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Spring 2013; Section 001; Team 1


Goal-setting can be a powerful tool when properly used by leadership to focus a person’s effort to achieve a specific purpose. In turn, this can increase performance and productivity to the benefit of both the workforce and the employer (PSU WC, 2012).  However, when goal conditions and mechanisms are not properly set and utilized, performance tends to be lowered and motivation can be decreased.  As we learned through reading the course materials and doing some research for this project, feedback is crucial to an employee's ability to meet productivity and efficiency standards.  Furthermore, an individual worker's expected reaction to feedback must also be considered as part of the management-worker relationship.  So, how do organizations keep their employees motivated enough to set and accomplish their personal goals?  Let’s apply goal-setting to some real-life work situations.


Case Studies Using Goal-Setting Theory

Case 1

In many organizations, it is mandatory to have an annual performance rating which outlines not only performance, but employee goals.  Most organizations do not have the time, nor the resources to be specific with their employees on where they fall short of their goals; they have either exceeded or failed.  Supervisors generally mark either yes or no as to whether goals have been completed. Often times, there is room for comments from both the employee and the supervisor. If a goal was not completed, the supervisor can indicate whether satisfactory progress had been made. After performance appraisals are completed, employees are sometimes expected to create new goals for the coming year. Most often, the supervisor also comes up with particular goals for each employee. The goals are discussed between employee and supervisor and generally a deadline is set for accomplishing the newly established goals.  At mid-year, goals are usually reviewed for progress. Even though organizations go through the steps in trying to make their employees successful, goal-oriented citizens, it seems that most of the time, these goals and accomplishments fall by the wayside.  Companies get more involved in production and profit.  Most of these goals and performance appraisals are strictly for file records and to “check the box” that they have been completed.  On the other hand, some employees tend to have too many goals which makes it very difficult to even complete one.   In society today, most companies are just trying to stay afloat.  Many organizations have lacked rules on performance appraisals and goal-setting.  Employees seem to find only enough time to get their mandatory work completed during the week.  There is no room for extra-curricular activities.  

Case 2

About seven years ago, the CEO of a large organization decided to implement the use of goals and objectives to align the work of the staff with the mission and success of the organization.  There was talk that, once everyone was familiar with how this process works, this would enable the organization to then implement a “pay for performance” process to tie pay rates to performance and ensure that those who truly did an outstanding job would be properly rewarded; unlike the union, where everyone gets the same raise (output) whether they worked at 98% or 68% of their ability (input).  A third-party software program designed for helping those at the top set "SMART" objectives was purchased and set up on the organizations primary server.  A team of top-level management members was formed to create three or four organizational objectives for the year and then cascade them down to the department supervisors, who then cascade them down to their management direct reports, who then cascade them down to their staff.  The idea seemed like a good one until the workers began to receive and read the cascaded objectives. They were vague and not easy to measure.  At that point, they mostly scratched their heads and would say, "What does this mean and how am I to affect it?"  The employees spent time trying to determine what part of their jobs relates to these objectives so they could keep track of the tasks they performed and could use them as evidence that they’re doing things to support the organization’s goals.

Now, the managers at the mid-level do have the option of adding up to three additional goals to an individual's list of preset objectives.  These goals are designed to improve the individual's skills, knowledge, or job attitude/demeanor. The managers usually set two of these goals based on behaviors that they would like to see more of or less of, depending upon whether we're talking about initiative or negativity-based behaviors.  The third one can be contributed by the employee with the manager's approval, so it won’t necessarily be added and, if it’s added, the wording may be changed.  Overall, the performance assessment program with its organizational objectives doesn't appear to be motivating the employees to be exemplary performers and management can’t figure out why.  In fact, some of the employees appear to be performing at a lower level as far as completing their projects and assignments on time.  Seven years later, things haven’t changed and there’s still no pay-for-performance program that the employees are aware of.  Each year the workforce receives a form listing 4-6 objectives and nearly all of them feel that they're being tasked with meaningless goals for which they will receive no reward for attaining.

