When Performance Goals are a Must

Topic: Feedback, Goals, Performance
Publication: Human Performance
Article: Achievement goals, feedback, and task performance
Authors: A.M. Cianci, J.M. Schaubroeck, and G.A. McGill
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Although performance feedback is vital to effective job performance, employees can react differently to the same feedback. For example, while some employees give up in the face of negative feedback about their performance, others persevere and actually improve their performance over time. Alternatively, when presented with positive feedback, some employees coast while others maintain their high levels of performance.  Cianci et al. recently showed that the type of goals that are set for employees help explain how they react to positive and negative performance feedback.

In general, Cianci et al. found that those who were assigned a learning goal for a complex computerized task (“your goal…is to learn how to approach this kind of task as well as possible”) outperformed both those who were assigned a performance goal (“your goal…is to perform as well as possible, achieving the highest score possible”) and those assigned no goal at all.  What’s interesting is that following positive performance feedback, those assigned performance goals boosted their performance while negative feedback was detrimental to future performance on the task. The opposite trend was apparent for those assigned learning goals (i.e., negative feedback was beneficial and positive feedback was detrimental to performance).

Cianci and colleagues also investigated how peoples’ beliefs about their ability impact how they respond to performance and learning goals.  More specifically, the authors discussed two overarching beliefs about one’s ability: (1) ability is fixed and CANNOT be improved over time and (2) ability is incremental and CAN increase over time.  They found that the latter view was generally beneficial to performance, especially for those assigned performance goals.

In general, Cianci et al.’s findings suggest that assigning learning goals to employees leads to superior performance. However, there are times in which it is beneficial or necessary to set performance goals.  In these cases, managers should ensure that they include positive performance feedback (particularly if it must sandwich constructive feedback) throughout the project/assignment and encourage employees to view their abilities as improvable over time.

Cianci, A.M., Schaubroeck, J.M., & McGill. G.A. (2010). Achievement goals,
feedback, and task performance. Human Performance, 23(2), 131-154.