Skip to content

What is Goal-Setting and How Does it Work?

You would have to be living under a rock if you hadn’t come across goal-setting at work. Everybody has goals, whether they are the long-range strategic goals of the organisation, the key performance indicators (KPIs) of the middle managers, or the targets of the frontline employees. Using goals to motivate employees is a phenomenon that is unlikely to end soon.

How Does Goal-Setting Work?

Although there has been some debate between researchers on the finer-grained elements of the theory, there is a consensus around the main points.

There needs to be a discrepancy between the desired end-state and the current state

Goal-setting is all about creating a discrepancy between what you want and what you have. When that discrepancy exists, then there is a drive to close it. We can see where we want to be and it’s not here. So, we are motivated to put effort into getting to that end-state. This is the basis for advertising, social movements, pay raises, and promotions just to name a few. Discrepancy creates drive.

Closing the discrepancy needs to be achievable but challenging

How many times have you had visitors know more about the tourist spots in your backyard than you do? We could go to the local sites, but we are less interested in something if it is easy to achieve. If a goal is easy, then you don’t put a lot of effort into trying to achieve it – you don’t need to, so why would you bother? At the same time, the discrepancy can’t be so difficult that no matter how much effort you put in, you won’t be able to get to that desired end-state. I could set myself a goal of becoming Prime Minister but I’m not going to be terribly motivated to do anything about it – it’s possible, theoretically, but so difficult to achieve that it’s not worth it. You want the Goldilocks of goals. A discrepancy needs to be big enough that it is challenging but not so big that it becomes daunting.

The discrepancy needs to be narrowed to a specific point not fuzzy

Imagine you are setting off for your holiday. But your holiday spot is “somewhere nice” – you don’t have a specific destination in mind. You’re extremely motivated to go somewhere, but you can’t set a route because you don’t know where you’re going. The more specific you can make your desired end-state, the more you are able to direct your motivation to the right place. Without a clear goal, you end up driving around and around, getting stuck in traffic or lost or in a grimy city with no good restaurants. Having a specific goal also creates a stronger discrepancy drive. It’s much easier to see the discrepancy between the current and desired states when you know what the states are! Which leads me to the next point…

You need to know your current state (and changes to it)

You’ve got your route plotted on Google Maps to your holiday spot, but you lose reception and suddenly you don’t know where you are anymore. You know where you’re going but you don’t know where you are. Have you moved any closer to your end-state? Maybe you haven’t moved much at all? We need to not only know the specific end-state we want, we also need to know our current state. And, because our current state keeps changing (because of the wonderful motivational drive to get to our desired goal), we need to be able to keep tracking those changes. This means that being able to measure our progress in a timely fashion becomes very important. If we want to get somewhere, we must know how far away it is. Which leads me to my last point…

You must want the end-state

Goals don’t work unless you want to achieve them. You have to accept them and, ideally, commit to them. If somebody tells you about a great holiday spot on the coast, but you don’t like sand in your shoes, then you’re not likely to be plotting your route on the map anytime soon. Similarly, if you get given a goal at work that you don’t agree with, then you’ll create a workaround and turn it into a goal that you do accept – even if that’s just in how you think about it. It’s simple but we often forget about it. Goals don’t work unless people want to achieve them.


And that’s all there is to goal-setting! Work out where you want to be, make that as specific and clear as possible (no “do my best” goals!), and be creative about ways of measuring it. Then you can check that it is in the Goldilocks range and that you do really want to achieve it. After that, you let your own