Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Performance Goals

  • Zizhong (David) XiaoEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1868-1


Performance Goals

The purposes of a specific action. More especially, a set of short-term or long-term objectives for mastering the skills for executing certain tasks. In other words, what an individual is intending to accomplish.


Goals are spread through all realms of existence. For example, an organization may have a goal to earn the desired profits, a gymnast may have a goal to master the balance beam, and a couple may have a goal for a peaceful marriage. Thus, goals lies on a spectrum, with many subdivisions of goal types and motivation to achieve the goals. This chapter will briefly discuss the effects of goal pursuit on performance, goal setting as a state, moderators of setting goals effectively, as well as the opportunity costs related to goal pursuits.

Effect of Goal Pursuit on Performance

According to Locke and Latham (2002), having a goal affects performance in four ways. First, goal pursuit has a directive function by guiding cognitive and behavioral attention towards relevant activities to pursue the goal and preventing goal-irrelevant activities. Second, performance goals have the ability to energize bodily functions. Oftentimes, people spend more effort on high goals than low goals. For example, higher goals require more, mental resiliency, physical effort, and constant repetition on simple, cognitive tasks. Third, goals influence persistence. When people are allowed to choose the duration they spend on a specific task, harder goals protract the effort. Also, tighter deadlines lead to a speedier work pace than looser deadlines. Fourth, goals indirectly affect behavior by leading to the arousal and the utilization of task-relevant knowledge. For example, when people encounter goals, they automatically use the skills they have previously developed that are relevant to the attainment of that specific goal. For example, if the goal is riding a bike, bicyclists use their implicit memory and knowledge of riding without conscious planning to exert the effort until the goal is reached. Although these four mechanisms are known as the overall effect performance has on people, the next section describes goal setting as a state, focusing specifically on why people choose to set certain goals (Locke and Latham 2002).

Goal Setting as a State

According to Ryan and Deci (2000)‘s self-determination theory, there are two major classifications of motivational orientation that underlies the attitudes that give rise to goal-specific actions. The first classification is intrinsic motivation, the idea that the objectives are based out of inner curiosity, interest, and enjoyment. The second classification is extrinsic motivation, which refers to the desire of a separate outcome. Additionally, Seijts et al. (2004) studied the two major effects of goal orientation. Those with a learning goal orientation are likely to choose tasks in which they can acquire new knowledge and novelty skills. In contrast, people with a performance goal orientation tend to avoid tasks where others may assess them as incapable due to any errors they can make. Therefore, they are more likely to choose easier tasks where they can look more favorably in the judgment of others. Over the years, previous research has obtained considerable evidences to support that people who choose learning goal orientation, along with an intrinsic mindset, are more likely to succeed in their endeavors. However, simply setting a goal is merely satisfactory. There are moderators that can lead to successful performance goal setting.


There are moderators in terms of successful goal setting. The main three discussed here are (1) goal commitment, (2) feedback, and (3) goal complexity.

Goal Commitment

The performance and goal relationship is the most robust when people have high commitments to their goals. On average, commitment is one of the most important and relevant factors when goals are difficult; this is due to difficult goals generally require people to have dedication and perseverance over a long period. There are two essential factors that facilitate goal commitment: (1) importance and (2) self-efficacy (Lock and Latham 2002). In terms of importance, features that make a goal important will facilitate people’s interest and effort to obtain that goal (Lock and Latham 2002). There are ways to increase goal importance, for example, having leaders communicate an inspiring vision through a talk and spin the goal purpose to serve the greater good. In terms of self-efficacy, it is the phenomenon that people strongly believe that they can reach their goals regardless of challenges; and past research supports the notion that people with high self-efficacy are more likely to commit to their goals. Leaders can increase the self-efficacy of their followers by ensuring proper training to increase the mastery of prerequisites to work success, finding role models with whom the workers can relate to, and expressing positive communication (Lock and Latham 2002).


For goals to fully serve their purpose, people need effective feedback that indicates the progress in relation to their desired goals. If adequate feedback is not provided, it is relatively impossible for people to adjust the intensity of their effort or the duration of the time to match what their goal requires (Lock and Latham 2002). For example, if the goal is to finish 20 pages of writing in a day, writers will have no method to tell if they are on track unless they know how many pages have already been finished. When people do not meet their targeted range, they generally increase their effort or utilize a brand-new strategy. Therefore, in order for goals to be met within a preferred time frame, summary feedback serves as an important moderator than goals alone.

