The Goal Revision Seesaw: What Makes it Move?

Topic: Self Efficacy, Goals
Publication: The Journal of Applied Psychology (2008)
ArticleThe role of feedback, causal attributions, and self-efficacy in goal revision .Author: A.P. Tolli, A.M. Schmidt
Reviewed by: Benjamin Granger

One thing that we know is that employees frequently revise their performance goals. But we know less about how and why they do so….until now. In a recent study from Journal of Applied Psychology, Tolli and Schmidt attempted to empirically answer the questions of how and why employees revise their goals over time.  This should be particularly interesting to any manager or supervisor interested in understanding how employees set their goals at work and subsequently perform on the job.

The authors found self-efficacy (the extent to which individuals are confident that they can perform well on a future task) influenced how individuals revised their goals. Employees who have high levels of self-efficacy for performing a task tend to set higher goals (and the managers celebrate!), while those who aren’t very confident tend to set lower goals than before (and the managers….well, we won’t even go there).

The study found that self-efficacy is influenced by causal attribution (the extent to which individuals feel that performance is attributable to them versus the environment) and feedback (positive or negative). When employees don’t perform well and feel that their performance was attributable to themselves, their self-efficacy for the task is substantially lowered and thus following goals will be less aggressive. Self-efficacy, and therefore goals, remain higher when poor performance is attributed to external factors (but boss, it wasn’t my fault!!).

Now that we better understand how and why employees revise their goals, the next issue is figuring out the most effective ways in which organizations and supervisors can influence these motivational factors in order to help employees set aggressive, yet realistic goals.

Questions: Where in this process can a manager or organization intervene? Do these relationships change when we consider multiple goals as opposed to a single goal as was the case in the current study? Do we always want employees to have high self-efficacy for a task? What if high self-efficacy leads to lower performance?

Tolli, A. P., & Schmidt, A. M. (2008). The role of feedback, causal attributions, and self-efficacy in goal revision. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(3), 692-701.