Case 3

A company commander for a military police officer unit  was in charge of 100+ soldiers and one of their primary goals is to make sure that all the soldiers met the physical, tactical, and operational readiness standards set forth by the top military commanders. Most leaders in the military agree that success  starts with physical fitness and therefore the company commander had set a goal to have their company score at least 250 out of the possible 300.  To accomplish this goal, the company commander assigned a work group, led by an experienced training sergeant, with the task to develop a specialized training program around this particular goal.  After a couple days of planning, the work group came up with a specific program that included detailed training/workout schedules covering a three-month period, culminating with the completion of the PT test.  Because most of the soldiers worked law enforcement duties that included varying shifts, the training was intended to be conducted in small groups at different times.  Inspections and monthly check-ups were performed by the commander to ensure that the training program was on schedule, but it was hard to give feedback because everyone was always on different schedules. After three months, the company performed the PT test but failed to meet the set goal of 250. 

Case 4

Some people might think that goal setting, motivation, and reaching goals might be easier in a smaller, more personal business setting, but that is not always the case.  The program director at a small, family-owned gym in an affluent neighborhood works closely with the owner, his wife, and one other manager managing the day-to-day operations of the gym. The program director’s main job is to oversee the front staff of the gym, which ranged from 5-7 people, all part-timers. In an effort to motivate the part-time workers, the owner would occasionally come up with monthly sales goals that he would randomly drop on the staff.  The gym was in a great location and always performed well with regard to sales, but the owner always set low marks for the employees and would chide them when they tried to set higher goals on their own.  When the other managers approached the owner to open discussion about setting different goals, an argument would ensue and the owner would storm off.  If feedback was given at all on the progress made toward attaining the owner's goals, it was usually negative and seldom included solutions or suggestions for correcting the issues that were hindering the staff. When goals were not reached, the owner would react harshly toward the managers and employees, holding them responsible for the failures.

Case Analyses  

Motivation has been defined as a feeling of urgency, direction, and intensity that creates a feeling or attitude of persistence ((PSU WC, 2013).  Prior research has shown that setting goals is a key component to putting motivation to work.  Just having a goal serves as a point of focus to keep people working toward achieving their objectives so that they can avoid taking part in activities that detract from their objectives.  But not all goal-setting processes will actually have a positive effect on performance.  It's not enough for organizational leaders to simply publish and assign objectives for staff to work toward--as evidenced by the four scenarios previously described.  People need effective feedback if they are to be motivated to align their performance with their standards. 

Here are some issues outlined in the above cases:

  • Goals were not accepted by all workers.  In order for goals to be successful to the organization as a whole, each employee must accept the goals and be committed to putting forth reasonable effort toward attaining that goal.

  • Goals are not assigned and enforced uniformly across the workforce.  Some employees are only assigned a few easy objectives while others are assigned numerous challenging objectives.  Some employees are not held as accountable for the outcomes as others are.

  • Goals took too much time to monitor and assess in relation to performance, causing the employees to spend so much time working on the goals that their daily work suffered.  On the other hand, some employees just took their objectives so seriously that they put all of their attention on just those tasks and put aside all other responsibilities.

  • Goals were too vague.  In the examples above, some of the organizations were not specific on their goals.  Employees were unsure of how these objectives applied to their every-day performance.  Without something specific to aim for, the employees are just shooting in the dark to accomplish their objectives.  It’s difficult for them to anticipate a reward when they cannot tell if they’re on the right track to achieve the objective.

  • Feedback was inadequate and ineffective.  If the supervisors cannot translate the objectives into something meaningful and realistic for the employees, then how are the employees to know when a change is required?

  • Failure to implement motivational programs in a timely manner.  In the second case, seven years had passed, and management still had not implemented the pay-for-performance program.  Incentives need to be established in a timely manner.  Otherwise, employees lose motivation to achieve organizational goals because they see no purpose for having them since they perceive no personal benefit.

Goals are in competition with each other if the pursuit of one prevents or detracts from the pursuit of another and the decision of which goal to pursue is largely dependent upon which goal holds the highest value to the employee.  Incentives (financial, special acknowledgment, etc.) have a direct influence on the relative amount of time that a worker will spend on a task.  If there's no definitive reward for the workforce to strive for that is tied specifically to the objectives being evaluated, then the management team can expect to observe the workers putting less effort on the objectives and more effort on their day-to-day tasks.  However, the leadership team must keep in mind that when they do establish an incentive program it should be designed to consider that not every empoyee is going to place the same value on a reward.  Vancouver, Weinhardt, & Schmidt (2010) found a strong correllation between incentives and effort toward attaining a goal but in that same research they also found that incentive sensitivity plays a large part in goal orientation.  Specifically, when an incentive is offered that the employee values highly, more effort is put toward goal attainment.