Task Complexity

The last moderator for goals to have the maximum benefit is the state of task complexity. There is a direct relationship between task complexity and higher-level skills. As complexity increases, the higher-level skills are needed to master the tasks required for the goal. Because people vary on their skill sets, it is important to be mindful to select specific goals that match people’s skill sets (Lock and Latham 2002). For example, it is ideal for students who have not yet completed Elementary Algebra to not to select Advanced Calculus. However, the challenge of Advanced Calculus will benefit much to students who have completed all the prerequisites. The moderator of task complexity is highly related to the idea of flow, which is commonly accepted as the gold standard for goal setting and performance levels (Csikszentmihalyi 1996).

Flow: Optimal Functioning

One of the best known concepts on maximizing functioning and optimizing work performance is flow, developed by a pioneer positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1996), being in the flow state means to be completely immersed in one specific activity for its own purpose and losing other distractions in the process even the sense of time. In other words, it is a strong sense of intrinsic motivation to complete a task that is highly enjoyable to an individual rather than doing it for the extrinsic compensations (Csikszentmihalyi 1996). For example, a team of chamber ensemble is performing in the Carnegie Hall, and they enjoy what they are doing to the extent that they stopped noticing the audiences’ existence, and the temperature on stage. Thus in order for flow to happen, there needs to be several conditions such as the task itself, capability, and mental functioning. However, one of the most important conditions for flow to happen is the skill and task difficulty balance. If the task is more difficult than the person’s skill mastery level, that person will likely to experience negative emotions such as frustration and annoyance. In contrast, if the person’s mastery level is above the task difficulty, the individual is likely to experience boredom. So in order to create flow, there needs to be a balance point with capability and task demands (Csikszentmihalyi 1996). Thus, it is vital for people to set their performance goals that match with their overall ability in order to create the optimal efficiency.

Opportunity Costs (Simultaneity and Prioritization)

For goals to reach the maximum benefits, it is important to recognize that there are opportunity costs. It is a common phenomenon that people must choose among multiple goals to pursue within their limited time of 24 hrs per day. For example, a college student who wants to pursue the dream of becoming a doctor may have to give up another dream to become a violinist. This scenario demonstrates the challenge termed as simultaneity – not everything can be done at once (Kurzban et al. 2013). When there is an overload of goals, people tend to feel overwhelmed; this is in fact counterproductive to people’s general performance. The solution to simultaneity is prioritization: to choose between the goals, people must recognize the loss of potential gain from other choices when one choice is selected (Kurzban et al. 2013). For example, when there is a final exam the next day, college students may opt to study for extra 2 hrs rather than working out at the gym. Additionally, it is important to recognize that situational factor takes into account when prioritizing with goals. Using the same scenario, if the student was involved in a near-fatal car accident before the exam, the student will be more likely to prioritize going to the hospital getting treated (and contact the professor for a makeup) rather than studying for the exam with a deadly injury. Another way people prioritize is by estimating their mental capabilities and cognitive mechanisms (Kurzban et al. 2013). For example, when a student just finished taking a 3 hrs worth of final exam, the student will more likely to prioritize taking a short mental break rather than start studying for the next final exam immediately. The reasoning is due to the mental exhaustion. By studying with mental exhaustion, the studied material may not stick with long-term memory for the test.


This chapter primarily discusses the four ways goals may affect performance, how goal setting is based on people’s inner state, moderators to efficient goal and performance, the gold standard of goal setting (flow), and how there are opportunity cost related to goal setting. This chapter only touches on a few elements related to performance goals. Irrespectively, performance goal has grown to become one of the most researched fields in the behavioral sciences.



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  4. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Seijts, G. H., Latham, G. P., Tasa, K., & Latham, B. W. (2004). Goal setting and goal orientation: An integration of two different yet related literatures. Academy of Management Journal, 47(2), 227–239.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, RiversideRiversideUSA
  2. 2.Azusa Pacific UniversityAzusaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • John F. Rauthmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemUSA