At the end of my City career I was expected to draw up a set of KPIs for my team. I had a huge philosophical struggle with it. Goals and targets have a place, but too often the wrong things get measured. It can, at extremes, lead to unethical behaviour. The more I involved my line management and other senior colleagues in attempting to find something appropriate and valuable, the more we lost our way. I became outright stubborn about the worthlessness of the exercise. It may have contributed to the redundancy notice that came my way a few months later, but I was exhausted by my City career.
It had, for me, and for many of my colleagues, become increasingly miserable and unrewarding since the 2008/9 Crisis, (emotionally rather than financially; nobody need cry for bankers!) and I was ready to go. I am not convinced, though, that I was wrong to stand against the pointlessness of arbitrary targets with no clear impact on the business’s success and productivity. I still feel it was a distraction that undermined any plans I had to make us more valued and productive.
I was a few months into my Business Psychology degree. A recent module was solely about Motivation. One cannot avoid Goal Setting Theory, which spawned KPIs, when considering Motivation. The empirical evidence suggests I should have softened my stubborn attitude, but the more I studied, the more comfort I gained from the academic work on how else team members might be motivated.
This was the assignment that I completed in answer to the statement, “Goal Setting Theory is nothing more than a Technique: the other Process theories offer more to our understanding employee motivation.” Discuss. I wonder whether any of my industry contacts who read this will want to share their opinions. Leadership and Motivation remain two of the facets of Business Psychology that most intrigue me. See what you think.
In discussing Goal Setting Theory (GST), I have isolated the comparison of technique, with theory, before addressing the issue of whether other Process theories help us to understand employee motivation better. I conclude that, despite Locke’s own observations, that GST is more theory than mere technique, and that its place in the theoretical family of motivation is alongside two other classic theories, Equity and Expectancy (also known as VIE), which I argue are inferior to GST. I argue GST is the father of most subsequent theories; that they are derivative, and therefore I dispute that other Process theories offer more understanding, merely enhancement.
Sampling several dictionaries suggests consistency in definitions for both the word ‘technique’ and for ‘theory’. A technique is a particular method; a way of carrying out a particular task and a systematic procedure, formula or routine. It has specificity. By contrast, a theory is a system of ideas; a formal set of assumptions or accepted facts; the belief used as the basis for action and abstract reasoning. This suggests plurality. Is GST specific, or does it encompass abstract reasoning and a formal set of ideas? I argue that it is unspecific; therefore, a theory and not a technique.
Furthermore, it is the consequence of an inductive research process, whereby the process begins with observations, which are developed into abstract generalisations, then theory. There is something problematic about this conclusion, however, as Locke (Locke, 1975, Locke and Latham, 2019) himself, at least initially, referred to it as a technique, but the iterative processes that included developments like the High-Performance Cycle (Locke & Latham, 1990) confirm to me that theory is the appropriate definition. In a half century retrospective (Locke and Latham, 2019) the authors noted that “we did not begin our research with theory building in mind”, but a theory it has become.
The world of workplace motivation, described by Latham and Pinder (2005) as “a set of energetic forces” in which work-related behaviours were given direction and duration, was initially interpreted using ‘Needs Based’ Theories. These attempted to explain ‘what’ motivated employees. The best known is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), albeit not specifically workplace related. It was succeeded by McGregor (1957), whose Theory Y emphasised self-control. Both suffered a lack of data measurement and empirical research. To come was Alderfer’s (1972) ERG theory and Herzberg’s (1959) 2-Factor Theory.
Relevance and validity were developing, but the ‘what’ question was morphing into interest into the ‘how’ question. Successor theories became known as ‘Process’ theories. In answering ‘how’ we are motivated, the focus is one of cognition. Conscious cognitions are open to measurement, helping improve motivation understanding and being useful as a practical tool for workplace management. They are sometimes divided into ‘Classic theories’ and derivative theories. The first of the classic theories is ‘Equity Theory’. It, (Adams, 1963) was influenced by Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory. It is that employees are motivated by a ratio.