Application of Goal-Setting Theory

In each of the four case studies above, the leaders in the cases recognized the goal mechanisms that can affect performance in an individual. Goals can direct attention, energize and mobilize effort, maintain task persistence, and motivate the search for effective strategies that lead to goal achievement (PSU WC, 2013). However, the leaders failed to recognize that and adhere to the goal conditions of acceptance/commitment, specificity, difficulty, and feedback (PSU WC, 2013). For goals to be effective and increase motivation, they must be SMART. This acronym is used to designate the conditions that must be combined to increase motivation toward completion of goals:  S = Specific, M = Measurable, A = Assignable, R=Realistic, T=Time-Related (PSU WC, 2013). Applying the “SMART” acronym to the case studies can improve motivation and performance in each of the cases.
In case 1, the main condition that needs to take place for the goal to be successful is commitment; commitment by both the organization and the employee.
Goal commitment, or one’s determination to reach a goal, has been a central concept in goal-setting theory since its inception. “Commitment implies the extension of effort, over time, toward the accomplishment of an original goal and emphasizes an unwillingness to abandon or to lower the original goal” (Hollenbeck & Klein, 1987). More simply put, if there is no commitment, a goal can have no motivational effect. If there is not enough time for goals to be set and managed, then the goals to be modified to a realistic level. If the management and employees are just going through the motions to receive a “check in the block” then the commitment and acceptance level need to be raised. Management and employees in case 1 need to set attainable goals that both are committed to. Management could start by allowing the employees to set their own goals, and then make those goal public, so a person feels accountable for following through (PSU WC, 2013).
Case 2 has problems with the vagueness of the organization's goals and how they can be applied to the work performed at the lowest level; they need to work on making the goals and objectives more specific and meaningful.  Specific goals allow people to have an exact frame of reference on where they are in relation to attaining their goal (PSU WC, 2013). The managers in case 2 are also assigning goals and are allowing very little participation from the individuals with regard to setting their goals. While allowing the individual to participate in goal setting does not guarantee success, it has been shown to be effective in the case of experienced employees (PSU WC, 2013).  A study by Latham, Erez, and Locke (1988) also noted that participation in goal setting can work in situational environments such as cultural situations and when the conditions that lead to goal commitment are not favorable.

Case number 3 demonstrates the need for commitment in goal setting. To successfully accomplish a goal one must first accept and commit to the set goals (PSU WC, 2013).  This would enable the individuals involved in the process to exert the  effort needed and may go above and beyond to accomplish the desired goal.  Goal setting can be a powerful tool that provides direction for the future (Bennet 2009). Goals should be able to answer the question "why" and be aligned with our values, purpose and vision of our future. Goals should be prioritized and as case three illustrates this did not happen due to soldiers shift work. 

Cases 3 and 4 have issues with inadequate or ineffective feedback being offered to the those charged with achieving the goals and objectives set for them.  A report issued in 2010 by Remus Ilies, Timothy Judge, and David Wagner shows the importance of performance feedback in relation to personal adjustment toward achieving predetermined goals.  The report describes the findings of a longitudinal study of 493 university students where the focus was on identifying how intermittent performance feedback affects a person's subsequent performance on their goals.  Individuals use goals to regulate their behavior and effort and because of this, they need feedback so they can compare their recent performance with their goals in order to make necessary adjustments that will enable them to meet their objectives.  In both of these cases–for reasons specific to each case--feedback was not provided and the people failed to meet their goals and objectives. Workers use the feedback-comparison-reaction mechanism to evaluate discrepancies between their performance and their goals and use this information to guide their future behavior and effort (Ilies, Judge, & Wagner, 2010).  They need to know that they're on the path to attaining the organization's objectives.  Evidence of the link between feedback and goal-setting was highlighted in a study by Tizner & Latham (1989) that examined how employees respond to different types of feedback.  The researchers found that feedback followed by goal-setting resulted in significantly higher work satisfaction and organizational commitment than feedback alone. The link between feedback and goal-setting is clear, and it is evident that when utilized properly, the benefits of feedback, and of goal-setting theory for that matter, are innumerable.

