Goal orientation

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Psychlopedia -- Key concepts -- Concepts associated with motivation -- Goal orientation


Goal orientation refers to whether individuals primarily strive to enhance their knowledge, skills, and competence, referred to as a learning orientation, or generally attempt to demonstrate their abilities and expertise, referred to as a performance orientation. Generally, individuals who exhibit a learning orientation, focusing on advancing their competence, not fulfilling objective standards, enjoy several benefits, such as resilience to increases in workload (Van Yperen & Janssen, 2002), creativity (Janssen & Van Yperen, 2004), and altruism (Porter, 2005).


The concept of goal orientation emanated from research conducted by Dweck and her colleagues, primarily with primary school children (e.g., Diener & Dweck, 1978, 1980; Dweck, 1986). Children received problems to complete, and the difficulty of these problems increased progressively. As the difficulty rose, some children continued to enjoy the challenge, remaining confident and engaged as well adapting their strategies to solve these problems. Their principal goal was, seemingly, develop and master knowledge, skills, and expertise, referred to as a learning orientation, as defined by Dweck and Elliott (1983). A similar orientation has been designated as task-involved (Nicholls, 1984) and mastery focused (Ames, 1984).

In contrast, other children become especially upset, disengaged, disinterested, and unconfident as the difficulty of these problems arose, demonstrating a helpless rather than adaptive response. Their principal goal was to demonstrate and validate, rather than develop and refine, their competence. This inclination is referred to as a performance orientation (Dweck & Elliott, 1983) , as is related to the concept of ego-involved (Nicholls, 1984) and ability focused (Ames, 1984).

These goals orientations were later established in adults as well (Farr, Hofmann, & Ringenbach, 1993). Because adults with a learning orientation strive to develop their competence, they enjoy challenging activities and exhibit curiosity. In addition, because they do not merely strive to demonstrate their competence, they are more inclined to engage in tasks that align with their values, thereby experience engagement, persist in response to obstacles (Yeo & Neal, 2004) and manifest intrinsic motivation (Elliott & Harackiewicz, 1996). In contrast, because adults with a performance orientation strive to demonstrate, not necessarily augment, their expertise and competence, they strive to accumulate achievements. They feel a motivation to attract favorable evaluations, fostering an aversion to risk and curiosity as well as stemming a pursuit of personal values, self determination and intrinsic motivation (Elliott & Harackiewicz, 1996).



The original work that was conducted by Dweck and her colleagues implied that individuals tend to adopt either a learning or performance orientation (e.g., Dweck, 1986). That is, individuals either strive to develop their skills, knowledge, and expertise or attempted to demonstrate their competence and outperform specific targets, standards, or competitors.

During the 1990s, however, researchers argued that learning and performance orientation should be conceptualized as two distinct dimensions. Accordingly, individuals could demonstrate a strong motivation both to develop and to demonstrate their competence (Button, Mathieu, & Zajac, 1996). Subsequently, performance orientation was subdivided into two facets: a prove dimension, in which individuals strive to demonstrate favorable attributes, and an avoid dimension, in which individuals attempt to avoid or conceal unfavorable characteristics (Elliott & Harackiewicz, 1996; VandeWalle, 1997).


Wellbeing and adjustment

Goal orientation affects the capacity of individuals to withstand obstacles and adjust to change. Wang and Takeuchi (2007), for example, revealed that individuals who exhibit a performance avoid orientation, striving to avoid unfavorable evaluations, were less able than were other employees to adjust effectively to the changing work and interpersonal demands that characterize assignments to other nations.

In addition to adjustment, learning orientation fosters a resilience to rises in workload. That is, when individuals experience a learning, rather than performance, orientation, this rise in workload, which perhaps is perceived as a challenge or opportunity to develop qualities, does not appreciably compromise job satisfaction (Van Yperen & Janssen, 2002).

Similar observations emerged in the context of job seeking. Creed, King, Hood, and McKenzie (2009) showed that unemployed individuals who exhibit a learning orientation seek jobs more intensely. That is, they more frequently scan job advertisements in a range of sources, such as newspapers, notice boards, job agencies, and the internet. They also contact recruitment agencies and job networks. In contrast, neither performance prove nor performance avoid was related to whether or not unemployed individuals seek jobs intensely.

These observations are consistent with the proposition that individuals with a learning orientation equate success with effort and persistence. Furthermore, they perceive challenging settings as opportunities to acquire knowledge and expertise. These individuals, therefore, maintain their effort throughout these frustrating times (see Dweck, 2006).

Individuals with a performance prove orientation, in contrast, tend to flourish primarily when they undertake tasks they have practiced or rehearsed extensively (Davis, Carson, Ammeter, & Treadway, 2005). When individuals feel they might be evaluated by an audience, this orientation can amplify anxiety. The pursuit of jobs demands activities that have not been practiced extensively?tasks that are not routines?as well as evaluation from recruiters, friends, and family. Accordingly, when individuals pursue a job, a performance prove orientation does not facilitate success.

Furthermore, when individuals experience a performance avoid orientation, they strive to circumvent failures or errors. They might, as a consequence, shun the pursuit of jobs, preoccupied with the prospect of failure.

Several mechanisms could explain the associations between a learning orientation and wellbeing. When individuals adopt a learning orientation, they perceive their tasks as a challenge and not as a threat. Indeed, to evoke a sense of challenge, participants are often instructed to perceive the tasks they undertake as an opportunity to learn and not as a test of their ability (Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, & Ruble, 2010). When individuals perceive tasks as a challenge, instead of a threat, they do not feel as concerned by the possibility of failure. Their stress diminishes, and their performance often improves (e.g., Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, & Ruble, 2010; see The biophysical model of challenge and threat theory).


