Proving or Improving Yourself

You can change your goal orientation at work.

Posted Dec 16, 2018

 CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay
peacock showing off
Source: CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

I’m going to give you a choice of two tasks to do today at work. The first task will be quite easy for you and will give you a chance to show off your skills to your co-workers and your boss. The second task is going to be much more difficult and won’t necessarily make you look good, but it will give you the opportunity to push yourself and learn new skills. Which one would you choose?

These choices reflect differences in "goal orientation." If you chose the first option, you probably have a performance goal orientation and prefer to focus on demonstrating your competence. If you chose the second option, you probably have a learning goal orientation and tend to focus on mastering new skills. Generally learning orientations have been linked to better work performance and learning outcomes, since people who are learning oriented face challenges with persistence and creativity whereas those who are performance oriented can react to challenges in an avoidant way, for example by quitting, because they are afraid of looking bad.

But these effects go beyond performance in work tasks and extend to other workplace behaviors as well. Kim Louw and colleagues at the University of Western Australia and Curtin University surveyed over 100 employees and found that those with a high performance orientation were more likely to engage in deviant work behaviors, such as sabotage, gossiping, or claiming credit for someone else’s work, in an effort to look better than their co-workers. On the other hand, those who were high in learning orientation were more likely to engage in behaviors that are not crucial to their job but that greatly benefit their organisation, such as staying late to finish a project, volunteering at company events, or helping out a co-worker. The researchers suggest that these might have been seen as opportunities to learn or try something new, which would appeal to those with a learning orientation.

You might be concerned now that you or your employees have the wrong goal orientation. But I have good news for you – recent work from Lena Wang and colleagues at RMIT, Durham University and Curtin University has shown that goal orientation is not just a stable, fixed personality trait, but rather something that can be changed through training. These colleagues developed a goal orientation training program that they tested on over 130 MBA students who were also full-time managers and professionals. They started by teaching participants about the benefits of having a learning goal orientation and the downsides of a performance goal orientation. Then, they had participants work out their own goal orientations and discussed what this meant for them at work. In multiple sessions over the next three months, they allocated participants to learning teams with peer mentors, taught them about how to adopt a flexible, growth mindset that would enable them to be more learning-oriented, and trained them in setting development goals for themselves.  At the end of the course, they measured goal orientation again and found that performance orientation had decreased as a result of the training. They also found that those who felt they had more support from the training facilitator showed the greatest changes.

When you get to work this Monday morning, which task are you going to choose? The one that shows off your skills or the one that will give you new skills?

This post was co-authored with Courtenay McGill.


Wang, L., Wu, C., Parker, S. K., & Griffin, M. A. (2018). Developing goal orientations conducive to learning and performance: An intervention study. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 91, 875-895