Burned Out Employees Should Reconsider their Goals

Topic(s): burnout, goals, stress
Publication: Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Article:  The 2×2 model of goal orientation and burnout: The role of approach-avoidance dimensions in predicting burnout
Authors: L.J. Naidoo, A. DeCriscio, H. Bily, A. Manipella, M. Ryan, J. Youdim
Reviewed by: Neil Morelli

There have been times when we have all felt a little burned out from work. When we feel burned out, the usual suspects are situational factors like the job, occupation, organizational characteristics, type or quality of leadership, and individual personality differences. But there is one variable that has typically been ignored in the literature—our motivational dispositions, or in other words, our goals.


Burnout is typically defined as having three components: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced personal efficacy. Dispositional preferences, or our goal orientation for certain kinds of goals may be linked to burnout because burnout is often viewed as environmental or work demands getting in the way of achieving our personal goals.

The authors (Naidoo, et al., 2012) suggested thinking of goal orientation as being broken down into a 2×2 table. On the one side is (1) mastery-orientation, the people who think they can improve and often set goals that are challenging or developmental; and (2) performance-orientation, the people who think ability is fixed so they set goals that are attainable and not as challenging. The other side of the table is approach versus avoidance, or striving toward a goal out of anticipating its positive outcomes, or out of avoiding negative outcomes associated with failing to attain it.


The authors gathered student responses to questions regarding goal pursuit and burnout measurement. Using the advance statistical technique called structural equation modeling, the authors found that avoidance goal orientations were positively related to the three aspects of burnout. This means when avoidance goal orientation was higher, so was burnout. They also found that approach goal orientations were negatively related. This means that when approach goal orientation was higher, burnout was lower.

In light of conservation of resources theory, these findings suggest that people with avoidant goal orientations are more sensitive to resource loss (not reaching goals) and less likely to seek help when they fail. Whereas those with approach goal orientations may be more resilient to burnout inducing conditions.


What does all this mean? The authors suggest that to help reduce burnout, organizations and leaders that help the goals of their employees become more mastery-approach oriented could help them become more resilient to stressful conditions when it isn’t realistic to change the situation. This is a prudent suggestion for any leader who can help define goals for their team members or who can help determine the cultural norms of goal setting.

Naidoo, L. J., DeCriscio, A., Bily, H., Manipella, A., Ryan, M., & Youdim, J. (2012). The 2 x 2 model of goal orientation and burnout: The role of approach-avoidance dimensions in predicting burnout. Journal of Applied Social Psychology42(10), 2541-2563.