Relative to people who adopt a performance orientation, people who adopt a learning or mastery orientation tend to be more cooperative (Poortvliet & Giebels, 2012). Specifically, if individuals adopt a performance orientation, they strive to outperform other people. They often perceive other people as an impediment to their goal, sometimes called a negative interdependence, from the perspective of interdependence theory (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). They perceive other individuals as rivals instead of allies. They are not, therefore, willing to exchange resources, such as information or support, with other people.

In contrast, if individuals adopt a learning orientation, they strive to enhance their expertise. Other people, in general, do not impede these goals. Indeed, the support and advice of other people could facilitate progress on these goals, called a positive interdependence. Individuals, therefore, perceive other people as helpful. They are more willing to exchange resources, such as information and support, with other individuals.

Poortvliet and Giebels (2012) conducted a series of studies that verify these arguments. For example, in one study, the degree to which people adopt mastery or performance goals was assessed. Next, participants needed to choice between various hypothetical outcomes. For example, in one outcome they would receive 480 points and someone else would receive 480 points. In the other outcome, they would receive 480 points and someone else would receive 80 points and so forth. In general, if people tended to adopt a mastery rather than performance approach, they chose alternatives that would increase the overall number of points instead of the degree to which their points exceeded the points of someone else.

Two other studies extended these findings. For example, one study showed that a concern for other people mediated this relationship between a mastery or learning orientation and cooperation. Another study showed that a mastery orientation is also associated with team member exchange, in which individuals maintain they trust one another.


If individuals adopt a learning orientation, rather than a performance orientation, they are sometimes evaluated more positively in social contexts. Specifically, if individuals strive to understand rather than impress the other person, congruent with a learning orientation, they are perceived more favorably (Sasaki & Vorauer, 2010).

To clarify, during some conversations, individuals attempt to understand each other. That is, they attempt to decipher the needs, intentions, and attributes of the other person. During other conversations, individuals might instead attempt to impress the other person, concerned about whether they will be evaluated favorably. As a consequence of this mindset, they monitor themselves closely, inhibiting spontaneous behavior. A limited supply of mental energy is depleted. Anxiety increases. Sensitivity to the other person diminishes.

Sasaki and Vorauer (2010) conducted research to verify these arguments. In one study, a pair of participants, who had not met each other before, engaged in a conversation over 15 minutes. In one condition, one of the individuals was told they will later be asked to describe this person as accurately as possible--an instruction that was intended to instill the motivation to understand the other participant. In the other condition, the individual was told they will later be asked to estimate how they are perceived by the other person--an instruction that was intended to instill a concern about whether they will be evaluated.

Next, the extent to which they felt hostile, frustrated, apprehensive, and resentful was assessed. Finally, the degree to which they felt exhausted or drained was evaluated. If individuals attempted to understand, instead of impress, the other person, they experienced fewer negative emotions and felt less exhausted. Interestingly, the other person also experienced fewer negative emotions and felt less exhausted. Conceivably, these negative states, in essence, were contagious.

The second study was similar, except the Stroop task was administered to assess exhaustion or the depletion of limited mental resources. That is, if the attempt to impress someone else depletes these resources, performance on the Stroop task should diminish--a hypothesis that was supported (Sasaki & Vorauer, 2010).

Behavior during conflicts

Individuals who show a task rather than ego orientation--which is analogous to a learning rather than performance orientation-are more inclined to feel that cooperation with peers is a vital determinant of success (Duda & Nicholls, 1992). Cooperation is less germane to individuals with an ego orientation, partly because they do not seek help as frequently (Ryan, Pintrich, & Midgley, 2001), and hence they do not appreciate the reciprocation that often coincides with altruistic behavior. As a consequence, a performance orientation tends to curb altruism (Porter, 2005).

Perhaps because of this aversion to cooperation, individuals who pursue performance goals are more inclined to demonstrate their superiority rather than to integrate contradictory perspectives during conflicts (Darnon, Muller, Schrager, Pannuzzo, & Butera, 2006). In contrast, when individuals attempt to master new skills instead, corresponding to a learning orientation, they strive to integrate these conflicting opinions to form a unified understanding of the issues conflicts (Darnon, et al., 2006).

Individuals with a performance orientation are especially likely to experience conflict and difficulty, rather than trust and collaboration, with their supervisors, compromising leader-member exchange (Janssen & Van Yperen, 2004). Supervisors are conceptualized as a source of threat to their perceived status, not a source of information and advice.

Openness to diversity

In some circumstances, teams that comprise people from a diversity of cultures outperform other teams. That is, because of this diversity, people are exposed to a broader array of perspectives and integrate a variety of opinions to reach excellent decisions. In other circumstances, teams that comprise people from a diversity of cultures do not perform as well as other teams. That is, because of this diversity, conflicts are common, divisive, and distracting.

As Pieterse, Van Knippenberg, and Van Dierendonck (2013) showed, which of these two possibilities prevail will depend on the goal orientation of individuals. That is, when members of a team tend to adopt a learning orientation, cultural diversity tends to be positively associated with performance on assignments. When members of a team do not adopt a learning orientation or adopt a performance avoid orientation, cultural diversity tends to be negatively associated with performance on assignments. A learning orientation encourages elaboration and analysis of distinct perspectives, facilitating the benefits of diversity. People with a performance avoid orientation strive to avoid complexities and thus may feel frustrated with the diversity.


A performance orientation is more likely than is a learning orientation to incite cheating (Van Yperen, Hamstra, & van der Klauw, 2011). That is, when individuals adopt a performance orientation, their primarily goal is to outperform either other people or specific targets. Cheating tends to facilitate this goal. In contrast, when individuals adopt a learning orientation, their primarily goal is to master skills and develop their expertise. Cheating does not facilitate this goal.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Van Yperen, Hamstra, and van der Klauw (2011), participants completed the GRID task. On each trial, a grid or matrix of numbers, from 0 to 99, appeared on a screen in a random order The task of participants was to locate each number in order, beginning with 70. Yet, to complete this task, participants were granted an opportunity to cheat. That is, if they did not uncover the numbers in order, the computer did not indicate that an error was committed.

