Will Competitive Employees Help Themselves or Help the Team?

Not all people are motivated by the same things, and goal orientation is one way that psychologists classify what makes people tick. You might think of goal orientation as the basic underlying goal that explains what you do and why you do it. New research (Dietz, van Knippenberg, Hirst, Restubog, 2015) shows how a certain type of goal orientation can only sometimes help performance, depending on the situation.


Researchers have classified several types of goal orientation that are relevant to the workplace. Employees with a learning goal orientation are moved to achieve personal mastery, while those with a performance-avoid goal orientation are motivated by a fear of negative evaluations from other people. This study focused on performance-prove goal orientation, which is when people feel the need to prove themselves to other people via achievement or even one-upmanship. Being that this type of motivation increases competition, it is not surprising that past research has found an association with individual performance. In this study, the authors wanted to know how this dynamic affects teams.


The authors studied sales professionals and students, and found that having a high performance goal orientation is only sometimes beneficial to performance; it actually depends on the extent to which people on a team see themselves as being “one” with their team. This strong sense of cohesiveness, or “team identification,” changes what happens when employees feel the need to achieve and beat the competition. When team identification is strong, people may see the team as an extension of themselves, and their need to compete inspires them to help their team compete against other teams. If team identification is weak, people who need to compete will see team members as competition, and may compete against them. This can be detrimental to overall team performance.


The authors separately investigated team performance and individual performance of people on those teams. When it came to team performance, a high degree of team identification was associated with better performance when people had a performance goal orientation. In other words, with strong team cohesiveness, people who feel the need to compete will help direct the team to compete against other teams. This improves team performance.

Results were very different when it came to individual level performance. People who had a performance goal orientation performed better when team identification was low. In other words, with low team cohesiveness, people who need to compete will compete against fellow team members. This improves their own personal performance.


This study shows that performance goal orientation (or “need to achieve”) is only sometimes beneficial. People with performance goal orientation need to compete, but the level of team cohesiveness and camaraderie will determine how these people choose to compete. When team cohesiveness is strong, efforts are directed at improving the team; when team cohesiveness is weak, efforts are directed at improving the self.

There are important managerial implications here. In the business world, and specifically in high-competition industries like sales, employees are often selected for their high-achieving inner drive. While this might be good for individual performance, modern organizations are increasingly relying on teams to get work done. In the absence of team cohesiveness, these competitive employees will look out for themselves by competing against other team members. Organizational leaders may have to consider if this is truly what they want, especially if team goals are compromised.

On the other hand, when team cohesiveness is high, competitive employees will use their “inner fire” to bolster team performance in competition with other teams. Clearly, there is an advantage to team cohesiveness. This is something organizational leaders and managers might want to remember when they attempt to improve team performance.

Dietz, B., van Knippenberg, D., Hirst, G., & Restubog, S. L. D. (2015). Outperforming whom? A multilevel study of performance-prove goal orientation, performance, and the moderating role of shared team identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1811-1824.