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How to avoid the problems of target‐setting

Alan Meekings (Managing Director at Landmark Consulting, London, UK)
Steve Briault (Landmark Consulting, London, UK)
Andy Neely (University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)

Measuring Business Excellence

ISSN: 1368-3047

Article publication date: 30 August 2011




Advocates and critics of target‐setting in the workplace seem unable to reach beyond their own well‐entrenched battle lines. While the advocates of goal‐directed behaviour point to what they see as demonstrable advantages, the critics of target‐setting highlight equally demonstrable disadvantages. Indeed, the academic literature on this topic is currently mired in controversy, with neither side seemingly capable of envisaging a better way forward. This paper seeks to break the current deadlock and move thinking forward in this important aspect of performance measurement and management by outlining a new, more fruitful approach, based on both theory and practical experience.


The topic was approached in three phases: assembling and reading key academic and other literature on the subject of target‐setting and goal‐directed behaviour, with a view to understanding, in depth, the arguments advanced by the advocates and critics of target‐setting; comparing these published arguments with one's own experiential findings, in order to bring the essence of disagreement into much sharper focus; and then bringing to bear the academic and practical experience to identify the essential elements of a new, more fruitful approach offering all the benefits of goal‐directed behaviour with none of the typical disadvantages of target‐setting.


The research led to three key findings: the advocates of goal‐directed behaviour and critics of target‐setting each make valid points, as seen from their own current perspectives; the likelihood of these two communities, left to themselves, ever reaching a new synthesis, seems vanishingly small (with leading thinkers in the goal‐directed behaviour community already acknowledging this); and, between the three authors, it was discovered that their unusual combination of academic study and practical experience enabled them to see things differently. Hence, they would like to share their new thinking more widely.

Research limitations/implications

The authors fully accept that their paper is informed by extensive practical experience and, as yet, there have been no opportunities to test their findings, conclusions and recommendations through rigorous academic research. However, they hope that the paper will move thinking forward in this arena, thereby informing future academic research.

Practical implications

The authors hope that the practical implications of the paper will be significant, as it outlines a novel way for organisations to capture the benefits of goal‐directed behaviour with none of the disadvantages typically associated with target‐setting.

Social implications

Given that increased efficiency and effectiveness in the management of organisations would be good for society, the authors think the paper has interesting social implications.


Leading thinkers in the field of goal‐directed behaviour, such as Locke and Latham, and leading critics of target‐setting, such as Ordóñez et al. continue to argue with one another – much like, at the turn of the nineteenth century, proponents of the “wave theory of light” and proponents of the “particle theory of light” were similarly at loggerheads. Just as this furious scientific debate was ultimately resolved by Taylor's experiment, showing that light could behave both as a particle and wave at the same time, the authors believe that the paper demonstrates that goal‐directed behaviour and target‐setting can successfully co‐exist.



Meekings, A., Briault, S. and Neely, A. (2011), "How to avoid the problems of target‐setting", Measuring Business Excellence, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 86-98.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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