Quiz question: The ultimate goal of learning is to:

A. Acquire new knowledge
B. Get better results

For workplace training, the answer is obvious: B. We don’t train people for the heck of it. Results are what matter.

So it makes sense to set performance goals for learners, right? If we’re teaching salespeople how to be better closers, we want higher closing ratios. If we’re teaching safety, we expect fewer accidents. If we’re teaching leadership skills, we want to see more satisfied subordinates.

Well, not so fast.

The performance paradox

A University of Washington study offers powerful evidence that performance goals can ultimately lead to poorer performance.

In the study, subjects were divided into three groups and given a complex organizational task: They had to use a scheduling system to create several college course schedules, without any conflicting times or redundancy.

One group was given a learning goal: simply to develop an understanding of how the scheduling system worked.

A second group was given a performance goal: to create flawless schedules.

The last was given no goal: people were simply told to “do their best.”

The first group – the one that got a learning goal – far outperformed the other two groups. People in this group also reported feeling more confident and motivated during the task.

A meta-analysis that reviewed more than 35 years of research came to similar conclusions, finding that performance goals can undermine training and outcomes.

What’s the difference?

It’s easy to confuse learning goals and performance goals. Both are used to to assess the effectiveness of learning. But as the University of Washington study shows, they measure different things:

Performance goals are based on specific outcomes that presumably result from mastery.

For example, if you’re training a manager on leadership skills, a performance goal might be for the manager to increase job satisfaction among his or her direct reports. For a salesperson, a performance goal might be to reduce the length of sales cycles.

But goals like these are an imperfect measure of learning, because they’re influenced by many outside factors. Job satisfaction may go down because the company is laying people off. Sales cycles are affected by the economy.

Learning goals are more closely aligned with the skills and concepts that are being taught. For example: “I will be able to demonstrate three techniques that I can use with my direct reports to increase job satisfaction.” Or, “For each client meeting that I schedule, I will set an objective that advances the sale.”

Falling back on the tried and true

There’s an even bigger problem with performance goals, the authors of the meta-analysis concluded:

Such goals get people focused on achieving the goal to the exclusion of other priorities – including learning.

For example, performance goals make people less likely to try new, creative solutions to problems. Instead, they fall back on “tried and true” approaches (which, of course, are often the very behaviors that training is trying to change).

Say, for example, you’re trying to teach your sales force to be better closers. You train them on three new closing techniques and set a performance goal linked to the training: “You will close 10% more sales by the end of the year.”

The salespeople try out the new techniques, but aren’t comfortable using them. They flub some opportunities. As the pressure to close more deals increases, they abandon what they learned and go back to their old habits.

A better way: Hold reps accountable for the learning and assume the outcomes will follow. Tell them: “We’re not expecting you to start closing more sales immediately. In fact, your closing rate may go down for a while. What we will be evaluating is how well you learn and apply these skills.”

When to use performance goals

None of this research suggests that performance goals don’t have their place. Of course it’s legitimate to hold people accountable for results.

But don’t confuse performance with learning. When you’re training people on new skills, it’s best to simply hold them accountable for mastering and using what they’ve learned.

Locke, E.A. and Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.
Winters, D. and Latham, G.P. (1996). The effect of learning versus outcome goals on a simple versus a complex task. Group and Organization Management, 21(2), 236-250.

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