That ratio is outcomes to inputs. Typically, outcomes would be remuneration, recognition and status relative to inputs of effort, education and experience. If it is inequitable then the employee will lower inputs (he/she is ‘demotivated’) or less usually, work harder to merit the outputs. Its weakness lies in imprecise measurement. Weak productive power, (Locke (1975), referred to its “vagueness”) led to it being largely replaced by Expectancy Theory, although it has evolved. It is the foundation of the more contemporary Organisational Justice Theories, eg. fair and transparent distribution of rewards.
Expectancy Theory was developed from the work of Tolman (1932) and Lewis (1935), which assumed that behaviour was an outcome of the combined relationship of expectations and relevance or valence. Vroom (1964) extended these initial ideas into a specific work motivation theory. ERG theory introduced how valence judgements are made. For Vroom, a multiplicative relationship between expectancy, instrumentality and valence (VIE) manifests in ‘motivation’. He wrote of ‘force’. The strength of Vroom’s work was a focus on job performance ie perform well, and enjoy a pleasant, expected outcome. In 1975, Locke, still to develop his work into GST, described VIE as “the most popular approach to motivation”, but disliked its rationale of pleasure seeking, “it would be more accurate to say that individuals strive to attain goals, values or purposes”.
Porter and Lawler (1968) attempted to address some of VIE shortcomings, such as the origins of each of V, I and E, and also whether there was a relationship between Vroom’s ‘beliefs’ and actual job performance. In so doing they extended ‘Expectancy’ to job satisfaction as an outcome of accomplished performance, which led to the realisation of both intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems. Expectancy theories were getting better at addressing individuality. They did not yet address role clarity of employee ability; consequently, a highly motivated individual may not deliver required performance outcomes, thus failing to enjoy job satisfaction.
Expectancy models were meta-analysed by van Eerde and Thierry (1996); limitations emerged, specifically that there was more of a relationship with intent, than with performance outcomes. A number of the historic studies were questioned given the dependence on self-reporting and a concurrent lack of reliability. The theories failed to address complexity, habit or unconscious motivation. Statistical conclusion validity concerns emerged over between-persons and within-persons research designs. However, VIE has provided foundations for subsequent workplace motivation studies. They lay the ground for House and Mitchell’s (1974) Path-Goal theory, which in turn stimulated interest in goal setting, and Pritchard et al’s (2002) productivity measurement and enhancement (ProMes) system.
If VIE is about forces and beliefs; goal setting is about intentions. Based on a 1935 experiment in England by CA Mace, comparing a task with an exhortation to “do your best”; it developed inductively over several decades. It has established foundations for subsequent derivative theories. It was first presented as a theory (Locke and Latham, 1990) to contrast it with earlier research considering goal setting as a technique. In 2003, Mitchell and Daniels (cited in Latham and Pinder, 2005) described it as “easily the single most dominant theory in the field”, highlighting research extending over a thousand articles and reviews. Locke had been a student of Ryan, who had proposed that behaviour is regulated by intent.
Neither of the other classic Process theories address intent/intentions. GST posits that setting specific high goals leads to higher performance compared with no goals; the higher the goal, the higher the performance, and goals direct attention and effort and inspire persistence. GST (Locke & Latham, 2002) is based “on Ryan’s (1970) premise that conscious goals affect action”. Note the ‘conscious’. Furthermore, feedback moderates behaviour with regard to the goal. “Rational human action is goal directed” stated Locke (1977). This followed work on assigned versus participative goals undertaken by Latham & Yukl (1975).
There are issues to be resolved over goal conflict, which can often motivate unethical behaviours. Ordonez et al (2009) made an amusing, but a serious point. Misselling, especially in the financial products industry, is a typical outcome of energetic goals setting – the most recent infamy being Wells Fargo, where salespeople’s goals led to the creation of fraudulent accounts. Also, Kanfer & Ackerman (1989) discovered that goals that were unrealistic, ‘stretch goals’ that were beyond a person’s training or capability, had a deleterious effect on motivation. Kehr (2019) suggested that GST was “firmly entrenched” but criticised its narrowness.
