The following essay will discuss goal setting as a part of motivation at work. It will talk about the goal setting theory and will elaborate on what impact it has within an organization. This was partly achieved by interviewing the founder of a HR consultancy (HRC) in London and seeing how goal setting is applied within this specific firm. This essay argues that goal setting can have both positive and negative effects on organizations.
As with many important concepts in psychology, there is no single universally accepted definition of motivation. One accepted definition however is that motivation is the cognitive, decision-making process through which goal-directed behaviour is initiated, energized, and directed and maintained (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004: 244).
Motivational theory was developed by Edwin Locke in the US and ever since there has been an increase in interest in the area of motivation. Locke believes that in workplaces an individual’s main concern and primary motivation is the desire to achieve a particular goal and that performance can be affected by this (Schultz & Schultz, 2006: 231).
A goal can be defined as a desirable objective, the achievement of which is uppermost in the mind of a person. Goals can be used for two purposes in organizations:
1. As motivational devices in the sense that employees work towards meeting these goals
2. As a control device when performance is monitored in relation to the goals set for individuals and departments (McKenna, 2006: 102).
This essay will look at goals as a motivational device as opposed to a control device. There are different types of goals in an organisation. Mullins (1999: 120) argues that there are four different types of goals an organization can have, which are consumer goals, product goals, operational goals and secondary goals. Consumer goals stress the importance of meeting the customer’s needs and wants to the extent that they are provided with products or services they are satisfied with. Product goals are goals that are set with the attempt to produce and deliver outputs that differ from other organisation’s products and services when it comes to quality, design, availability and range. Operational goals however, relate to the different activities that are part of the production of the product or service like for instance management processes. The last type of goal are secondary goals which involves goals that do not directly have to do anything with the actual product itself, but merely deals with what goes on “behind the curtains” of producing a specific output, such as the development of staff (Mullins 1999: 120).
This brings up the importance of distinguishing between organisational goals and the individual and personal goals of the workers. Organisational goals are most often made up by a group of managers who agree on a set action plan which the members of the organisation will work towards. However, personal goals might be to get a promotion or to earn more money (Mullins 1999: 118). These two sets of goals, belonging to different parties, can instigate conflicts if they are not coherent with each other. Mullins (1999: 118) argues that for an organisation to become more efficient it is important that the personal goals are harmonious with the organisational goals. Therefore, the workers will work more efficiently if they know that they are able to satisfy their own personal goals whilst working for the goals of the organisation. In reality this can be a problem unless the management does what it intentionally should try to accomplish; namely making all workers aware of the organisational goals and at the same time trying to combine the personal goals with the general purpose of the company.
Goal setting techniques are said to be effective with scientists, managers and blue-collar workers. Extended techniques such as Management by Objectives work beyond supervisory and managerial levels as well. Locke claims goal setting to be a core motivational technique that can underpin job enrichment, behavioural modification and/or other processes. The commitment, acceptability, difficulty and participation of goals are all important factors when dealing with goal setting (Locke & Latham, 1990: 246).
The choice of goals, the effort put into them and the strategies selected in pursuing them need to be taken into consideration. Directing attention towards the task is necessary before undertaking the task. It will simultaneously remove uncertainties of what exactly is expected at that point. Once the attention is directed effectively, the search for the appropriate method of task attainment needs to be fulfilled. With the task then being clear and precise, one is able to rule out a large number of ineffective strategies and can therefore concentrate only on the most relevant (Locke & Latham, 1990: 250).
In general goal setting is a process of setting targets and objectives to improve performance (individual, team, department and organisation). The name most commonly associated with goal setting is that of Locke as already mentioned above. According to him, satisfaction comes from achieving specific goals. The harder these goals are to achieve, the greater the effort and subsequent satisfaction will be (Locke & Latham, 1990: 247).
Goal setting theory suggests that five principles need to be taken into account; clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback and task complexity. Every single one of these principles plays an important role and can be seen as an essential part of goal setting. Only when a task has got measurable and specific standards it is easier to be achieved. According to Locke specific goals seem to create a precise intention, which in turn helps shape the behaviour within an organization (Arnold, 2005: 327). In addition, the commitment towards a goal is of importance. When one is „part of the creation” (of a goal) it can be seen as self-actualisation, involvement and particiation.
Furthermore, it is important to provide feedback as this raises opportunities to clarify expectations, adjust goal difficulty, and gain recognition. It is important to provide benchmark opportunities or targets, so individuals can determine for themselves how well they are doing. Lastly task complexity comprises the issue of setting enough time for an individual to get accustomed with the goal as well as to make sure that there is an understanding of what is needed in order to succeed (Mullins, 2005: 146).
