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Why It’s Best When Employees Set Their Own Goals

The majority of research on goal setting has focused on what employees think about goal setting (i.e., cognitive effects). Limited research exists on how employees feel about goal setting (i.e., affective states). Understanding these affective states could help organizations make employees more motivated and productive.

Research in the Journal of Applied Psychology explored how performance goals can influence employee anxiety, enthusiasm, emotional exhaustion, and citizenship behavior (i.e., going beyond one’s work responsibilities to help the organization). The researchers explored relationships between these variables using organization-set goals and employee-set goals.

Two separate studies were conducted. The first study entailed surveys of 153 police officers and 68 supervisors. Each officer had both performance goals set by their supervisors and their self-set goals. The second study was a laboratory experiment with 152 undergraduates. They were asked to complete as many math problems possible in an eight-minute window. Some students had set their own goals while others were assigned a goal by researchers. In both studies, the researchers tracked if participants met their goals and used surveys to examine other key variables.

The research revealed that goal type (i.e., organization-set versus self-set) was associated with anxiety and enthusiasm. Employees with organization-set goals had higher anxiety and lower enthusiasm. Those who set their own goals had lower anxiety and higher enthusiasm. Employees who had more anxiety experienced more emotional exhaustion. Employees who experienced more enthusiasm experienced less emotional exhaustion. Those who had more emotional exhaustion, then, exhibited less citizenship behavior.  Undergraduates who experienced more emotional exhaustion had lower task performance and less citizenship behavior.

The researchers predicted that organization-set goals could lead to uncertainty which could, in turn, create anxiety. This anxiety could deplete internal resources, leading to emotional exhaustion. And when people have emotional exhaustion, they have less internal resources for task performance and citizenship behavior. In contrast, self-set goals create perceptions of attainability which could increase enthusiasm, task performance, and citizenship behavior.


Welsh, D.T., Baer, M.D., & Sessions, H. (2020). Hot pursuit: The affective consequences of organization-set versus self-set goals for emotional exhaustion and citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(2)166-185.