What to do about the Failure-Focused Employee

Topic: Job Performance, Motivation
Publication: Human Performance
Article: Failure avoidance motivation in a goal-setting situation.
Author: S.R. Heimerdinger, V.B. Hinsz
Featured by: Benjamin Granger

Although it is known that employees who set specific and difficult goals tend to outperform those who set broad and relatively easy goals, different employees have differing motivational mindsets when they set their goals. Some employees are motivated to learn and master skills. Others are motivated to demonstrate their competence to others. (“Those darn showoffs!”) Interestingly, though, some employees  are motivated, not by accomplishments, but to simply avoid failing. In other words, when some employees set personal goals, they are focused on NOT FAILING as opposed to succeeding (e.g., “My goal is to NOT completely bomb this presentation!”).

This is known as failure avoidance motivation and despite being such an intriguing concept, it is somewhat unclear how it relates to performance. So the question is: Are employees who set failure avoidance goals good performers?  Or are these failure avoidance goals detrimental to performance? Heimerdinger and Hinsz (2008) investigated how and why failure avoidance motivation relates to performance. The authors found that the motivation to avoid failure leads to a number of negative consequences.

Specifically, Heimerdinger and Hinsz found the individuals who are motivated to avoid failure tend to have less confidence in their ability (i.e., lower self-efficacy) and are also less likely to persist in the face of obstacles or difficulties (i.e., lower goal commitment). Most importantly, they tend to be poor performers.

The best performers in Heimerdinger and Hinsz’s study were those who set high goals for themselves and were highly committed to those goals. And none of these were attributes of individuals motivated to simply avoid failure.

Since many organizations utilize goal-setting strategies to improve their employees’ performance, these findings are noteworthy to say the least. They suggest that managers should identify employees  motivated to avoid failure and help guide them through the goal-setting process. Specifically, managers can focus on increasing their self-efficacy and commitment to their goals. These simple steps may help turn a poor performer into a more productive and valued employees.

Heimerdinger, S.R., & Hinsz, V.B. (2008). Failure avoidance motivation in a goal-setting Situation. Human Performance, 21(4), 383-395.