Management Goal Setting
Gary Latham, Alana Arshoff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0007


Job performance is expressed as ability multiplied by motivation. This equation explains why motivation is a cornerstone in the field of human resource management, industrial-organizational psychology, and organizational behavior. For example, motivation is an integral aspect of training programs. If people do not choose to master what is being taught, or they do not choose to apply the newly acquired knowledge or skills back on the job, the time and expense of training them are wasted. The application of goal setting theory provides a solution for this issue. This theory, developed in 1990 by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, is based on more than one thousand studies conducted in eight countries, on eighty-eight different tasks in both laboratory and field settings for time spans ranging from one minute to three years where goals were assigned, set by the individual, or set participatively. The theory states that individuals who consciously set specific, difficult goals perform better than those with no goal, or those who are urged to do their best. Further, given ability, commitment, feedback, and resources, a linear relationship exists between goal difficulty and performance. Goal setting leads to high performance for three reasons. First, a specific high goal provides an individual with direction. It focuses an individual’s attention. Second, it regulates a person’s effort, and third, it induces persistence until the goal is attained.

General Overviews

There are at least twelve comprehensive reviews of goal setting theory. Latham and Yukl 1975 reviews early research on goal setting to evaluate the external validity and practicality of the theory. This review identifies the relationship of goal attributes to level of performance and to moderators such as ability, feedback, goal commitment, and situational constraints. The authors highlight the central role of goal setting in human resource management. In terms of external validity, Latham and Lee 1986 shows the generalizability of results from laboratory experiments on goal setting to organizational settings. The authors of Mento, et al. 1987 conducted a meta-analysis of the empirical studies on goal setting and found a strong goal-performance relationship. Latham 1990 provides another enumerative review of the use of goal setting in human resource management. Locke and Latham 1990 establishes the theory of goal setting in terms of its core propositions, mediators, and moderators. Locke and Latham 1994 provides a snapshot review of goal setting theory. Finally, Locke and Latham 2005 provides autobiographical accounts of what led to the inductive formulation of the theory. Latham and Locke 2007 describes developments in goal setting research, especially the need to study subconscious goals.

  • Latham, Gary P. “The Role of Goal Setting in Human Resource Management.” In Performance Evaluation, Goal Setting and Feedback. Edited by Gerald R. Ferris and Kendrith M. Rowland, 185–215. Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1990.

    This chapter highlights the role of goal setting in the context of human resource management. The paper focuses on selection, performance appraisal, training, and motivation.

  • Latham, Gary P., and T. W. Lee. “Goal Setting.” In Generalizing from Laboratory to Field Settings: Research Findings for Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Organizational Behavior, and Human Resource Management. Edited by Edwin A. Locke. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986.

    This chapter shows that laboratory findings on goal setting generalize to field settings.

  • Latham, Gary P., and Edwin A. Locke. “New Developments in and Directions for Goal-Setting Research.” European Psychologist 12.4 (2007): 290–300.

    DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040.12.4.290

    The authors summarize goal setting theory, including the high-performance cycle; the role of goals as mediators of personality effects on performance; personality variables as moderators of goal effects on performance; the effect of distal, proximal, and learning goals on performance on complex tasks; the ways in which priming affects the impact of a goal; the interrelationship between goal setting and affect; and goals set by teams.

  • Latham, Gary P., and Gary A. Yukl. “A Review of Research on the Application of Goal Setting in Organizations.” Academy of Management Journal 18.4 (1975): 824–845.

    DOI: 10.2307/255381

    Twenty-seven studies on goal setting were reviewed to evaluate the practical feasibility of goal setting in organizations and to evaluate goal setting theory. The research provides strong support for the proposition that specific goals increase performance and that difficult goals, if accepted, result in better performance than do easy goals. The authors also identify boundary conditions and moderator variables and suggest that limiting conditions will promote effective goal setting.

  • Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

    This book describes in detail the induction process by which goal setting theory was developed, the core propositions of the theory, and its mediators and moderators.

  • Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. “Goal Setting Theory.” In Motivation: Theory and Research. Edited by Harold O’Neil and Michael Drillings, 13–24. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.

    This book was designed for graduate students and professionals. The volume provides details on motivational research for individuals and teams from multiple theoretical frameworks. The chapter by Locke and Latham is important for those studying goal setting as it is a detailed and comprehensive chapter on goal setting theory.

  • Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. “Goal Setting Theory: Theory by Induction.” In Great Minds in Management: The Process of Theory Development. Edited by Ken Smith and Michael Hitt, 128–150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Influential and original thinkers in management are the subject of this book. In this autobiography, the authors explain the inductive process they used to develop goal setting theory.

  • Mento, Anthony J., Robert P. Steel, and Ronald J. Karren. “A Meta-analytic Study of the Effects of Goal Setting on Task Performance, 1966–1984.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 39.1 (1987): 52–83.

    DOI: 10.1016/0749-5978(87)90045-8

    This meta-analysis was conducted on research published between 1966 and 1984. Strong support was obtained for the goal specificity/difficulty components. The efficacy of combining specific hard goals with feedback versus specific hard goals without feedback, and for participatively set goals versus assigned goal setting was examined.

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