Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 234
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Real Job Effectiveness

New research reveals a problem we create for ourselves.

How effective are you in your role as a manager? Would you say very effective? How do you know? Is it because of outcomes from your work that you can point to, or is it because other people tell you you are? These are crucial differences.

Jeffrey Vancouver, from Ohio University, recently completed a series of careful experiments which examined the relationships between feelings of effectiveness, goals, and performance. His findings are important.

In the past, business managers have been told that high feelings of effectiveness lead people to select challenging goals and then to work hard to fulfill them. It seems so logical that it's hard to imagine that this is wrong, but it is.

Vancouver's experiments showed that the sequence is different. First comes performance, then feelings of effectiveness, then goals. Then it repeats, but notice, that the sequence doesn't begin with feelings of effectiveness. It begins with performance. On the basis of performance, we form estimates of our effectiveness on a task.

Most business settings don't lend themselves to clear performance measurement, so people must infer how well they are doing, largely based on the comments of others. Unfortunately, these comments often lead people to form inflated estimates of their own effectiveness, and this leads to a new problem Vancouver also discovered.

When feelings of effectiveness are high, and inflated, people tend to reduce their effort, and their actual performance declines. The joke about the old farmer and the young extension agent illustrates this process:

Fresh out of the local agricultural college, the young agent approached an old farmer and told him he knew of many farming techniques that would help him. The old farmer believed him, but he rejected his offer to help saying that he already farmed only half as well as he knew how.

Our employees do that, and we do it too. When we feel we're very effective at something we routinely do, like being a boss and running a business, we withdraw effort from the task and commit it to something else . . . something that isn't going as well, like our golf games.

Vancouver believes there are serious implications in his findings. He is especially concerned about business owners and mangers. He noticed in his experiments that his subjects often developed an inflated opinion of their own effectiveness, and when they did, they tended to act too quickly without enough thought coming before their actions.

Managers, business owners, and executives at all levels work in an environment with fuzzy goal measurements, where it is impossible to measure the direct outcomes of their management actions. Management experts call it an ambiguous goal environment, and managers are left largely to rely upon the comments of others to help them make estimates about their own performance. But these comments are often ingratiating, intended to gain the manager's favor rather than to give a fair assessment of his or her management performance, so managers' own estimates of their performance effectiveness are likely to become inflated.

For Vancouver, these findings are a warning for managers. If you listen to these comments and form opinions of your own effectiveness based on them, you will withdraw effort from your job, and your actual performance will decline. Specifically, he says, you will make decisions and take actions without giving them enough thought.

Now you are warned.

Reference: Vancouver, Jeffrey B. and Amy Williams (2001) The Changing Signs in the Relationshps Among Self-Efficacy, Personal Goals, and Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(4), 605-620.

© Management Resources

Back to home page