Edwin Locke’s Goal Setting Theory

Edwin Locke's Goal Setting Theory

For years, organizational psychology has tried to explain concepts such as worker motivation or performance. Here we will learn about a theory that tries to explain what the achievement of a goal in the workplace depends on: Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory.

This theory states that the intention to achieve a goal is a basic source of motivation at work. This theory is considered one of the most important theories about human resource management. Let’s get to know it in detail.

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Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory: general characteristics

Edwin Locke is an American psychologist who developed the theory of goal setting in 1968. His objective was explain human actions in specific work situations.

According to Locke, the individual’s motivation to achieve the goals he sets will be determined by the goals themselves or by the simple fact of having set them.

Setting goals and objectives

Edwin Locke defines a goal as what a person strives to achieve. Goals are important for human beings since they motivate and guide their actions.. Thus, according to Locke’s theory, the intention to achieve goals is a basic source of motivation for human beings.

Goals also encourage us to give the best of ourselves, to have a dream or aspiration and to improve our performance. According to Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory, people They seek and create their own goals through appropriate prior decisions. Once goals are established, people commit to achieving them.

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For Locke, the best goal will be the one that is presented as an accessible, realistic and possible challenge.


According to E. Locke, self-efficacy is the person’s belief that they are capable of carrying out a certain task, or therefore, achieving a certain goal. The greater the self-efficacy, greater confidence in skills that will allow us to achieve this goal.

Goal setting, by focusing on behavior, involves the development of the person’s motivation. Motivation will increase if the person shows self-efficacy, that is, if they think that their behaviors will lead them to achieve the goal they set. So, feedback will occur between behavior, goal and success.

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Its application to Human Resources

Edwin Locke’s Goal Setting Theory focused on the field of Human Resources, that is, the worker and organizations. Thus, according to the theory, goals tell employees what needs to be done or developed and how much effort will need to be invested. Locke related the satisfaction of workers in any organization to the achievement of objectives.

The first step to start developing motivation towards a goal is to show a predisposition or intention to achieve it. The goal must be posed to the worker as a challenge or challenge, and will require some effort on your part. Motivation will promote the success of the task by increasing the likelihood that the worker will make an effort to achieve it.

What should the goals or objectives be like?

Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory posits the need for goals to be are clear and achievable in order to maintain motivation. According to Locke, the conditions of goals are that:

  • They should range from simple to complex, and be achieved gradually.
  • They must be clear and establish the level of performance they require, as well as the reward they provide.
  • They must consider people’s individual differences.
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Furthermore, the objectives or goals that are set for workers must be interesting enough to spark your motivation and mobilization to achieve them. Therefore, organizations must encourage this interest, and propose attractive tasks for the worker.

If the objectives are very general (not very concrete), ambiguous or abstract, the probability of motivating the worker to achieve them will decrease drastically. In this way, establishing specific objectives that are congruent with the capacity of the organization increases the level of execution of workers if we compare it with situations where the objectives have been vaguely defined.

Thus, the more specific an objective is, the more effective it will be in motivating the performance of appropriate behavior. We can relate this to the participation of workers in the company, since it will improve the effectiveness and performance of the worker and, by extension, the company.

Goal functions

Goals, according to Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory, have various functions:

  • They help focus action and attention on the task.
  • They mobilize the energy, resources and effort of the individual.
  • They increase persistence and perseverance.
  • Help to develop strategies.


Goal setting will be easier if a series of conditions are met:

  • Clarity.
  • Commitment.
  • Complexity of the task.
  • Feedback.

Disadvantages of this approach

The disadvantages of setting goals are the following:

  • They require time.
  • The theory is based on rewards in order to keep workers motivated.
  • They require effort.

Bibliographic references:

  • Locke, E. (1968). Theory of establishing goals or objectives. USA
  • Díaz-Ocejo, J. and Mora-Meri, JA (2013). Review of some relevant variables in establishing sports goals. Annals of psychology,29(1), 233-242.