Some participants were encouraged to set the goal to perform better than other people, reflecting a performance approach orientation. Other participants were encouraged to set the goal not to perform worse than other people. Finally, some participants were encouraged to improve or not deteriorate, to reflect mastery approach or mastery avoid respectively. Performance orientation was more likely to incite cheating than a mastery orientation, regardless of whether individuals adopted an approach or avoid mindset.

Goal setting and motivation

In general, although not in all circumstances, individuals with a learning orientation set more challenging, suitable, and effective goals (VandeWalle, 2001). That is, relative to individuals who report a performance orientation, individuals who report a learning orientation have been shown to set steeper sales goals, for example, ultimately enhancing sales performance. Second, goal orientation affects the type, not only the difficulty, of goals that individuals set. Several studies, for instance, have shown that individuals with a learning orientation tend to set goals that are intended to boost self improvement (Brett & VandeWalle, 1999; Elliott & McGregor, 1999). Individuals with a performance orientation, in contrast, set goals that are intended to facilitate supremacy-a goal that was unrelated to performance. This performance orientation also coincided with a reluctance to formulate strategic plans, which tends to obstruct performance (VandeWalle et al., 1999).

Attention and concentration

Individuals who pursue the goal to acquire additional knowledge,develop their competence, and understand the tasks they undertake--goals that tend to coincide with a learning orientation--are more inclined to direct all their attention to the activity they are undertaking. They are, therefore, able to consider the issues deeply and comprehensively (Nolen, 1988). In contrast, when individuals attempt to demonstrate their competence--a goal that coincides with a performance orientation--they are more likely to allocate some of their attention to concerns over their performance. They process issues more superficially as a consequence (Nolen, 1988).

When individuals adopt a learning orientation, instead of a performance orientation, their working memory also seems to improve. That is, they can retain, transform, integrate, and consider many facets or issues simultaneously (Linnenbrink, Ryan, & Pintrich, 2000).

According to Linnenbrink, Ryan, and Pintrich (2000), failures and challenges are conceptualized as opportunities to improve, provided that individuals adopt a learning orientation. In contrast, these failures or challenges are regarded as potential threats to individuals who adopt a performance orientation. During challenging settings, when the tasks are complex, individuals who adopt a performance orientation become preoccupied with doubts and concerns--doubts and concerns that consume working memory.

Indeed, as Avery and Smillie (2012) showed, when individuals adopt a performance, rather than mastery or learning, goal orientation, their performance on very difficult tests of working memory tend to deteriorate. For example, in one study, participants completed the n back task. A series of numbers was presented. On some trials, participants needed to press a button whenever one number was the same as another number that was presented three items earlier, called a 3 back memory task. On other trials, participants needed to press a button whenever one number was the same as another number that was presented two items earlier, called a 2 back memory task.

To evoke a learning orientation, some participants were informed the experiment was an opportunity for participants to develop their working memory. To evoke a performance orientation, other participants were informed the experiment was a test of their working memory and they would be compared to other students. Relative to participants who experienced a learning orientation or received no instructions about goals, participants who experienced a performance orientation did not perform as well on the 3 back memory task. No difference between the conditions on the 1 or 2 back memory task was observed.


Arguably, when individuals adopt a performance orientation, they do not engage cognitively in the task. They are not as interested in this activity. Their attention is instead oriented to other concerns. Yet, this effect of performance orientation cannot be ascribed to state anxiety: state anxiety did not differ between the conditions.

Presumably, this decline in working memory should be more pronounced if individuals adopt a performance avoid, rather than performance prove, orientation. That is, the performance avoid orientation is especially likely to evoke anxiety and agitation (Cury, Elliot, Sarrazin, Fonseca, & Rufo, 2002).

Working memory and cognitive performance

Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of a learning orientation compared to a performance orientation. Yet, a performance orientation is often divided into two facets: performance approach and performance avoid. Performance approach, in which individuals strive to outperform other people or standards rather than avoid failure, has been shown to foster success in academic domains.

Nevertheless, the success associated with performance approach could, to some extent, be ascribed to cheating or superficial learning. Indeed, as Crouzevialle and Butera (2013) showed, performance approach tends to evoke distracting thoughts about outcomes. These distracting thoughts tend to compromise working memory, or the capacity to retain and transform many items at once, ultimately curbing performance on complex tasks.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Crouzevialle and Butera (2013), participants were exposed to a series of 25 words. Each word appeared towards the top or bottom of the screen, and the task of participants was to press a button to indicate the location of each word. To evoke a performance approach orientation, some but not participants were exposed to words that relate to success, superiority, and pride. If participants had been exposed to words that relate to performance approach, rather than words unrelated to performance approach, their performance on a complex arithmetic task deteriorated.

The second study was similar besides two exceptions. First, to manipulate goals, some participants were informed their performance would be assessed and they need to perform as well as possible. Other participants did not receive this instruction. Second, the arithmetic equations were presented either vertically or horizontally: Past research indicates that vertical problems demand fewer resources from working memory because they align to how people solve problems on paper. Performance approach goals compromised performance only on the arithmetic equations that were presented horizontally and thus depleted more resources from working memory.


Goal orientation also affects learning, but only in some circumstances. Specifically, the goal to master additional knowledge and insight, which reflects a learning orientation, is more likely to improve performance than is the goal to demonstrate competence, but only when the activities are difficult or elicit stress (e.g., Utman, 1997). For instance, mastery goals facilitate learning when tasks are confusing (Licht & Dweck, 1984) or when failures are prevalent (Covington & Omelich, 1984). Performance goals impede learning, partly because individuals become more inclined to learn by rote (Fisher & Ford, 1998).

