CIOs: Focus on Learning, Not Performance Goals

Canadian research is backing up what many CIOs have probably known for a long time -- leaders respond much better to negative feedback when they are focused on what they're learning rather than what they have achieved.

Canadian research is backing up what many CIOs have probably known for a long time -- leaders respond much better to negative feedback when they are focused on what they're learning rather than what they have achieved.

A study recently co-authored by a researcher at the Richard Ivey School of Business suggests individuals working on a complex task should focus initially on learning how to perform the task well rather than on how well they can perform it. In other words, someone like a CIO who is taking on an unfamiliar business-oriented task should probably not expect to execute it as well as their counterpart in finance or marketing, but instead should be measuring his or her own ability to master it.

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"It makes no sense to focus on performance if you're not focusing on how to get there," said Gerard Seijts, associate professor of Organizational Behaviour, Richard Ivey School of Business, and the study's co-author.

"Learning goals are essential when you are confronted with a situation, challenge or task you've never done before. Rather than looking solely at outcomes, you need to identify the routines, behaviour or procedures that will bring us to success."

Seijts' study involved giving problem-solving tasks to a group of graduate students, who were given specific performance-oriented goals to achieve a high score on a reading comprehension exercise. When they were given negative feedback about their performance -- being told they only performed the exercise 60 per cent as well as other students -- they registered high levels of stress. When they were asked to perform a similar task but asked to simply learn as much as possible about how to perform the task, the negative feedback didn't bother them nearly as much, Seijts said.

"If you told them they had to reach a 90 per cent success rate, you'd see them working harder rather than smarter," he said. "The only difference with the second exercise was how we framed the goal."

In an article about the study, "The Effect of Negative Feedback on Tension and Subsequent Performance," which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Seijts and his co-authors indicate that managers should be aware that their potential best employees may go off track if they are given the wrong goals.

"A focus on performance goals is likely to hurt high-conscientious individuals the most," they write. "These individuals reported the highest tension and performed the poorest following negative feedback. In contrast, high-conscientious participants with a learning goal outperformed all other participants."

Scott Booher, an IT management consultant based in Minneapolis, wasn't surprised by the study's findings, but wondered whether they would offer CIOs much ammunition with their executive team.

"Carving out 'learning experiences' now may be a difficult sell to senior management," he said. "In an atmosphere of tepid recovery and a great deal of pent-up demand for IT services, the pressure will be even greater to get up to speed and add value. I'd go further and say that for many IT leaders, setting a 'learning' vs. 'performance' expectation when taking on a new business task may play into the old IT/business mis-alignment cliché."

That doesn't mean CIOs can't quietly adopt learning goals on their own, added Booher, who also runs the blog CIOPedia.com. He suggested sitting in on as many meetings as possible during the annual strategic planning process, or by getting involved in business process management projects in order to learn more about various departments.

Seijts hopes enterprise leaders will think deeply about the research findings as they try to influence the corporate culture.

"Too often organizations spend too much time in a performance mode. To use a parochial example, it's always about teaching evaluations and research publications," he said. "What ends up happening is we don't take advantage of coaching opportunities that we see in a daily basis. It's only by providing feedback and coaching that people really learn and are able to improve their skill sets."

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