Why It’s Better When Employees Set Their Own Goals

Goal-setting is common in the workplace. It is used to assess employee performance, which in turn is used to determine salary and promotions. Research thus far has focused on the cognitive effects of goal-setting (what employees think about goal setting) versus effects on affective states (how employees feel about goal setting). Understanding how employees feel about goal-setting could help organizations make employees more motivated and productive.

Researchers (Welsh, Baer & Sessions, 2020) examined how performance goals can impact employee anxiety, enthusiasm, emotional exhaustion, and citizenship behavior. Citizenship behavior is going beyond one’s work responsibilities to help the organization, such as helping other employees with their tasks or providing mentorship. The researchers tested and compared the relationships between these variables in two scenarios: organization-set goals and employee-set goals.


The researchers conducted two studies. In the first study, they surveyed police officers and their supervisors. The officers had certain performance goals set by their supervisors, as well as self-set goals. The sample included 68 supervisors and 153 police officers.

In their second study, the researchers conducted a laboratory experiment with 152 undergraduate students who were asked to complete as many math problems as possible in an eight minute window. Some of the students were instructed to set their own goal for how many math problems to complete, whereas others were assigned a goal by the researchers.

In both studies, researchers tracked whether the study participants met the goals and used surveys to track other key variables.


The researchers found that employees with organization-set goals had higher anxiety and lower enthusiasm. They found that employees who could set their own performance goals had lower anxiety and higher enthusiasm.

The researchers also found that the employees who experienced more anxiety tended to experience more emotional exhaustion. The employees who experienced more enthusiasm experienced less emotional exhaustion. Those who experienced greater emotional exhaustion in turn tended to exhibit less citizenship behavior.

In addition, the researchers found that the undergraduate students who experienced more emotional exhaustion tended to exhibit lower task performance as well as less citizenship behavior.

The authors explain that, as found by previous research, organization-set goals could lead to a perception of uncertainty that evokes anxiety. In turn, internal resources become more depleted when anxiety is high, leading to emotional exhaustion. When people experience emotional exhaustion, they have fewer internal resources available for task performance or for going above and beyond work responsibilities. Self-set goals, however, could evoke perceptions of attainability that could lead to enthusiasm, increased task performance, and citizenship behavior.


Interestingly, the authors found that goals with similar content and difficulty can lead to differing emotional experiences for employees simply based on who sets the goals: organizations versus employees themselves.

The authors say that organization-set goals cannot always be avoided, so supervisors should at least be aware of their ability to increase employee anxiety. Organizations can improve this situation by providing adequate resources to reduce employee uncertainty. The authors also suggest that employees be given the opportunity to set their own performance goals as much as possible; this can be done with managerial oversight to ensure that the goals are appropriate.


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.