Which types of goals when?

There are different types of goals. What are the differences and when does which type of goal work best? In a new article, Latham & Seijts (2016) summarize the findings of goals-setting theory (GST; Locke & Latham, 1990; 2013), a well supported theory about how goals work. GST-research has shown that setting specific, challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy and abstract goals. The general rule is that higher goals lead to higher performance providing four conditions have been met: the individual is competent for the goals, has sufficient situational resources, is committed and receives objective feedback on goal progress.

3 Types of goals

There are three types of sources of goals. They can be (1) self chosen, (2) assigned, or (3) the result of employee participation in decision making. Self-set goals have the advantage of self-regulation but generally lead to lower performance than the other two. Performance with assigned goals can be as high as with goals resulting from employee participation providing a clear rationale is given for the goals.

There are three types of goals: behavioral goals, performance goals, and learning goals. Most research has been done into performance goals, goals which are about desired results. In management practice, the most used types of goals are behavioral goals and performance goals. Research into learning goals came off the ground a bit later.

Learning goals are formulated in terms of the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. Because of this, they distract the attention from the specific results that have to be achieved. Instead, the attention goes to discovering and mastering effective knowledge and skills. In situations in which people are faced with complex and new demands performance goals usually work worse than learning goals. This was first demonstrated in research by Winters & Latham (1996). Later, Carol Dweck (2006) showed that people who are inclined to set learning goals usually remain engaged and motivated more and get better results after setbacks.

Behavioral goals are best used when desired outcomes are important but difficult to quantify. Performance goals are most suitable for tasks for which the individual is competent and which are straightforward for the individual. Learning goals are most suitable in situations in which the indivual yet has to (partly) master the task. Many studies show that specific, challenging learning goals in complex tasks lead to better performance than specific and challenging performance goals. The latter, in this context, interfere with learning.


In the presence of competence, resources, commitment, and feedback, specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance. Goals assigned by managers work as well as participatively originated goals providing a good rationale for them is given and to better performance than purely self-set goals. Behavioral goals work best for important but hard to quantify outcomes, performance goals for straightforward tasks, learning goals for complex and new tasks.