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.

By Shane Schick
Mon, August 02, 2010

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."

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