Creativity and performance

Relative to individuals who report a learning orientation, individuals who report a performance orientation are less inclined to work creatively (Janssen & Van Yperen, 2004). These individuals strive to fulfill the standards and expectations that colleagues, especially managers, impose, curbing their tendency to uncover original and novel solutions.

As Miron-Spektor and Beenen (2015) showed, the association between goal orientation and creativity is actually complex. In particular, when individuals adopt a learning orientation, they tend to think more flexibly, enhancing the originality of their solutions. However, when individuals adopt a performance orientation, they tend to seek clarity and thus refrain from impractical possibilities, often enhancing the utility or suitability of their solutions. Because creativity entails both originality and utility, a blend of learning and performance orientation is typically beneficial.

Specifically, in one study, participants were instructed to create a prototype of an object that can be used at home, in the office, or both. Goal orientation was then manipulated. To prime a learning orientation, some participants were informed the aim of this task is to enhance creative skills and not to worry about mistakes. To prime a performance orientation, some participants were informed the aim of this task is to demonstrate their creative ability. Finally, to prime a blend of both a learning and performance orientation, some participants were informed the aim of this task is to both develop their creative skills and demonstrate their creative ability.

Next, participants completed a measure of cognitive close, reflecting the degree to which they began the task once clear how to proceed rather than shifting their focus midway. Judges then evaluated the degree to which the product was original and useful as well as whether the participants utilized a range of materials to construct the object--a measure of cognitive flexibility. As predicted, the positive association between learning orientation and originality was mediated by cognitive flexibility. The positive association between performance orientation and utility was mediated by need for closure. A blend of learning and performance orientation generated the most creative products.

Presumably, when individuals adopt a learning orientation, they embrace errors and mistakes to learn. Consequently, they are willing to experiment with a range of solutions, enhancing flexibility and originality. In contrast, when individuals adopt a performance orientation, they strive to achieve clear, rather than ambiguous, goals--manifesting as a need for closure. Because of this need for closure, they gravitate to more feasible, rather than experimental, ideas. Their ideas, therefore, tend to be more useful and appropriate. If both orientations are primed simultaneously, individuals can readily shift between learning and performance orientations, depending on which tendency is most applicable to the task at hand.


If people espouse a performance rather than learning orientation, they are more likely to embrace superstitions (Hamerman & Morewedge, 2015). In particular, if people adopt a learning orientation, they are motivated to foster a personal sense of mastery. Consequently, their satisfaction is dependent upon their own efforts rather than forces they cannot control. Therefore, they do not feel an impaired sense of control. In contrast, if people adopt a performance orientation, their success is more dependent on forces they cannot control such as the performance of other people. So, these individuals do sometimes feel an impaired sense of control. Superstitions are intended to reinstate this control, enabling people to feel they can shape events that, in reality, they cannot control.

Hamerman and Morewedge (2015) conducted a series of studies that verify these premises. In one study, participants were granted an opportunity to demonstrate superstitions. They were told the study is designed to investigate which colors should be used to ask online questions. They received various trivia questions in either dull colors or attractive colors. After answering a set of questions in dull colors, the individuals were informed they had performed well. The, after answering a set of questions in attractive colors, they were informed they had not performed well. Finally, they were asked to indicate in which colors they would like to receive the final set of questions. Their goal orientation was also measured. If participants reported a performance orientation, they chose the final questions to appear in the dull color--the color associated with the correct answers, representing a possible superstition, given these colors were not as appealing.

The subsequent studies confirmed this association between goal orientation and superstition. For example, a performance orientation increased the degree to which individuals wanted to view a good luck charm before playing a game of chance. Even when goal orientation was manipulated, instead of measured, the same pattern of results were observed.

Factors that amplify or inhibit the effects of goal orientation

Cognitive ability and intelligence

Research has shown the benefits of learning goals, compared to performance goals, are especially pronounced when cognitive ability is limited. In a study conducted by Seijts and Crim (2009), for example, participants completed a cognitive task, in which they needed to be able to formulate timetables or schedules of classes for each student, attempting to minimize clashes. They were exposed to the materials for 4 minutes, before completing the task over a period of 24 minutes.

In practice, several strategies can be applied to perform this task effectively. Participants, for example, can rearrange the classes and times in chronological order. They can schedule some classes at night, and so forth. Usually, after 24 minutes, participants can perform this task effectively and can apply many effective strategies.

After they were exposed to the materials, some participants were instructed to pursue a learning goal. In particular, they were asked to uncover and to implement at least four distinct strategies (cf., Noel & Latham, 2006). Other participants pursued a performance goal: They were instructed to complete 11 or more schedules. Furthermore, to assess general cognitive ability, they completed the Wonderlic Aptitude Test.

When cognitive ability was low, participants could schedule more classes correctly if they were governed by a learning, rather than performance, goal. When cognitive ability was high, however, a performance goal was appreciably more effective.

Learning goals tend to be more effective than performance goals when the task is challenging or unfamiliar--and thus novel approaches, skills, and techniques must be developed or refined (cf., Brown & Latham, 2002; Kozlowski & Bell, 2006). Performance goals can disrupt the acquisition of skills and knowledge (Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989; Winters & Latham, 1996). Thus, when cognitive ability was low, learning goals might have enhanced the capacity of individuals to uncover suitable strategies.

In contrast, when cognitive ability was elevated, the participants might have uncovered these strategies rapidly. That is, they can learn tasks effectively. As a consequence, the detrimental effects of performance goals might not be as apparent. Instead, these specificity of these goals might have enhanced motivation, without impeding progress.

