Highly Intelligent Employees May Require Different Performance Goals

highly intelligent worker

The modern economy requires workers to rapidly adjust to an evolving, uncertain work environment and to efficiently adapt themselves to an ever shifting set of workplace tasks. To recruit and retain talent, employers must understand the psychological qualities that allow workers to perform under these conditions. 

General mental ability (GMA) is one of the most useful predictors of work performance. GMA refers to a person’s learning and problem-solving ability. The problem is that most research on GMA has focused on performance in stable work environments. Recent research suggests that GMA is less efficient at predicting performance in the unstable, modern work environment, and in some cases GMA may actually have a negative impact on performance under these conditions; however, the reasons behind this are unclear. 


New research (Howe, 2019) argues that the relationship between GMA and performance in shifting, uncertain work environments is affected by the types of goals a person is trying to accomplish. To test this, the author arranged an experiment in which business students were brought into a lab and asked to predict stock prices in a simulated stock market. The simulation changed several times over the course of the experiment, requiring participants to adapt.

The GMA of the participants was measured, and then they were randomly assigned to three groups. The first group was instructed to ensure their performance met a specific, measurable, and demanding goal. The second group was instructed to identify several strategies they could use to efficiently predict stock prices. The third group was instructed to simply “do their best.” Those with high GMA performed well at first in all three groups, but when the task changed, differences among the groups began to emerge. Those with strong GMA who were asked to identify strategies or to “do their best” tended to outperform those with strong GMA who were asked to meet demanding performance goals.


This research suggests that those with high GMA are likely perform best in uncertain work environments when they are asked to identify strategies to complete tasks or when they are asked to “do their best.” Moreover, individuals with high GMA will get progressively better over time when they are asked to complete these workplace goals. Giving these individuals demanding performance goals increases pressure in a way that reduces their ability to fully leverage their problem-solving abilities. Interestingly, this research showed that those with lower GMA did better when they were given demanding performance goals.

Together, these results suggest that to fully utilize their talent, organizations need to tailor their goals based on the GMA of the employee. Those with high GMA are likely to perform best when they are asked to learn as much as they can or when they are asked to “do their best,” but they will do worse when they are asked to meet a specific performance goal. Those with lower GMA are likely to perform best when they are given specific goals.


Howe, M. (2019). General Mental Ability and Goal Type as Antecedents of Recurrent Adaptive Task Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(6), 796-813.