Goal Orientation: The Psychology Behind Performance Management

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Why do most employees dread performance reviews? Is it because company culture prevents performance reviews from being accurate and actionable? Is it just that employees don’t like to be criticized? Or is it because each employee approaches goals differently?

Recently, there’s been a surge in research efforts surrounding the foundational element to performance reviews: goals.

Most employees fall into one of three categories when it comes to goal management:

  • Insatiable learners
  • Under-the-radar skaters
  • Hungry provers

The ways in which employees handle criticism and view performance management often speak volumes about their motivations as a worker and their approach to goal orientation.

Insatiable Learners

Employees that approach goals as learning opportunities and as measurable ways to expand their skillsets and opportunities for growth are relatively neutral when receiving feedback, good or bad. This is because they view their goals as milestones for their own personal betterment. These would-be experts, “aren’t looking for positive reinforcement…they’re seeking mastery.”[1] The determination to master competencies and skills isn’t taught, it’s learned, just like the rest of their skills.

Under-The-Radar Skaters

On the other hand…employees that are trying to skate by are a difficult group to evaluate. They beg the question: why are they underperforming? There’s not always a clear-cut answer to this question. This group of employees often highly dreads performance reviews for the sole reason that they want to avoid looking bad.  And who can blame them? Performance reviews reverberate through the organization, affecting compensation, internal mobility and other key factors.

Hungry Provers

Somewhere in the middle are employees with a competitive streak, who often fall into the category of “goal management with something to prove.” Setting goals, or having them set by a boss, means one thing: making the sale, developing the code, writing the content. This mindset is also known as: proving themselves by any means possible. Employees of this nature want to show that they are capable, skilled and ready for the task at hand. Goals are milestones; how fast can they get there? Can they top their goals? Employees in this group fall to both sides on the performance management viewpoint. Those who are slashing goals left and right want to be congratulated and highly anticipate review season. Employees who have met most, but not all, of their goals want to tell you why they failed to meet them and highlight the work they did do. Employees of this nature often have a fear of performance reviews.

But once you understand how an employee visualizes and achieves their goals, it’s time set the wheels in motion and evaluate them.

Water cooler theories aside, recent research conducted by Dr. Satoris Culberston and her team at Kansas State University has confirmed that basically everyone hates performance reviews.

“The problem with many great workers is they know how great they are, which puts them near the danger zone of boredom,” written Derek Thompson in his January 2016 article for The Atlantic. But what about bad workers? Do they know how “bad” they are? How do we critique them?

Creating Better Performance Reviews for All of Your Employees

The ability to create unique performance reviews based on how an employee sees their goals lies solely with their manager. And with performance reviews taking up so much time nationally, addressing potential roadblocks before they become barriers to workflow is key. The employee-manager relationship is paramount to employee engagement, happiness, success and quality of work.

How employees visualize goals directly correlates to how they will best be managed. Novices often positively respond to empowerment - they want to know their efforts are meeting the standards set forth and that the struggles associated with beginning a new job are not causing problems. Increasing the constructive feedback over time for experienced employees will only help them grow and understand areas of improvement.

It’s easy for managers to distinguish novice employees from experienced performers, but understanding the nuances of goal orientation at different levels of experience can be more difficult; separating the learners from provers and those skating by takes time and knowledge.

Encourage managers to understand how their direct reports view goals. There are a number of experience and goal orientation combinations that can influence this, and managers should approach employees in each category differently.

Goal orientation is more difficult than it sounds, and requires much more than a cursory glance at an employee’s track record to understand completely. Managers should pay close attention to how employees receive feedback and take on new work – this will be a key indicator for which grouping employees fall into.














What’s the point of all this? To know your employees and to work towards a well-rounded performance evaluation. Understanding goal orientation taps into how the employee intrinsically behaves, not simply their most recent accomplishments or a rating.

Whichever method of performance evaluation your organization leverages – ratingless, always-on, MBO – goals are the foundational element to an employee’s place at your organization.  Encouraging your managers to learn how their employees approach goals is a fundamental step in effective performance management. 

No matter what your performance management strategy or your goal setting/review period, you need the right software to help you manage it all. See why PeopleFluent’s Performance Management software is top-rated by industry analysts – take a tour of our system today.

[1] The Case Against Performance Reviews; The Atlantic. 29 Jan 2014

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