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The Secret of Successful Goal-Setting at the Workplace

Cater to the emotional needs of the people who actually do the work.

Key points

  • When setting goals, companies often cater to the wrong people.
  • The science of goal setting has defined clear best practice guidelines.
  • Best results: Involve employees, define challenging but achievable goals.
  • Goals involving purpose and learning heighten motivation and results.
Source: StockFour Shutterstock
Source: StockFour Shutterstock

You're in a team meeting where the quarterly targets are presented by your manager. Even though you and your team didn't hit targets the previous quarter, it seems that the targets for this quarter have been increased by 12 percent. A collective groan arises from your team members as shoulders slump in expectation of another quarter without bonuses.

Catering to the Wrong People’s Emotions: Goal setting of any kind has a significant effect on an employee’s emotions and motivations. The trick is to define goals that create positive emotions and that push and motivate employees to give it their all and deliver their best long-term results.

However, employees all too often find themselves with unachievable targets crafted to primarily placate the emotional needs of C-suite executives and CEOs, while inadvertently lowering the motivations and outcomes of the teams charged with actually doing the work. When mixing up whose emotions to cater to when it comes to goal setting, many organizations ultimately achieve much less than they could. Here's how to go about goal setting to maximize long-term sustainable results.

The Science of Setting Motivating Goals, Targets

Goal setting at work has been the focus of literally thousands of research publications since the 1960s. Led by Locke and Latham, the empirical research seems to arrive at the same conclusions time and again. In simple terms, there are guidelines to set goals that create positive emotions and cause employees to achieve the maximum they are capable of with given resources:

Clearly defined: Goals should be clearly defined and require effort (even much effort) to achieve but must be within employees’ and team's capabilities.

Employee involvement: Employees who have a say in setting their targets and are involved in the process are more likely to be motivated to achieve them because they feel a sense of ownership and alignment with their personal goals and values. Furthermore, when teams co-create targets, it strengthens team cohesion and the collective commitment to achieve shared objectives.

Add Value: Meaningful targets—aligned with personal and team goals and designed to promote learning and development—increase motivation and outcomes.

Negative Goal-setting Practices: There are also clear guidelines regarding what goal-setting practices are detrimental to employees’ efforts, create negative emotions, and cause employees to achieve less and, at times, much less:

  • Top-down goals that are determined solely by a boss or manager
  • Goals that are too challenging, and that employees fail to meet most of the time.
  • Goals that do not promote employee learning, development, or purpose.
  • These types of goal-setting practices also produce strong negative emotions in the form of demoralization, disengagement, lower employee self-esteem, and poor work-life balance. In addition, goals that are set too low or no goals at all are also detrimental to peak performance.


The science of motivation offers invaluable insights into setting goals that energize and engage employees rather than diminish their drive. By crafting goals that respect and reflect the complexities of human motivation, organizations can achieve the most possible with given resources while also fostering a vibrant, motivated workforce. As we move forward, it's crucial for leaders at all levels, especially those in the C-suite, to recognize the profound impact that well-crafted goals can have on their teams and the organization as a whole. In doing so, they can unlock the full potential of their employees, driving both individual and organizational success.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717.

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