These findings are consistent with resource allocation theory, as delineated by Kanfer and Ackerman (1989). According to this theory, when the routines and skills that underpin a task are not yet automatic, individuals need to direct their attention to opportunities to master the task. Performance goals can disrupt this focus.


As Darnon, Butera, and Harackwiewicz (2007) showed, a learning orientation may facilitate learning, particularly while individuals feel a sense of uncertainty. In this research, participants studied some text. They were granted opportunities to share their interpretations of this text with someone else, over computer. This other person would either agree or disagree with their interpretations. If the other person disagreed with their interpretations, a learning orientation enhanced their capacity to understand this material, as gauged by a subsequent test. If the other person agreed with their interpretations, a learning orientation was not significantly more helpful than a performance orientation.

Presumably, if individuals adopt a learning orientation, they perceive moments in which someone disagrees with their interpretation as opportunities to advance their knowledge. They, therefore, remain engaged in their task and attempt to explore the source of this uncertainty or disagreement. In contrast, if individuals adopt a performance orientation, they perceive these moments of disagreement as obstacles to their goals. Their confidence declines, their engagement in the task diminishes, and their learning deteriorates.

Workplace environment

Because they embrace change and variety, individuals with a learning orientation are more likely than individuals with a performance orientation to flourish in dynamic, innovative environments. That is, some cultures are characterized by innovation, change, and flux. Creative products, procedures, and programs are introduced frequently. These environments offer the variety and challenges that are needed to facilitate growth, fulfilling the needs, and thus enhancing the motivation, of individuals with a learning orientation. These environments, however, obstruct the attempts of individuals to exceed some target or standard, compromising the needs, motivation, and ultimately performance of people with a performance orientation.

Potosky and Ramakrishna (2006) uncovered some findings that confirm these assumptions. The learning orientation of individuals was assessed. Evaluations of their job performance were also collated. Finally, the degree to which the culture embraces change and innovation was assessed. Learning orientation was positively associated with performance but only if the culture was sufficiently innovative and dynamic.

Resource availability and time

The associations between goal orientation of individuals or teams and performance may be moderated by several other factors, such as the amount of resources available and time. To illustrate, as Porter, Webb, and Gogus (2010) highlight, whenever some change is introduced, the cognitive resources that are needed to adapt will deplete cognitive resources from a limited supply, impeding performance on other tasks (cf., resource allocation theory, as defined by Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989). If additional resources are available--for example, if workload is not exorbitant--individuals can still pursue both learning and performance goals at the same time. However, if resources are scarce, individuals cannot pursue both learning and performance goals at the same time. Accordingly, the impact of a learning or performance orientation, particularly in response to some change or crisis, will depend on resource availability.

To clarify, when resources are available instead of scarce, in response to some change or crisis, a learning orientation in teams enables individuals to experiment with useful innovations, systems, and procedures, facilitating their capacity to adapt. Furthermore, this acquisition of skills can be uplifting, promoting persistence as well. A learning orientation, therefore, could facilitate performance both immediately after the change as well as weeks after the change. A performance orientation, in contrast, compels individuals to apply strategies and procedures they have utilized in the past--primarily to maintain their performance and avoid errors rather than acquire skills or insights. Initially, this performance orientation might not be detrimental, because individuals can apply procedures they have practiced extensively before. Nevertheless, these individuals do not learn how to adapt after this change or crisis. Thus, weeks after the change, a performance orientation might be inversely associated with performance.

In contrast, when resources are especially scarce, a different pattern emerges. From the perspective of resource allocation theory, as defined by Kanfer and Ackerman (1989), after some change or crises in these lean environments, individuals cannot pursue both learning and performance goals as readily. Thus, at least initially, if a learning orientation is especially elevated, performance goals are obstructed. Any benefits of performance goals dissipate. The emphasis on experimentation and future goals undermines the capacity of employees to fulfill more immediate needs and targets. Problems might initially ensue.

Several weeks or months after the change or crises, individuals might be able to perform the tasks more effectively, and the need to consume resources might diminish. Both learning and performance goals can be pursued. Even when a performance orientation is elevated, individuals can also fulfill their learning goals. Hence, a learning orientation will not obstruct performance goals. The benefits of a learning orientation--the development of skills and strategies--will not override the benefits of a performance orientation--the achievement of immediate targets.

Porter, Webb, and Gogus (2010) conducted a study that validates these complexities. Participants, in teams of four, completed a simulation task. Midway through the task, the workload increased dramatically, representing a crisis or change. In one condition, one person was granted more time or resources than needed--resources that could be reallocated to other members when the workload escalated. In the other condition, the resources were scarce. A questionnaire was also administered to measure goal orientation of the overall team.

When resources were available, the effects of performance orientation and learning orientation were independent, because both sets of goals could be fulfilled. Immediately after the crisis, performance orientation was unrelated to task performance. Later, towards the end of this task, performance orientation was negatively associated with task performance, presumably because teams had not developed a diversity of skills or strategies to accommodate the change. Learning orientation was positively associated with task performance, especially as the session proceeded.

When resources were scarce, immediately after the crisis, a learning orientation was inversely associated with task performance, especially when a performance orientation was high: A learning orientation thus impeded performance goals. As the session proceeded, however, a learning orientation was positively associated with task performance, especially when a performance orientation was high.

The practical implications are complex. As a general rule, however, when resources are available, a learning orientation should be encouraged. When resources are scarce, after a crisis, performance expectations should be reduced appreciably but enforced rigorously. Accordingly, experimentation with other strategies can be encouraged, without obstructing the achievement of key outcomes and immediate adaptation.


