Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 264
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Giving Instructions

Recent research in goal setting gives supervisors new insights when making assignments.

There's a little snare set for supervisors. It involves giving instructions. If they give too many instructions, they're bossy. If they give too few, people do things any way they want to do them, and they form bad habits that are hard to break.

The universal solution to this snare is to assign responsibilities and then monitor performance and correct problems. This results in comfortable routines in which employees do O.K., and supervisors leave them alone. But it is also a recipe for mediocrity. Employees become resistant to instruction and reluctant to change anything. Performance suffers. Standards decline.

For many years, management experts have recommended goal setting to motivate employees and to focus their efforts, and research has repeatedly demonstrated a positive impact. Past studies have shown that for goal setting to be effective, goals must be specific and have outcomes that can be measured, goals must be challenging, and there must be deadlines.

Gerald Seijts, from the University of Western Ontario, is interested in goal setting, and he recently completed research which advances our understanding of it. A comparison of two goals given by a supervisor to a sales clerk in a department store will illustrate this new understanding.

Instruction to Clerk A: "We wish to improve customer relations, and we measure how well we do with a telephone survey. Your goal is for all of your customers to rate the quality of your service as "very good" or above in the next round of follow up calls. You have four weeks."

Instruction to Clerk B: "We wish to improve customer relations, and we measure how well we do with a telephone survey. Your goal is to discover and implement six different ways to get your customers to smile during your time with them. You have four weeks."

Seijts labels the first goal a performance goal. It assumes that a person already knows how to efficiently perform the task and merely needs to be motivated to accomplish it. The second he labels a learning goal. It assumes that a person does not possess sufficient knowledge and/or skill to accomplish the desired outcome. Instead, this person needs to focus on the process of reaching the goal. He/she needs to learn how to accomplish the task in an efficient manner.

Seijts conducted a study that tested these two types of goals, one against the other. The task his subjects completed was difficult, and to perform well they needed to search for information, and they needed to be persistent. Seijts collected outcome results for both groups. Which group do you suppose had the highest, bottom-line results?

If you reasoned that a specific, difficult goal would stimulate the best performance, then you might choose the group receiving the performance goal, but in Seijts' study, those pursing a learning goal far outpaced the group with the performance goal. They were eight times more likely to achieve the desired outcome.

Professor Seijts explains the process this way.

When people lack the skills and/or knowledge needed to efficiently complete a task, the purpose of a goal should be to focus on the process of acquiring this knowledge and then implementing it. Small steps in this process build confidence because employees experience success in taking these steps. These small, frequent experiences of success also build commitment toward reaching the final learning goal. In Seijts's study, subjects pursuing a learning goal persisted significantly longer in searching for information.

It was quite a different experience for Seijts' subjects who pursued a performance goal.

As they progressed through the difficult task, their attention was focused on the final outcome. Since it was very difficult, they did not notice small steps they were making that brought the final outcome nearer. Instead, they became discouraged. They experienced their efforts as failures, and they tended to reduce their effort. They decreased their time in seeking relevant information. Their confidence declined, and their commitment toward the goal diminished. By the end of the test, they lagged far behind.

There is a challenge for supervisors implied by Professor Seijts' findings. It is for them to correctly assess the learning needs of their people and the performance situations they face, and then to match challenging learning goals with employees who need to learn how to complete difficult tasks and then to implement this learning.

Reference: Seijts, Gerald, Gary Latham, Kevin Tasa, and Brandon Latham (2004) Goal Setting and Goal Orientation: An Integration of Two Different yet Related Literatures. Academy of Management Journal, 47 (2), 227-239.

© Management Resources

Back to home page