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Goal Setting in Typical Construction Projects – a Behavioral Approach
By Chandana Jayalath

Construction shapes the majority of mankind’s built environment via projects. A project is a temporary, heterogeneous and one-time endeavor with activities interrelated to create a unique product or service. Almost any human activity that involves carrying out a non-repetitive task can be a project by definition. The first challenge of project management is to ensure that a project is delivered within the constraints of cost, time and quality. The second, more ambitious, challenge is the optimized allocation and integration of the human inputs to ‘make things happen’, especially in setting goals.

The topicality of goal setting has been accentuated by the fact that project managers tend to set goals that are too hard to attain because of less specificity, lack of motivation or far way the target. Do your level best is often sounding. Goals serve as significant regulators of human actions because they act as standards against which perceptions and performances can be compared. The goal construct is therefore is a central component of many psychological theories (eg., control theory, social cognitive learning theory etc) and is equally important in managing projects, including construction.

Remembering Henry Gantt, the art of planning has always been a human trait. In essence a project can be captured on paper with a few simple elements: a start date, an end date, a couple of tasks and some idea of the resources (people, machines etc). When the plan starts to involve different things happening at different times, and perhaps in different inputs, the paper plan could start to cover a vast area and be unreadable. This was a problem facing the US Navy in development of the Polaris missile system. There were so many aspects to the project that a new technique had to be invented to cope with it: the PERT technique. The story of modern project management starts at this point. But that would be unfair as project management is not only about planning with the aid of modern sophisticated software but also about human attributes like delegation, motivation etc, that impinge upon project goals.

Traditional HRM is both an academic theory and a business practice that addresses the techniques of managing a workforce. This theoretical discipline is based primarily on the assumption that employees are individuals with varying goals and needs, and as such should not be thought of as basic tangibles. The basic premise of the academic theory of HRM is that humans are not machines. Therefore we need to have an interdisciplinary test of people in the workplace.

There is a tendency of some project managers to complain that the work is not being accomplished because of factors ‘beyond control’. They feel that the team members are not so committed, time taking or too busy. Project managers with many years of experience prefer ‘do and manage’ themselves may be because they are curious with what is required rather than how it is done.

Delegation is the handing of a task over to another person, usually a subordinate. It allows a subordinate to make decisions. The opposite of effective delegation is micromanagement, which is often seen in construction sector where a manager provides too much input, direction and review of ‘delegated’ work. In contrast to giving general instructions on smaller tasks while supervising larger concerns, the micromanager (not the project manager) monitors and assesses every step; grossly a time waste. Micromanagement arises from internal sources, such as concern for details, increased performance pressure, or insecurity. It can also be seen as a tactic used by managers to eliminate unwanted employees, either by creating goals which employees cannot simply meet, or by creating a stressful workplace causing the employee to leave. Regardless of motivation, the effect is that de-motivates employees and creates resentment.

Micromanagement can also be distinguished from management by worker to boss ratio. Any time there is one worker being given orders by one boss, both people are rendered useless. When a boss can do a worker’s job with more efficiency than giving orders to do the same job, it is micromanagement. Management involves assignment of work to the right person with clear explanation of what and when expected the output. However delegation does not necessarily relinquish the control of the project manager. Since gap of communication is common, one must be certain that one person understands what is assigned. The project manager must give each person on the team an opportunity to do the job the way he or she wants to do subject to certain parameters depending on the project context. Simply stated, “their way is often as good as my way of doing a task”.

Goal-setting theory is based on the notion that individuals sometimes have a drive to reach a clearly defined end state. Often, this end state is a reward or bonus in itself. A goal’s efficiency is affected by three features; proximity, difficulty and specificity (Locke and Latham: 2002). An ideal goal should reflect a situation where the time between the initiation of behavior and the end state is close in time. A goal should be moderate, not too hard or too easy to complete. In both cases, most people are not optimally motivated, as many want a challenge (which assumes some kind of insecurity of success). At the same time people want to feel that there is a substantial probability that they will succeed. Another concern is Specificity related to the description of the goal. The goal should be objectively defined and intelligible for the individual. However setting unachievable targets has been evident in many places.

More than 35 years of goal setting research have shown the strengths and limitations of the goal setting technique. To make goal setting effective, there are several aspects that Locke (1996) noted as follows;

  1. The more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement
  2. The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated.
  3. Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to highest performance
  4. Commitment to goals is most critical when goals are specific and difficult
  5. High commitment to a goal is achieved when the individual is convinced that the goal is important as well as attainable
  6. Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress in relation to the goal
  7. Goals affect performance by affecting the direction of action, the degree of effort exerted, and the persistence of action over time.