Implicit theories

To some extent at least, learning and performance orientation are assumed to reflect implicit theories of whether or not competence, character, and morality are malleable or fixed. Individuals with a learning orientation presuppose these qualities are malleable, able to be cultivated over time (Farr, Hofmann, & Ringenbach, 1993).

In contrast, individuals with a performance orientation assume that competence, character, and morality are fixed essences, impervious to change, regardless of the effort they devote and the strategies they apply. As a consequence, these individuals deploy less effort than do their counterparts with a learning orientation. Indeed, individuals who demonstrate a performance orientation feel that effort reflects limited ability (Brett & VandeWalle, 1999). Because they feel that effort is futile, their self efficacy declines, especially when setbacks arise (Stevens & Gist, 1997). This sensitivity to setbacks amplifies resistance to feedback and advice, and indeed individuals with a performance orientation tend not to seek feedback actively (VandeWalle & Cummings, 1997) or embrace opportunities for development and training (Brett & VandeWalle, 1999).

Time pressure

As Beck and Schmidt (2013) showed, time pressure can affect goal orientation. In particular, when people feel rushed, they tend to demonstrate an avoidant performance orientation. In contrast, when people feel they are granted the luxury of time, a learning or mastery orientation is more common.

In their study, undergraduate students completed measures of time pressure, epitomized by items like "I am working under excessive time pressure", goal orientation, and exam performance. Time pressure was negatively associated with learning orientation but positively associated with performance-avoid orientation.

These results are consistent with temporal motivation theory (Steel & Konig, 2006). According to temporal motivation theory, four considerations determine whether a specific course of action is perceived as valuable: the extent to which the likely outcome of this course of action is perceived as valuable, comparable to instrumentality; (b) the probability of this outcome, or expectancy; (c) whether the outcome is close or distant in time, relevant because proximal benefits are assigned greater value; and (d) whether the outcome is a gain or loss. When time is limited, individuals are not as certain they can dedicate enough time to development opportunities to generate future gains. That is, the probability or expectancy is limited, and hence a learning orientation diminishes.

Furthermore, when time is limited, people fear they may not fulfill their goals. This fear tends to orient the attention of people towards the problems that can arise. People feel motivated to avoid problems, evoking a performance avoid orientation.

Supportive interpersonal environments

When individuals feel their interpersonal environment is supportive, they tend to exhibit all the hallmarks of a learning orientation. They embrace challenging and difficult tasks, for example. In these settings, individuals are not as concerned about their relationships and can instead shift their attention to their own learning and development.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Kiuru et al. (2014), the participants were children, between kindergarten and grade 4. Teachers rated how they feel about each child as well as the extent to which the children were accepted by peers. Parents rated their parenting style--to gauge whether they engaged in supportive, authoritative rather than authoritarian behaviors. Children evaluated the extent to which they enjoy or avoid challenging and difficult tasks. Supportive teachers, parents, and peers at one time were positively associated with enjoyment of challenging or difficult tasks in the children at later times. This enjoyment of challenging and difficult tasks was positively related to academic grades.

The researchers alluded to several mechanisms that could explain why these supportive interpersonal environments promote a learning orientation. First, in these environments, individuals are not as likely to experience stress and worry--emotions and thoughts that often distract attention from developmental pursuits. Second, in supportive environments, according to self-determination theory, people are more likely to accept and thus internalize the norms of their surroundings. Thus, at school, they are more inclined to embrace the imperative to learn and develop.

Birth order

People who are older that all their other siblings, called first borns, are usually more like to report a learning or mastery orientation. In contrast, people who are the second oldest sibling in their family are usually more likely to report a performance orientation. This difference might arise because second born individuals learn to compare their performance to first born individuals (Carette, Anseel, & Van Yperen, 2011).


The leadership style of supervisors can impinge upon the goal orientation of employees. Coad and Berry (1998), for example, revealed that a learning orientation prevailed when managers demonstrated a transformational style--a tendency to promulgate and pursue an inspiring vision of the future.

The N effect

The number of competitors or rivals instills a sense of competition in individuals, which might represent a pronounced performance orientation. This association between the number of competitors and the competitive orientation of individuals is called the N-effect (Garcia & Tor, 2009).

Specifically, according to Garcia and Tor (2009), in some settings, individuals must compete with a few rivals. In these contexts, they often feel inclined to compare themselves with these competitors, and these comparisons elicit an urge to prevail and a tendency to persist vigorously. In other settings, individuals must complete with numerous rivals. Their capacity to compare themselves with all their rivals diminishes. They will, therefore, often refrain from these comparisons, which nullifies their effort and persistence.

Garcia and Tor (2009) conducted a series of studies that vindicates this reasoning and substantiates the N-effect. In their study, they discovered that performance on various exams--such as tests of mathematics or general knowledge--diminished as the number of other students in the venue increased. To illustrate, in the US, scores on the standard ability test was elevated in specific states--the states with the fewer students in each venue. Similarly, when participants were instructed they were competing against 100 rather than 10 rivals, their performance on general knowledge questions deteriorated.

Further studies, conducted by Garcia and Tor (2009), were conducted to clarify the mechanism that underpins the N-effect. As these studies showed, the motivation of individuals to compare themselves to rivals seems to mediate this effect. In short, when the number of rivals decreases, the inclination of individuals to contrast themselves to competitors escalates--which could instill a performance orientation.


The scale constructed by VandeWalle (1997), which comprises 13 items and measures three dimensions of goal orientation, is often used to gauge learning orientation. The three scales, which comprise 5, 4, and 4 items respectively, entail learning orientation (e.g., "I enjoy challenging and difficult tasks at work where I will learn new skills"; performance (prove) orientation (e.g., "I like to show that I can perform better than my co-workers"; and performance (avoid) orientation (e.g., "I would prefer to avoid situations at work where I might perform poorly."). VandeWalle (1997) reported internal consistency alpha values of .89, .85, and .88 for the learning, performance (prove), and performance (avoid) scales, respectively. The 3-month test-retest reliability correlation coefficients were .66, .60, and .57, respectively. An exploratory factor analysis, a confirmatory factor analysis, and a nomological network analysis all verified the three factor structure.


