Richard Ivey School of Business study demands managers rethink one-goal-fits-all mentality
Nobody expects new golfers to win a major tournament their first time on the links. So why do managers expect their employees to be on par immediately with every new task?A new study from the Richard Ivey School of Business encourages managers to understand when to set learning versus performance goals for their employees. The results show individuals working on a complex task should focus initially on learning how to perform the task well rather than on how well they can perform it. Learning goals, the study also finds, ease the tension created by negative feedback potentially delivered during the process. Tension or stress had a negative effect on the performance of the task.
"Tasks that require learning how to perform them are commonplace in organizations since employees are continuously adapting to new organizational realities and hence must master news tasks or responsibilities," said Gerard Seijts, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Richard Ivey School of Business, and the study's co-author.
Seijts equates the learning vs. performance goals question to golf, where an individual must learn the basics of a swing and the subtleties of the game before starting to keep score.
As it relates to specific employees, the study finds a singular focus on performance goals disproportionately hurt an organization's most conscientious employees. These individuals, oftentimes among the most valued employees, showed the highest stress and delivered the poorest outcomes on performance goals following negative feedback.
"None of us really appreciate negative feedback. But when the most conscientious employees receive negative feedback, they start to work harder, but what needs to be done is to work smarter. Rather than looking to impress, they should be focusing on learning," said Seijts, who also serves as Director of Ivey's Leading Cross-Enterprise Research Centre.
While the study does not suggest abandoning performance goals, it encourages managers to allow their employees to spend some time in learning mode before introducing performance goals. Learning goals help overcome obstacles and significant set-backs that are a natural part of the learning process. The study pushes managers toward a greater understanding of how to maximize employee performance through setting goals with the correct content for tasks and employees.
"Too often we see a focus on performance, performance, performance. But we need to think about the traits that employees possess," Seijts said. "We really need to read the individual. Don't just assume the same goals are effective for everyone."
"The Effect of Negative Feedback on Tension and Subsequent Performance" was co-authored by Seijts, Anna M. Cianci from the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University and Howard J. Klein of the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. It will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.