Goals are not the perfect or only motivational tools an organisation should employ. GST has enabled us to understand mediators and moderators, although more theorising needs to be done on Freudian concepts of unconscious drives as motivation. Kehr felt that the theory needed to better explain why individuals of similar skill sets did not achieve the same goals, in the same time frames. Locke and Latham (2019) agreed that “GST is not, and was not meant to be, a comprehensive theory of motivation”. However, it continues to broaden, for example Locke, Latham & Fassina’s (2002) work on the High-Performance Cycle.
Control theory (Carver & Scheier, 1981) was one of many motivation studies that was derived from GST. It is sometimes referred to as Self-Regulation of Behaviour. The theory suggests that the ‘discrepancy’ between an employee’s performance and a goal, automatically triggers a response to narrow the discrepancy. The goal is a motivator and the negative feedback loop of under achieving the goal sustains the motivation. Its merit is it recognises individuality and dynamic behaviour i.e. that employees constantly adapt and revise what is needed to achieve a goal.
It also attempted to address a GST shortcoming insofar as it acknowledged that employees usually had several concurrent goals, and arranged them into hierarchies. Bandura (1989) was critical, asserting that goal setting is also ‘discrepancy-creating’ and therefore there was a forward-thinking loop. Locke & Latham (2002) asserted that it was a “mechanistic version of Hull’s drive reduction theory”, treating human behaviour as repeatable, like a machine, when machines have no goals of their own, merely those of the machine-builders.
Bandura’s (1997) Social Cognitive Theory has provided the main challenger to GST amongst the Process Theories of Motivation. At the core of the theory is the notion of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a personal appreciation of one’s ability to complete a goal. There is a triadic relationship between personal factors, behaviours and environmental factors, meaning any change in one of the triad will affect the other two. Employees with high self-efficacy set high(er) goals and commit to them; those with low self-efficacy abandon goals in the face of setbacks. The GST authors see Bandura as additive to their theorising, not competitive with it. (Locke & Latham, 2002).
This extends to goal commitment (Seijts & Latham, 2000). Erez & Judge (2001) noted that GST had strong empirical support but stumbled when difficult and specific goals were “only motivational dependent upon goal commitment”. Erez & Zidon (1984) had combined field and lab studies to conclude individuals with positive self-evaluation tended to be better performers. This extended GST into new areas, such as ‘Affect’. Tubbs & Ekeberg (1991) had already divorced intention from goals, which are “the objects of aims”. In their view, intention “subsumes the concept of goal”.
In comparing GST with ‘other Process theories’ in understanding employee motivation it is important also to consider the merits and demerits of Self Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 1990). Typically categorised as ‘Needs’, not ‘Process’, it shares a link with cognition that is core to all the Process theories. SDT is about satisfying the ‘needs’ for autonomy, relatedness, and competence for intrinsic motivation, and distinguishing between autonomous and controlled motivation.
The more freedom individuals have, the greater their sense of autonomy, motivating higher levels of interest in the goal. The difficulty with it lies in direct application to the workplace (Fay & Frese, 2000), because the workplace is heavily weighted to extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators can actually undermine intrinsic motivators; a shift in the locus of causality. There are difficulties in assessing the strength of the motivators too. Furthermore, it fails to address the issue of negative emotion as a motivator, as in “I’ll show you”, when one has been told a goal is unachievable.
Being inductive, not ‘hypothetico-deductive’, has lengthened the time available to GST’s development. It has spawned much subsequent research enhancing our understanding of motivation eg. Learning and Performance Goals. In their own review, the authors (2019) stress the benefit of new iterations and concede that the initial focus on conscious goals may need broadening in scope; “Once a theory is formulated inductively, the theory is open to further development”. It has endured because it is measurable – and demonstrated relevance across different durations, cultures, ethnicities etc.
Terpstra & Rozzell (1994) found significant correlation between “goals setting and organisational profitability”, supporting its value. Even in the public sector, Wright (2001) found that 75% of the variation in work motivation was explained by GST variables (difficulty, specificity and self-efficacy). The Other Process theories – predecessors have limitations, successors are largely derivative – whilst enhancing our understanding of employee motivation, have not necessarily offered ‘more’, by way of scope. GST deserves its current primacy and is more theory than technique.
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