Some researchers have developed methods to manipulate learning and performance goals. Wang and Takeuchi (2007), for example, instructed participants to learn a passage of text. To foster mastery goals, which corresponds to a learning orientation, the importance of acquiring new knowledge, understanding the material correctly, and discovering new concepts was emphasized. To encourage performance goals, the importance of performing well, achieving excellent grades, and demonstrating competence were underscored. Wang and Takeuchi showed these instructions are indeed sufficient to change the goals of participants.


As Van Yperen, Elliot, and Anseel (2009) highlighted, the key difference between a learning or mastery orientation and a performance orientation may relate more to the distinction between approach and avoidance. That is, in many studies, a learning or mastery orientation may be conflated with approach rather than avoidance. Specifically, when individuals adopt a learning or mastery orientation, their attention is oriented to gains and opportunities they could achieve in the future rather problems or complications they could solve now. This focus of attention, instead of the orientation towards learning and mastery, may translate to many benefits.

To disentangle the benefits of a learning orientation and an approach motivation, Van Yperen, Elliot, and Anseel (2009) developed a procedure that primes mastery-avoidance. In principle, individuals can adopt a learning or mastery orientation, while striving to avoid or overcome problems and complications. Specifically, in one study, participants completed a task that was designed to assess and enhance their verbal skills. Midway through this task, participants were encouraged to set goals. Specifically, they were instructed to "not do worse" or "do better"--intended to evoke an avoidance or approach orientation--than either "their last performance" or "the average participant"--intended to evoke a mastery or performance orientation. Relative to the other conditions, mastery avoidance diminished improvement over time. These findings indicate that approach motivation, rather than a mastery orientation per se, is especially likely to enhance performance, at least on some tasks.

Related concepts

Growth strength need

Growth strength need overlaps closely with a learning orientation, as acknowledged by Shalley, Gilson, and Blum (2009). In particular, the concept of growth strength need emanated from the literature in job design (Hackman & Oldham, 1980). Individuals who report growth strength need like to attempt challenging endeavors, in the work setting, to develop their skills and knowledge.

Hackman and Oldham (1980) developed a measure of growth strength need, comprising four items. Respondents specify the extent to which they would prefer a job in which they are granted opportunities to undertake challenging and stimulating work, to think independently, to learn new concepts, and to develop their character.

Like a learning orientation (Janssen & Van Yperen, 2004), growth strength need is related to creativity. Individuals who reported an elevated growth strength need endorse items such as ?The work I produce is creative? (Shalley, Gilson, & Blum, 2009). That is, the pursuit of growth and development often fosters creative processes (e.g., Gedo, 1983). This relationship was especially pronounced when creativity is rewarded and supported and when the jobs were complex.

Willingness to explore

A learning orientation might also be related to willingness to explore the environment, as delineated by Green and Campbell (2000). These scholars constructed a scale that represents the extent to which individuals explore novelty, with items such as "I would like to have the chance to meet strangers" and "If given the chance, I would enjoy exploring unusual ideas or theories". Exploration, as shown by Green and Campbell (2000), is positive related to attachment security.


Curiosity, in one sense, does mirror a learning orientation. Like a learning orientation, curiosity also increases resilience and adjustment in novel settings, such as a new job.

This possibility was examined by Harrison, Sluss, and Ashforth (2011). In their study, 123 participants, all of whom were newcomers to a job, completed a questionnaire that distinguished two forms of trait curiosity. First, this measure assessed specific curiosity, representing a passion to explore one object, event, or concept in depth, to uncover a more comprehensive understanding. Second, this measure assessed diversive curiosity, representing the motivation to seek novelty and adventure as well as embrace risk and uncertainty. In addition, participants completed instruments that assess their capacity to adjust and adapt to their recent appointment. Specifically, this instrument gauged the inclination of participants to seek information and to reframe challenges as opportunities.

Curiosity was associated with adjustment. In particular, specific curiosity was positively related to the inclination of individuals to seek information. Furthermore, diversive curiosity was positively related to the tendency to reframe challenges--a tendency that also enhanced performance and initiative.

Telic versus paratelic states

According to reversal theory (Apter, 2001, 2007; Apter, Mallows, & Williams, 1998), when individuals feel they need to fulfill some duty and will be evaluated, they experience a motivation, called a telic state. In this state, they become more serious and their attention revolves around the goals they need to complete, perhaps more akin to a performance orientation. After they achieve these goals, they focus their attention more on their ongoing experience, called a paratelic state, perhaps more akin to a learning orientation.

One of the most interesting findings in this literature is that individuals in a telic state do not tend to experience a positive mood after exercising (Legrand & Thatcher, 2011). In contrast, individuals in a paraetelic state tend to experience a boost in mood after exercising.

To clarify, when individuals experience a telic state, they experience feelings of arousal while striving to fulfill a goal. They will, therefore, associate with arousal with unfulfilled goals and thus negative emotions. The levels of arousal that exercise can evoke, therefore, will often elicit negative emotions and not positive emotions (Legrand & Thatcher, 2011).

In one study, conducted by Legrand and Thatcher (2011), first year university students were instructed to walk for 15 minutes. A telic state was evoked in about half these students: Specifically, after walking for 600 m, they were told to maintain their pace. They were also informed their capacity to fulfill this instruction will be evaluated. The other students did not receive this instruction. Both before and after the walk, mood was assessed. Exercise significantly improved mood when a paratelic state was induced but not when a telic state was induced.