Goals can be vague (“Do your best”) or they can be specific. They can also be perceived by the individual as easy, moderately difficult, or difficult. According to Locke and Latham, over 400 studies have examined the relationship between these two variables, and it has been consistently found that performance is linearly related to the goal’s difficulty level. Individuals generally adjust their performance level to match the difficulty of the task. Specific, difficult goals lead to higher performance than vague, difficult goals. With vague goals, the performer can give the individual the benefit of doubt and be satisfied with doing less. Specificity helps reduce variability in performance by reducing the number of ways in which the goal can be interpreted.

In construction projects, a common complaint is that the client’s brief is inadequate as a means for communicating the goals to the project participants. One of the primary purposes of project management, therefore, is to specify the clients’ and participants’ values and goals explicitly through a documentary process. However, values and goals may be implicit and largely unspecified, quantitatively or qualitatively, or they may be quite explicit and detailed through the use of targets and quotas. A typical value management model postulates that the client’s requirements represent the assigned ‘value specificity’ in the decision process, while the project goal is considered to represent ‘goal specificity’ which is arrived from the participation of project members during the decision making process. Results from the research study (Leung and Liu 2002) provide a positive endorsement that goal specificity is influenced by primary value specificity and the client’s requirements. In addition, goal specificity and conflict resolution are associated with the final outcome (satisfaction) in construction projects. This means that a higher degree of value–goal specificity and greater conflict resolution (integration) improve the final outcome (satisfaction) and influence the subsequent tasks.

Commitment refers to the level of importance and immediacy that the individual assigns to a goal and the degree to which the individual will fight to overcome obstacles. Locke and Latham found that goals with a rationale were more effective than ones with no rationale. Commitment is increased by people believing that they can achieve the goal. In the meantime, Bandura (1981) used the term self-efficacy to describe the confidence people feel about doing a particular task. Self-efficacy is influenced by ability, experience, training, past successes, internal attributions, and information about task strategies (Locke & Latham, 1990). While commitment cannot be compelled by the manager, it is more readily given to managers because of the perceived legitimacy of the manager. Peers can also influence commitment to goals by conveying information about norms, through competition, and through their own commitment to goals (Hollenbeck, Williams & Klein, 1989). Commitment to a difficult goal will be higher if the individual has high self-efficacy (Bandura & Cervone, 1986). The high self-efficacy provides the task-specific confidence needed to overcome the obstacles, failures, and setbacks that can naturally occur with difficult tasks. High self-efficacy workers are also more likely to respond with increased effort when they receive feedback indicating that their performance was low.

However, high performance will only happen when the individual is committed to the goal. Goal commitment relates to the individual’s motive to reach the goal, since motive is defined as a disposition to strive for a particular kind of goal state or aim or kinds of satisfaction. Three forms of commitment have been identified in research study (Leung, Chong, Ng and Cheung 2004) based on the literature in organizational behavior. Affective Commitment (AC) has the intrinsic characteristics of emotional attachment and involvement in the project, while Continuous Commitment (CC) and Normative Commitment (NC) concentrate extrinsically on the ‘cost’ of leaving the project and the reason (ought) to do the project respectively. The study clearly supports that AC is the main criteria for project success (good performance and high satisfaction) (Leung, Chan and Yau 2003). Indication shows that a professionals normative commitment depends passively upon the poor market/economic situation to maintain them in the project/organization (i.e. CC), which at the end of the day cannot enhance project performance or increase the participants’ satisfaction. Managers of the construction industry therefore need to stimulate and motivate the desirability and obligation of project participants to maintain/increase their AC or NC to ensure that the project will excel.

The story is all about ‘human interaction’ which has become one of the biggest buzzwords in project management circles. It’s difficult to refute the advantages of having a well-oiled workgroup team that supplements and supports each others’ skills and competencies. The prevalence of the ‘goal setting concept’ has led management to toss out competition as a motivator on their projects. But to get things happen being away from the ‘level best habitat’ requires a rational and behavioral approach in managing the human factor. Under circumstances, goal setting theory is a significant tool of keeping the workforces productive. This will avoid buckling under stress when the project deadline is looming.


Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147.
Bass, B.M., & Avolio, B.J. (1994). Improving Organizational Effectiveness through Transformational Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hollenbeck, J.R., Williams, C.R., & Klein, H.J. (1989). An empirical examination of the antecedents of commitment to difficult goals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 18-23.
Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Robbins, S.P. (1998). Organizational Behavior (Eighth Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Chandana Jayalath, D.Sc, M.Sc, PG Dip (Constn mgt) PG Dip (Intl’ mediation) B.Sc (QS) Hons, MRICS, MCIArb, AAIQS, AIQS(SL) is a Chartered Quantity Surveyor with 18 years industrial exposure in multi national companies. He is presently working with Public Works Authority in Doha, Qatar, dealing with contracts and project management issues, claims and disputes.

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