In 1968, Edwin A. Locke published his groundbreaking Goal Setting Theory in Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentive. In it, he demonstrated that employees are motivated by clear, well-defined goals and feedback, and that a little workplace challenge is far from a bad thing.
Locke’s Goal Setting Theory completely reshaped how we consider the workplace by making the direct relationship between goals, productivity, and employee engagement both clear, and actionable. That theory, in turn, still serves as a foundational block for any business aiming to improve employee engagement.
Locke’s primary revelation for management theory was around the power of setting specific and measurable goals, as opposed to keeping outcomes general.
With his theory, he demonstrated how targets like “increase sales by 20%” or “reach a customer NPS of 50” are much more effective than vague directions, such as “complete your work to a higher standard.” This might seem obvious to those of us who have sat down to work out our KPIs on a quarterly basis, but that only goes to show how foundational Locke’s work was for modern goal-setting.
Locke also demonstrated that the best way to feel personally motivated is to push yourself to do something that you’re not 100% certain you can achieve.
Tackling challenging goals headfirst allows you to work hard, develop stronger skills, and reap the rewards—both in terms of positive feedback and a sense of personal achievement. Speaking directly to Locke ourselves, he noted that managers can also use “impossible” goals to promote creativity—employees just need to be assured that there’s no punishment for not meeting ambitious targets.
A few years after its publication, Dr. Gary Latham started studying Locke’s theory in practice. He soon confirmed that the link between goal-setting and performance was both real and crucial.
Later, in the 1990s, Locke and Latham collaborated and published, ‘A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance,' which expanded on 1968’s Goal-Setting Theory, and became a key manual for employee engagement.
In "Theory of Goal Setting," Locke and Latham broke down goals into two main characteristics: "content" and "intensity." Content is the outcome of the task, and intensity is the resource required to achieve it—which can be both mental and physical.
The theory highlighted the importance of considering the whole journey of completing a goal and not just the outcome. Involving employees in directing the route taken to complete a task was shown to increase their motivation to reach the target.
During their collaborative output, Locke and Latham outlined five principles for setting effective goals. These are still commonly used when considering how to motive employees.
The beauty of Locke’s work is that it doesn’t just apply to goal-setting, but can also be thought of in terms of other employee engagement drivers.
The concept of "intensity" and the importance of consulting employees on the approach to a goal, highlights a crucial need for autonomy in the workplace. In order for employees to feel intrinsically motivated to complete a task, Locke showed that they need to be involved in its conception, and afforded a degree of freedom in how they tackle it.
Similarly, the value Locke places on setting hard-to-reach goals can be considered as a way to promote a sense of accomplishment. By pushing employees outside of their comfort zone, they are more likely to achieve the sense of pride you get when you outperform your own expectations.
One final word from Edwin Locke himself: it is vital to first make sure that employees have the task-based knowledge and essential skills to succeed. As soon as they are equipped to start tackling their targets, managers can maximize their employees’ potential by following the key principles of goal-setting.