The fundamental assumption behind goal setting theory is that people will do what is necessary to attain the goals and stay committed to them throughout. The outcomes are thought to be positive as employees’ energy and efforts are mobilized. Endurance is increased as well as the development of appropriate task strategies encouraged. By breaking down goal-related tasks into sub routines, stress is reduced when dealing with complex goals. Locke and Latham (1990: 171) portray goal setting theory as a positive tool when applied correctly achieving high results regarding motivation. However when used improperly the outcome may end in conflict, feelings of failure, increased stress and dishonesty as elaborated below.
Although goal setting is considered to be one of the most effective aspects of motivation there are also contrary beliefs concerning this subject. It has been pointed out that goal setting can be rather quantity-oriented as opposed to quality-oriented. Although it is better to value quality over quantity, it is sometimes easier and more tempting to do the opposite (Arnold, 2005: 329).
Moreover goal-setting theory suggests that the harder the goal is, the greater the level of performance will be. One will naturally be more motivated by a task that will be more rewarding, challenging and possibly even more exciting. However this can be contradictory because too difficult goals can have a negative influence on an individual’s performance. For example one could get too focused on the goal and not pay enough attention to other issues within the organization. Subsequently team-work might get ignored, which will ultimately not profit the business in any way (Bloisi, 2007: 241).
Goal setting theory provides limitation to group performance goals as well due to the theory generally being practiced on individuals rather than on teams. Finally some suggestions are that goal setting can be inappropriate for new tasks that provide more than one way of dealing with them. When tackling an unfamiliar task, all concentration will be directed towards the specific task. Therefore other tasks will be abandoned leading to an overall weaker performance in the organization (Schultz & Schultz, 2006: 330).
How goal setting is applied within a firm and what impacts it has on business is demonstrated by taking HRC as an example to illustrate the outcome. By interviewing the founder of HRC, Mrs Smith, the following impacts and implications were brought to light.
The impacts of goal setting on organizations can be either positive or negative. If difficult and specific goals are set, a positive impact is that an employees’ work performance often improves by focusing his or her strategies and intentions. Subsequently these challenging goals will usually raise the level of performance (Arnold et al, 1998: 259). At HRC (see interview in appendix 1) goal setting is found to have positive impacts by raising the level of performance. By keeping a running total of the firms’ financial performance and setting related targets of 10% up to 50% each year, a 10% improvement is usually always achieved. If this is not the case the founder of the firm, Mrs Smith, sees this as an indication to work on new business. Moreover, goal achievement will lead to intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that are valued by persons’ involved and hence will motivate them.
An important feature of goal setting, which results in having a positive impact, is feedback.
Good feedback can engender a sense of achievement, accomplishment and recognition and could thereby ultimately lead to job satisfaction (McKenna, 2006: 104). Mrs Smith at HRC gives regular on-going feedback and feels it is important to be as honest as possible but always asks for permission before giving what may be difficult feedback. As there are no performance issues in the firm, Mrs Smith doesn’t necessarily feel that feedback leads to a greater accomplishment from employees but does admit that it forms an important part of the employee feeling valued and important to the firm.
Negative impacts of goal setting usually occur if difficult or complex goals are set for tasks of an unfamiliar nature as this could have a detrimental effect on performance (McKenna, 2006: 102). Mrs Smith feels that if a goal is almost within reach it is really motivating and that more is achieved than without a goal. However, if a goal is plainly unachievable she normally re-visits and resets it to a more realistic one as it would otherwise be demotivating for the employees.
In business organizations goal setting theory has implications for the design and conduct of staff appraisal systems, and for the technique of “Management by objectives” which focuses on the achievement of agreed or negotiated performance (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004: 258). Goal setting is applied in an organizational context by a technique called Management by objectives (MBO). Key elements of MBO are identifying the firm’s goals, setting specific goals, evaluating the progress of employees in trying to attain their individual goals and providing performance feedback (Rodger & Hunter, 1991). In the case of HRC goal setting is applied but using coaching techniques. Coaching is typically a short-term phenomenon that starts with a learning goal and is concerned primarily with the performance and the development of definable skills (McKenna, 2006: 630).
The results of goal setting can be measured at times. Locke et al. (1981) reported that in goal setting field experiments, the median improvement in work performance produced by goal setting was 16% (Arnold et al, 1998: 258). However, HRC cannot be this specific as the firms’ performance tends to be slow growth through networking rather than rapid. This reflects the problem of goal setting being rather quantity- instead of quality- orientated as mentioned earlier on in the essay.
All in all it can be said that, if applied correctly, goal setting is a very effective way of motivating people at work. This is able to be achieved by setting challenging yet attainable goals as well as trying to take the personal goals of employees into consideration. By doing so, a firm is (in most cases) certain to increase their level of performance and can therefore profit from this motivational technique immensely.