One of the practical implications of this study is that goals during exercise are not always suitable. Specifically, if individuals set precise goals, rather than merely embrace the experience, exercise will not improve mood. Individuals who do not exercise often, therefore, may abandon these routines altogether. Similarly, individuals who exercise to overcome anxiety or depression may not enjoy the intended benefits.

After-action reviews

After-action reviews, sometimes called after-event reviews, debriefs, group oral interviews, or post mortems, are sometimes undertaken to facilitate learning after some work activity, and these reviews may foster a learning orientation. Specifically, after a team of individuals completes a task, such as present a sales pitch or complete a sporting event, a facilitator prompts these individuals to consider the following questions (Villado & Arthur Jr., 2013):

  • What was the intended outcome or objective?
  • What was the actual outcome or objective?
  • What specific actions and behaviors helped the team fulfill the intended outcome?
  • What specific actions and behaviors hindered the team from fulfilling the intended outcome?
  • What is the intended future outcome or objective?
  • What actions and changes will increase the likelihood of meeting the intended future outcome?

According to Villado and Arthur (2013), several features of the after-action review facilitate the key determinants of observational learning: attention, retention, production, and motivation (Bandura, 1986). First, the facilitator focusses the attention of trainees onto consequential, rather than inconsequential, behaviors and actions that other people undertook. Second, the facilitator often utilizes a framework to code or classify these behaviors, facilitating retention, and these frameworks have been shown to be vital to the benefits of after-action reviews (Smith-Jentsch et al., 2008). Third, the facilitator relates the planned actions to potential outcomes, fostering motivation. Finally, in addition to observational learning, after-action reviews entail feedback and goal setting, vital to performance.

A few studies have examined the conditions or features that moderate the benefits of after-action review. For example, these reviews are more effective when the facilitator emphasizes both actions that facilitated performance and actions that impeded performance (Ellis & Davidi, 2005). In addition, these reviews are effective regardless of whether or not the trainees had actually participated in the event (Ellis et al., 2010) and regardless of whether or not the facilitator utilizes objective data, such as video recordings of the event (Villado & Arthur, 2013).

Villado and Arthur (2013) conducted a comprehensive study to evaluate the benefits of these reviews. Across seven sessions, participants completed a simulation in which they need to maneuver tanks and protect themselves from enemies. Individuals worked in teams of four and each person was assigned a unique role, such as gunner or navigator of one tank. In each session, they completed a mission. After each session, some but not all of these teams completed an after-action review. Furthermore, some of these reviews were supported by actual recordings of the mission that could be paused or replayed to facilitate discussion.

Relative to teams in which no after-action reviews were conducted, teams in which these reviews were conducted tended to be more likely to achieve the mission, and their performance was especially likely to improve over time. Furthermore, after-action reviews enhanced perceptions of openness of communication, cohesion, and team efficacy but not declarative knowledge. Finally, whether or not objective data, such as recordings of the mission, were utilized did not significantly improve the outcomes or experience. These findings imply that perhaps the expenses of objective recordings may not be warranted.

Error climate

The responses of managers to error can vary appreciably across organizations. Some organizations epitomize an error management climate (Van Dyck, 2008; Van Dyck, Frese, Baer, & Sonnentag, 2005). In these organizations, managers recognize that errors are inevitable. They appreciate that errors do not only translate to problems but can also foster benefits, such as insights, innovation, and learning. Consequently, in response to errors, managers do not blame individuals but inspire people to manage errors proactively. Employees are encouraged to develop the capability to plan, monitor, and evaluate practices as a means to anticipate and manage errors as well as to learn from these events. In particular, the organization introduces various avenues, such as communication channels, to share knowledge about errors and to respond to errors effectively and constructively (see also Helmreich, 2000; Naikar & Saunders, 2003).

In contrast, other organizations epitomize an error avoidant climate (Van Dyck, 2008; Van Dyck, Frese, Baer, & Sonnentag, 2005). They perceive errors as events that should be avoided or feared. Individuals are reluctant to disclosure or discuss errors. This error avoidance climate, relative to an error management climate, is associated with impaired performance and safety (Cigularov, Chen & Rosecrance, 2010; Hofmann & Mark, 2006; Van Dyck, Frese, Baer, & Sonnentag, 2005)

Van Dyck, Frese, Baer, and Sonnentag (2005) developed a measure that gauges the degree to which an organization exhibits an error management or error avoidant climate. The measure of error management climate comprises 16 items, such as "When people make an error, they can ask others for advice on how to continue". The measure of error avoidance climate comprises 11 items. Five items revolve around the strain that errors evoke, such as "People in this organisation are often afraid of making errors". The other items revolve around concealing errors, such as "Our motto is, why admit an error when no one will find out". Cronbach's alpha associated with error management climate, error strain, and covering up errors have been shown to be .81, .84, and .81 respectively.

Some studies indicate that individuals are more likely to embrace errors whenever the surroundings are more predictable. In contrast, a feeling of uncertainty could amplify the extent to which errors are aversive. To illustrate, as Jackson, Nelson, and Proudfit (2015) showed, while people are exposed to predictable, rather than unpredictable, sequences of tones, the errors they commit do not produce a pronounced electrophysiological response in the brain-a response that is primarily underpinned by the anterior cingulate. That is, error-related negativity is diminished.

Practical implications

Managers sometimes need to cultivate a learning orientation-especially if they need to boost resilience in response to stress as well as creativity and altruism. To foster a learning orientation, supervisors should evaluate the extent to which employees have acquired additional skills, undertaken roles they have never assume before, demonstrated effort and enthusiasm, suggested tactics that could be applied to increase efficiency, and implemented these tactics. These evaluations should significantly influence decisions that affect pay, bonuses, and promotions.


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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 18/10/2008

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