Goal setting can influence job performance. But under which conditions?

Key Points:

  1. Set challenging and specific goals for higher performance.
  2. Use data, feedback, and progress monitoring to achieve goals effectively.
  3. Consider individual differences and intrinsic motivation for successful goal setting.

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Most personal and professional progress is directed by our goals. Research shows that when we set and reach goals, we get into a virtuous cycle as reaching goals drives self-confidence, motivation, and performance (Bandura & Locke, 2003). The research on setting and reaching goals is huge and reassuring; Goal setting in organizations predicts organizational profit and profit growth (e.g., Terpstra & Rozell, 1994). Goals are great at directing people to specific, achievable results. When they are set well, goals encourage people to monitor their progress toward what they hope to attain. Most people understand and agree with these ideas about goal setting. However, they may be less familiar with the contexts, conditions, and other factors that enhance the effects of goal setting and best facilitate the ends of successful goal attainment.

A Rapid Evidence-Based Assessment of Goal Setting

One meta-review by Barends, Janssen, and Velghe (2016) investigated what goals and which contexts enhance the link between goal setting and performance outcomes. Their review summarized the findings of 34 meta-analyses studies  and 19 rigorously performed, high quality studies.

Goals are essentially meaningless without commitment

Every New Year, people set goals in the form of New Years Resolutions. Most of these lofty aspirations masquerading as goals are given up before February.  This highlights one of the most critically important features of goals: for goal setting to work, we need determination. This is called goal commitment. Without it, goal setting is little more than wishful thinking.

So, what can we do with this knowledge? How do we make goal setting something we’re committed to? Beyond the obvious, that we should plan and make time to accomplish our goals to make meaningful progress, there are factors that are related to higher commitment.  For example, feeling the goal is valuable and useful promotes commitment. Tying your goals to practical areas where you can use your accomplishments in work and life may be a great way to raise your commitment. Building confidence in yourself is also associated with more commitment. Set goals that aren’t very lofty, but that are a healthy stretch at your current level. If you do have big goals in mind, research shows that it’s a great idea to make smaller sub-goals you can reach on your way to that lofty goal you have your eyes set on.

A Goal Without Tracking, Measuring, or a Plan is Just Wishful Thinking


Seeing meaningful progress is such a substantial part of our motivation, self-efficacy, and performance. Planning and monitoring our performance can also immensely help reach our goals. If you have no outlined path to reach your goals, you may feel unsure that you’re making any meaningful progress, You may feel like you are flailing wildly while hoping for results. Your journey to goal success (or failure) may feel random. If this reflects your personal misadventures with goal setting, then you could be leaving far too much to chance. You can increase your chance of success by committing to specific if-then plans. Make scenarios about when, where, and how your actions will best direct you to stay committed to your goals. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you may implement an if-then plan. Whenever you plan to eat your favorite junk-food, you’ll need to finish your daily exercise.


When delivered appropriately, evaluative feedback – that focuses on the process – may be particularly effective when delivered in a public forum (such as during a meeting) as this works to hold us accountable to the goals that we set.

Realistic versus Fantastic Goals

Challenging goals, inspire and lead to increased performance. Impossible goals lead to frustration and demotivation. Finding that sweet spot will ensure that people strive for reasonable growth that can accommodate for some reasonably expected and anticipated failures.

Broad versus Specific Goals

Clear and specific goals tend to be the ones most likely to lead to successful goal attainment. A goal framed in broad and general terms like “I will do my best” are often too vague to be tracked or measured (which will usually result in little to no meaningful feedback on the journey to goal attainment) and it provides little in terms of developing a useful and effective strategy for accomplishment. Vague goals – ones that are generally defined, that leave a lot of room for interpretation, and no concrete parameters to outline success or failure – often fail to provide useful information or guidance as to how to specifically go about attaining them. This is why they tend to result in failure more frequently.

Competitively Framed Goals versus Personal Growth Goals

Goals can also be framed in terms of being primarily directed used for personal learning and growth (known in psychological circles as mastery goals) or whether they’re primarily aimed at obtaining specific performance outcomes like beating rivals (commonly termed achievement goals). Although it’s important to know when you need to acquire new knowledge or skills before setting out to achieve goals or perform specific tasks, this can be quite different from framing the context of your entire goal in terms of learning or growth. Formulating behavioral and learning goals can be intrinsically motivating and they tend to drive people to further toward attaining their goals. With specific behavioural and learning goals the focus becomes more on acquiring certain knowledge, skills, or techniques that help to make attaining the goal easier through mastery of the concept rather than by setting specific goals focused on the surpassing a standard of performance.

Take-aways for you and your practice

Goal setting can be tremendously rewarding and profitable and is demonstrably effective in achieving specific objectives and targets in both the short- and long-term. However, there is a lot that science has taught us about goal setting, successful goal pursuit, and goal attainment over the years that individuals, leaders, and organizations can benefit from if only they knew and embedded this knowledge into their operations and strategies: 

  • Challenging and specific goal setting leads to higher performance & can also be more effective
  • Goal setting that is combined with high-quality data, performance feedback, and progress monitoring is key.
  • People are more likely to succeed when they plan and specify when, where and how they will specifically strive to achieve their goals.
  • Formulating learning and behavioural goals are a crucial step in the process.
  • Intrinsic goals – goals rooted in personal interests – will have a stronger effect on performance than extrinsic goals – goals linked to external factors. 
  • People are unique and there are important individual differences to consider when you’re going about setting and achieving goals. When collaborating with people, rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes, you may be more effective in attaining intended outcomes if you work with people’s natural dispositions and tendencies and try to ensure that the team is all working in similar ways towards the same ends.  

Effective goal setting (the sort that produces successful results) requires more than simply setting targets and hoping for the best; but by listening to what science has to inform us about the subject, we can make the entire process less frustrating, more enjoyable, and more rewarding.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the rapid evidence-assessment is substantial including many meta-analyses and systsematic reviews. Therefore we consider it to be (at a minimum) trustworthiness of moderate (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Barends, E., Janssen, B., & Velghe, C. (2016). Rapid evidence assessment of the research literature on the effect of goal setting on workplace performance.

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