Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 236
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.


Researcher explores the impact on performance of three, common, self-regulation attitudes.

Think back to your days in high school and put yourself into the mind of a student as he reacts to three performance situations. We'll call him Roger.

The first comes in gym class. The teacher asks all the boys to form a line, and as they do so, he confers with the football coach who is making marks on a clipboard. One by one, each boy throws a football as far as he can. Roger knows he can throw farther than most boys, and when his turn comes, he beats all the others. "Great job," says the coach as he writes on his clipboard.

The second comes in physics class. Roger is nervous as the teacher returns midterm tests taken a few days earlier. Physics is not a good subject for him. A large, red "F" is circled on the top of the first page. "Great job," says a classmate sitting nearby as he casually allows his "A" to be seen by anyone who wants to notice it.

The third comes in the evening at a piano recital. Roger likes pounding the piano, and his teacher has given him a loud piece to play for this recital. His practicing has given his mother a headache, but he insists it's necessary so he can play well for all the parents, and play well he does. His performance brings a rousing applause, louder than any other student. "Great job," says his teacher.

Imagining that you are Roger, how would you feel about future throwing contests, science exams, and piano recitals? And what role does the comment "Great job!" play in forming these attitudes?

Don VandeWalle, from Southern Methodist University, recently completed a field experiment exploring these questions. He feels the first situation provokes a proving attitude, the second an avoiding attitude, and the third a learning attitude. The most likely reaction a person would have to the comment, "great job!", and to the situation varies quite a bit, and this difference is crucial to managers and supervisors.

People with proving attitudes believe their ability produces their performance. For them, extra effort only reveals a lack of ability. People with avoiding attitudes believe their lack of ability can not be corrected with hard work. Their only hope is to conceal this weakness by avoiding any performance situation that might reveal it. Finally, people with learning attitudes believe hard work gradually improves skills, and this leads to superior performance.

People with proving attitudes hope to gain a favorable judgment from others. Those with avoiding attitudes believe others already feel they are competent. They fear performance situations because they're likely to ruin these beliefs. People with learning attitudes focus on acquiring new skills, mastering new situations, and learning from their experiences.

When people with avoiding attitudes find themselves in performance situations, they become anxious and quickly assess all the possible ways they could expose their lack of competence. The mental load is enormous, and to others they appear to suddenly get very dumb. People with learning attitudes view feedback as useful, diagnostic information that will help them correct errors and develop competencies. They seek it. People with proving attitudes and avoiding attitudes view feedback as judgemental. They don't want it.

People with proving and avoiding attitudes hesitate to seek help to improve performance. They're also more likely to use ineffective learning strategies, limit their effort, and cheat. They're more concerned with the impression they are creating rather than the goals they are accomplishing, so when they encounter negative feedback, they're more likely to quit altogether.

When those with proving attitudes encounter success, they're more likely to become complacent.

Think of each of your employees. How do they react to performance situations on the job? How do they react to feedback from you? If you can match people and situations with these three self-regulation attitudes, then you can begin to plan strategies to mold these attitudes. You want your people adopting learning attitudes, so strengthen these and weaken the others. Draw their attention to learning attitudes, and encourage them. These actions, according to VandeWalle's research, will produce long-lasting, superior performance.

Reference: VandeWalle, Don, William Cron, and JOhn Slocum Jr. (2001) The Role of Goal Orientation Following Performance Feedback. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(4), 629-640.

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