What Are the Benefits of a Learning Orientation?
Compelling research about how to better adapt to change.
Posted Oct 10, 2019
When Adam Bryant, a reporter for the New York Times, distilled lessons he learned from interviewing hundreds of C.E.O.’s, being intensely curious with a desire to learn from others was at the top of his list. As he states:
“The C.E.O.’s are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students—the letters could just as easily stand for “chief education officer.” “You learn from everybody,” said Alan R. Mulally, the [former] chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. “I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around—why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work” (Bryant, 2011).
As the noted leadership scholar John W. Gardner succinctly states: “Don’t set out in life to be an interesting person; set out to be an interested person” (Gardner as quoted in Collins, 1997).
In organizational psychology, the desire to be an “interested person” is most commonly labeled having a “learning orientation.” A high learning orientation is approaching any situation with the motivating question: What can I learn? It is having an active exploratory mind and seeking to learn from others. This is often contrasted with a performance orientation, which is concerned with the question: How can I demonstrate my competence (i.e. be “interesting”)? While demonstrating competence is often important, it can crowd out a willingness to ask questions and learn from others because asking question demonstrates you don’t already have all the answers.1
One impressive study illustrates how a learning orientation helps us adapt and, ironically, how a high performance orientation can decrease our performance. Michael Ahearne and colleagues followed 400 salespeople from a major U.S. pharmaceutical company over the course of a year as they implemented a new sales technology platform. They first assessed individuals on their learning and performance orientations. They measured one’s learning orientation with seven questions, including statements such as “It is important for me to learn from each selling experience.” In assessing one’s performance orientation, they asked questions such as, “It is very important to me that my supervisor sees me as a good salesperson” (Sujan, Weitz, & Kumar, 1994).2
The researchers wanted to know how one’s learning and performance orientations would impact a salesperson’s willingness to learn the new sales technology system and ultimately their performance. Would there be any difference among individuals based on their learning orientation?
Prior to the technology implementation, the 400 individual’s average sales was 4 percent above their quota. After six months with the new sales technology system, there was a reduction of sales across the board, with all individuals now about 4 percent below their sales quota. What would happen over the next six months? As Ahearne and colleagues found, those in the top quartile of learning orientation rebounded and by the end of 12 months they were back to being 4-5 percent above quota levels. In contrast, those in the bottom quartile of learning orientation never recovered to pre-change levels and just slightly rebounding to be 3 percent below quota levels.
Ahearne and colleagues also looked at individuals solely on the performance orientation scale and their results mirror those regarding learning orientation. Those who were very high on a performance orientation never rebounded back to pre-change levels.
Why, exactly, did this happen? The researchers suggest that a high performance-orientation makes one more fearful of any performance decline and thus an individual takes a “short-term-oriented strategy to adapt to change.” With this orientation, you don’t actually take the time to learn a new system and how it can help you. This impulse is understandable. It’s not efficient to proactively learn a new sales technology system instead of focusing on your performance, but this approach backfires in the long-term as you are stuck in older, inefficient routines.
Changing your learning orientation is possible by being intentional about what you can learn in any situation versus being concerned with superficially demonstrating competence. In fact, workshops have been used as interventions to facilitate a learning or performance orientation among job seekers. In one study, 8-weeks after a learning goal orientation workshop, individuals were more likely to be employed (33 percent) compared to those who were in a workshop that facilitated performance goals (9 percent) (van Hooft & Noordzij, 2009). A learning orientation—by shaping what you pay attention to—helps with effort, persistence, and interpreting situations in a way that is more productive.
Thus, just like Gardner’s injunction to be “interested,” try in the next situation you’re in to set an intention to see what you can learn—opening yourself up to new ways of seeing and understanding. It can help you adapt to change and expand your ability to reach your goals.
1 One might reasonably ask what the difference is between a growth mindset and learning orientation. While the two constructs are highly correlated (see Vandewalle, Nerstad, & Dysvik, 2019), a growth mindset is measured as one’s implicit assumption about the malleability of intelligence. It is often revealed retrospectively in situations as you seek to understand failures. A learning orientation benefits from a growth mindset, but highlights the cognitive intention of proactively seeking to learn from any situation.
2 The scale they used was specific to sales. For a more general scale of learning and performance orientations, see Vandewalle, 1997.
Ahearne, M., Lam, S. K., Mathieu, J. E., Bolander, W. (2010). Why are some salespeople better at adapting to organizational change? Journal of Marketing, 74, 65–79.
Bryant, A. (2011, April 16). Distilling the wisdom of C.E.O.s. The New York Times. p. BU1.
Collins, J. (1997). The learning executive. Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.jimcollins.com
Sujan, H., Weitz, B. A., Kumar, N. (1994). Learning orientation, working smart, and effective selling. Journal of Marketing, 58(3), 39-52.
van Hooft, E. A .J., & Noordzij, G. (2009). The effects of goal orientation on job search and reemployment: a field experiment among unemployed job seekers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1581–90.
Vandewalle, D. (1997). Development and validation of a work domain goal orientation instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 57(6), 995-1015.
Vandewalle, D., Nerstad, C. G. L., & Dysvik, A. (2019). Goal orientation: A review of the miles traveled and the miles to go. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6, 115-144.