When you’re conducting training – especially group training – it’s only natural that you’ll get some competitive juices flowing. Some people will excel; others will lag behind.

You may even be tempted to use this competitive spirit as a motivational tool. But that could be a big mistake, according to new research.

When learners believe that they’re being measured against others, motivation plummets. When their performance is benchmarked against their own past performance, it skyrockets.

The research
An international team of psychologists set out to study the effects of “anticipated feedback” on learners – that is, the kind of feedback that learners expect to get. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know how anticipated feedback influenced learners’ goals and emotions.

The experimenters divided the subjects into two groups and asked both groups to take a two-part test.

The first group was told that evaluations and feedback would be based on how much they improved between the first and second parts of the test.

The second group was told that their performance would be assessed against other participants in the study and that feedback would be based on how they measured up to their peers.

Both groups were then asked to fill out questionnaires asking them about their goals for the training. After the test, subjects completed a self-report on the emotions of the testing experience.

The results
The learners who were told they’d be evaluated based on their personal development expressed goals that reflected intrinsic motivation and focused on improvements – for example, “to improve as much as possible during the test.”

Afterwards, they attached positive emotions to the experience, including hope and pride.

The learners who were judged in relation to their peers set goals that were more concerned with appearances, such as “to avoid performing poorly compared to my peers.”

In the follow-up, they reported negative emotions, such as anxiety, hopelessness and shame.

A personal learning path
The implication for trainers is clear: Learners do better when they’re on a personal learning path, versus one that compares their performance against others.

When a challenge is positioned as an opportunity for personal development, learners are more likely to embrace it. When it’s framed as a competitive exercise, they shut down.

And, the research suggests, these negative feelings occur even when the comparisons aren’t made public. All it takes is for learners to know they’re being judged against others.

Here are four key elements of a personalized approach to learning that trainers and managers should consider:

  1. Goal setting. As the study showed, it’s best to frame learning goals around the learner’s improvement. The goal of training should be self-improvement, and each training session viewed as a step on the road to professional proficiency.
  2. Evaluation. Assess learners based on how far they’ve progressed along their personal learning path. Metrics should be based on where the learner started and how far they’ve come, not how they compare to their peers.
  3. Feedback. When providing feedback, be careful not to draw comparisons with other learners. Also, deliver feedback privately when you can, so learners don’t have to worry about being judged in front of their peers.
  4. Engagement. To get learners feeling more engaged and positive about training, explain how it will personally benefit them and promote their personal and professional growth.

Beware of subtle signals
Even when training is focused on personal goals, you may be sending unintentional signals that can turn learners off. Here are some practices to avoid:

Providing individual critiques in front of the group. Sometimes that feedback is essential, but be careful how it’s framed. For example, after a role play, don’t ask, “Can anyone suggest a way to improve this approach?” Ask, “Can anyone suggest another approach?”

Giving rewards for the right answer. Even small or token rewards can change the vibe of a training session, turning it into a competition among learners.

Using leaderboards or scorecards to boost motivation. Consider whether the effects are worth the negativity that low scorers are likely to feel.

Making assessments public. For example, think twice before announcing who got the best score on a quiz.

Pekrun, R., et al. (2014). The power of anticipated feedback: Effects on students’ achievement goals and achievement emotions. Learning and Instruction 29, 115-124.

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