Hi, I hope you’re doing well and staying warm!

This letter is a continuation of the last Coaching Letter, #20, about goals.  In this one, I’m just going to focus on the difference between performance and learning goals.  Of all the things I know that are really useful and important, this one ranks way up there.  I actually remember the first time I read the source article on this topic-excerpt attached-and realizing that a lot of what I thought I knew about goals was wrong.

As I stated in #20, goal setting is really important, but not necessarily in the way that we think it is.  People tend to think that there is something magic about goals.  This may be a tad reductive, but honestly, sometimes I suspect that leaders think that if they set an ambitious goal, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you say it, it will come true. Hence the mania for Big Hairy Audacious Goals a while back. I think this is actually a Weak Theory of Action.

Goals are definitely important, but you have to be careful how you set them.  The research is very clear on the subject.  If you set a performance goal-defined as a target such as a certain percentage of students meeting a certain objective standard-this will only increase performance if the person charged with meeting the goal knows everything they need to know in order to meet it.

This only makes sense, right?  There is no point telling me that my goal is to make a million dollars on the stock market (one of the examples in the research) if I don’t know how to do that.  Instead, it is much more powerful to set a learning goal-your goal is to learn how to make money on the stock market, or to run faster, or to ask more challenging questions, or to empower others to lead.  By “powerful”, I mean that it will lead to better outcomes.  But the research shows also that our behavior is different under the two different goal conditions.  If I am given a performance target that I do not know how to meet, I tend to shift very quickly from tactic to tactic in the hunt for the one that will produce better outcomes, rather than focusing on a strategy chosen thoughtfully, and learning to do it well.  In other words, I am less able to benefit from feedback loops, which means that I learn less overall.  So working towards a performance goal when I don’t already know how to do something is a lose-lose: not only do I get worse outcomes, I don’t learn much along the way!  A learning goal, of course, is the opposite; I tend to approach the task of learning methodically, adjusting my strategy as I learn what happens when I try something out.  In other words, I am engaged in the very definition of continuous improvement.

Attached to this letter is an excerpt from the research study that first illuminated this phenomenon.

I know this letter is a bit on the nerdy side, but just because you’re a nerd doesn’t mean you’re friendless or no fun at parties.  Just sayin’.  I think understanding the difference between performance and learning goals, and knowing how to help people set the right kind of goal, is a powerful tool in your toolbox, for leaders and coaches.  So I’d like to suggest that you set a learning goal for yourself around helping others set the right kind of goal, in all kinds of situations.  Keep me posted…

Excerpt from Seijts et al 2004 perf v learning goals

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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