals. Instead, they were considered a task and not a motivation, a box to check instead of an aspiration. Many leaders have too much to do than to sit down with each employee and coax out meaningful goals. Instead, we settle for the status quo and set goals that make sense for the position but are neither individually personalized nor stretch the imagination by any means.

In the 1960s, Edwin Locke presented the Goal Setting Theory of Motivation, which states that goal setting is intrinsically linked to task execution and creating specific and challenging goals, coupled with appropriate feedback that contribute to better and higher task performance. Simply, goal setting is meant to motivate employees to challenge themselves to do better – and to want to do better. Locke found that individuals who set specific, challenging goals performed better than those who set general, manageable goals.

Often, an organization sets two or three general goals for the year, for example, increasing revenue by 5% each quarter. Unfortunately, general goals like these likely aren’t considered motivators. The reason behind the goal may be evident to some (an abundance of revenue in Q3 allows the business to give end-year employee bonuses), but it isn’t apparent to everyone in your organization.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

If you give a bow and arrow to an archer and tell that person to shoot, they will most likely ask for direction, “At what?” You might know what you want the archer to shoot at, and you may assume that with the right tools, the bow and arrow, the task will be accomplished, but without the direction, the archer will not hit the intended target.

Edwin Locke postulated that goal setting is at its most effective when the goals are clear, challenging, appropriately complex, and the person is committed to the goal and receives suitable feedback. By explaining the most effective goal-setting process at the beginning and asking for that same process to be used for each employee, you are well on the way to accomplishing organizational-wide goals.

These helpful tips may likely assist your organization in meeting – and sometimes exceeding – goals.

  1. Clearly communicate the what and why for the organization’s general goals, as well as the sub-goals for each division. Armed with that knowledge, each employee should create their own goals while understanding how their goal is a part of the whole. It’s too easy to assume others know what you mean when you set a goal to increase revenue in Q3, for example. You must communicate the reasons for each employee, so they understand how they are part of the process and the overall vision for the company.
  2. Set each goal within a positive framework – this is vital for the motivation of the employee. A goal created within a positive framework requires a specific action, whereas a negative framework goal prohibits an action. If a pilot is in distress and starts focusing on not crashing into the trees, the trees become the target. Stay focused on staying in the air and not on avoiding the trees.
  3. Always remember to give clear, concise, and candid feedback. Without this vital piece, employees will flounder, unsure if they are going the right direction, and more than likely will give up. Periodic feedback is critical to anyone working on a goal.

In summary, give your employees a target at which to aim, the tools to do so, and the feedback necessary for the employee to stay on course. Communication during goal setting and proper documentation during this process allows you to measure your success and, if necessary, adjust your strategies to ensure you are meeting your desired goals. By doing so, your employees will be much more motivated to pick up their proverbial bow and arrow and aim for their targets.


Locke, E.A., Latham, G.P., ed. (2013). New developments in goal setting and task performance [electronic resource]. Brunner-Routledge, New York: NY.

Locke, E.A. (2019). Some observations about goals, money, and cheating in business. Organizational Dynamics, 48(4).

Tocino-Smith, J. (2019). What is Locke’s Goal Setting Theory of Motivation? Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/goal-setting-theory/