Management by Objectives (MBO) has been popular with organizations for some time.  Most MBO’s involve the supervisor and employee working together to set goals (PSWC, 2013).  There is also usually a method for determining whether the goals were completed successfully.  In the first scenario, goals were set between the employee and the supervisor;  however the other important aspects of successful goal setting were missing.  An action plan needs to be developed to ensure there is sufficient time to accomplish the goals without compromising other job responsibilities. The supervisor must develop a plan for monitoring progress toward the goals and providing feedback (PSWC, 2013).  The action plan should allow for adjustments or corrections to be made (PSWC, 2013).  During the employee’s performance appraisal, the goals should be reviewed and evaluated.  By applying the action plan, employees will be more committed to accomplishing their goals.  In case 1, both management and employees were just “going through the motions.”


A lot of research exists in support of goal setting theory as a workforce management tool for both motivation and behavior regulation.  As these case studies show, the effectiveness is lost when the mechanisms and conditions are ignored or used and applied improperly.  When the organization's leaders fail to establish clear meaningful goals that the workforce can relate to their own organizational positions, it's very likely that the employees will not commit to attaining those goals.  Furthermore, when feedback is useless, irrelevant, or non-existent, it's difficult for employees to know how their own performance is measuring up in relation to the goals set before them.  The amount of effort and the stretegies people use in order to achieve their goals are dynamic, changing over time in response to the variations that occur with the difference between their current (where they are) and desired (where they'd like to be) states.  These changes may be a direct result of actions taken by them or by others that affect them, but an individual's perception of his/her current level of performance on a task may vary greatly from management's perception.  It's the perception of the current level of performance that determines persistence on a task (Vancouver, 2010).

When management is working with their employees on goal assignments, there are aspects that must be considered.  People with a learning goal orientation tend to choose tasks in which they can acquire knowledge and skill.  Those with a performance goal orientation tend to avoid tasks where others may judge them unfavorably due to possible errors they might make. Hence they tend to choose easy tasks in which they can look good in the eyes of others (Latham & Locke, 2006).  If aspects such as these are not part of the goal-setting process, then the whole process loses its ability to motivate employees and improve work performance.  The success of goal setting depends upon taking account of the mediators and moderators that determine its efficacy and applicability (Latham & Locke, 2006).

Several drawbacks of using a goal-setting program are exhibited in the scenarios provided in this discussion.  Tunnel vision may occur when employees focus too much attention on goals and ignore other aspects of their job (PSWC, 2013).  Goals can also conflict with one another.  Working on one goal may stop us from working on and completing another goal (PSWC, 2013).  Bennett (2009) felt that people may lie to make up the difference when they fall short of completing their goals.  The key moderators of goal setting are feedback, which people need in order to track their progress; commitment to the goal, which is enhanced by self-efficacy and viewing the goal as important; task complexity, to the extent that task knowledge is harder to acquire on complex tasks; and situational constraints.  Role overload (excess work without the necessary resources to accomplish a task) moderates goal effects, so goals affect performance only when overload is low (Latham & Locke, 2006).


  1. Bennett (2009, March 15). Ready, Why setting goals can backfire. The Boston Globe, C1.

  2. Gergen, C., & Vanourek, G. (2009, January 14). Properly set goals aid success. The Washington Times, B03.

  3. Hollenbeck, J. R., & Klein, H. (1987). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Problems, prospects, and proposals for future research.. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(2), 212-220. Retrieved February 17, 2013, from

  4. Ilies, R., Judge, T. A., & Wagner, D. T. (2010). The influence of cognitive and affective reactions to feedback on subsequent goals:  Role of behavioral inhibition/activation. European Psychologist, 15(2), 121-131. doi:  Accessed February 6, 2013, through ProQuest, doc ID:  745196063 in PsycARTICLES.

  5. Latham, G.P., Erez, M, and Locke, E.A. (1988) Resolving Scientific Disputes by the Joint Design of Crucial Experiments by the Antagonists: Application to the Erez-Latham Dispute Regarding Participation in Goal Setting. Retrieved on February 16th, 2013 from

  6. Latham, G.P. and Locke, E.A.  (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science.  Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 15 No 5.

  7. The Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2013). PSYCH 484, Lesson 6: Goal-Setting Theory: What am I trying to achieve in my work? Retrieved on February 15th 2013 from

  8. Tizner, A., & Latham, G. (1989). The effects of appraisal instrument, feedback and goal-setting on worker satisfaction and commitment. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 10(2), 145-153. Retrieved February 17, 2013, from

  9. Vancouver, J. B., Weinhardt, J. M., & Schmidt, A. M. (2010). A formal, computational theory of multiple-goal pursuit: Integrating goal-choice and goal-striving processes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 985-1008.
    doi:  Accessed February 6, 2013, through ProQuest