How to Motivate Employees Using E.A. Locke's Goal Setting Theory

Motivating employees is a key management challenge.

Motivating employees is a key management challenge.

Dr. Edwin Locke started his research into goal setting in the 1960s. He studied the relationship between goal setting and improved performance and found that companies could set goals in such a way as to motivate employees to work harder to achieve a particular goal. He subsequently refined his methods and identified additional success factors. Locke's methods are especially effective in smaller businesses where managers know their employees personally.

Goal Difficulty

Select a goal that the employee can achieve but that she perceives as difficult. Make sure that, in accordance with E. A. Locke's theories, you challenge the employee to apply all the effort necessary to reach the particular goal.

Assign enough resources to the task so the employee has what she needs. Establish a time frame with sufficient time to complete the tasks. Make sure the employee can reach the goal if she puts in the required effort.

Give the employee tools so she can evaluate her own progress. Give feedback to take advantage of the part of the E. A Locke theory that employees who fall behind in achieving goals change strategy and redouble their efforts.

Specific Goals

Avoid generalizations like, "Do your best." Set specific parameters that define success for the particular activity. Make sure the variables that you choose are all measurable in concrete, numeric terms.

Give the employee access to the figures that result from her efforts. Use specific values to measure progress and make sure the employee can see exactly how well she is doing in terms of these variables.

Remember that the purpose of the activity is for the employee to reach the goal. Set the specific variables at an achievable level to gain the benefits of having the task completed successfully and the increased job satisfaction the employee gains from a successful conclusion.

Acceptance and Committment

Use your knowledge of the employee, her job history and her work record to propose tasks and goals that she can accept and to which she can commit. According to E. A. Locke's theory, acceptance and commitment are key additional success factors for the achievement of goals.

Explain why the goal you have selected is important for the business. Show the employee that achieving this particular goal makes a difference to the overall performance of the company to help gain her acceptance of the goal.

Explian why engaging in the activities required for the goal is beneficial for the employees and for customers. Emphasize the positive aspects of her efforts to help gain her commitment to the goal.


Inform the employee of the rewards that will accompany her achievement of the goal. Make sure the rewards are appropriate and correspond to the effort required.

Identify accompanying rewards inside the company that might come with achieving the goal, such as increased respect from colleagues. Make sure the employee is aware of these indirect rewards.

Look for similar indirect rewards outside the company that might accompany achieving the goal, such as the building of a positive reputation in the industry. Publicize the possibility of such external rewards.


About the Author

Bert Markgraf is a freelance writer with a strong science and engineering background. He started writing technical papers while working as an engineer in the 1980s. More recently, after starting his own business in IT, he helped organize an online community for which he wrote and edited articles as managing editor, business and economics. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from McGill University.

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