Philosophy:Goal orientation

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Goal orientation is an "individual disposition towards developing or validating one's ability in achievement settings".[1] Research has examined goal orientation as a motivation variable that is useful for recruitment, climate and culture, performance appraisal, and choice.[2][3] It has also been used to predict sales performance, adaptive performance,[4] goal setting, learning and adaptive behaviors in training, and leadership.[2]

Historical perspective

Early conceptualization

The earliest conceptualizations of goal orientation were proposed in the 1970s by educational psychologist J.A. Eison. Eison argued that students who attended college as an opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge possessed a learning orientation, while students who attended college to exclusively obtain high grades possessed a grade orientation.[5] Eison originally believed that these two orientations were two ends of the same continuum and developed the Learning Orientation-Grade Orientation Scale to measure it.

Meanwhile, J.G. Nicholls was developing a related theory that achievement motivation would lead grade school children to set high task-related goals.[6][7][8] Nicholls found that some high-ability children would use maladaptive strategies when they encountered difficult tasks, which led to eventual feelings of helplessness.[6] By contrast, others would use more productive coping strategies to avoid helplessness. Nicholls later conceptualized these differences as two types of achievement goals: task involvement, where individuals seek to develop their competence relative to their abilities, and ego involvement, where individuals seek to develop their competence relative to the abilities of others.[6] Nicholls' early work set the stage for C.S. Dweck's work.

Dweck proposed that there are two types of goal orientation: learning orientation and performance orientation.[9] Dweck postulated that children with learning goals were believed to approach situations to master the acquisition of new skills, while children with performance goals were believed to approach situations to gain approval from peers and teachers. Like Eison, Dweck conceptualized goal orientation as a two-dimension construct. Individuals with a learning goal orientation (sometimes referred to as mastery goal orientation; abbreviated as LGO) seek to develop their competence by acquiring new skills and mastering new situations.[9] They are not concerned about their performance relative to others, but rather with furthering their understanding of a given topic or task.[10] Individuals with a performance goal orientation seek to demonstrate and validate the adequacy of their competence to receive favorable compliments while avoiding negative judgments. Although Dweck's work in this area built on the foundation laid by Nicholls, the fundamental difference between the two scholars' works is the attribution of an individual's goal orientation: Nicholls believed that the goal orientation held by an individual was a result of the possession of either an internal or external referent[definition needed], while Dweck considered the adoption of a particular goal orientation to be related to the theory of intelligence held by that individual.

Subsequent work by Eison and colleagues in 1982 led to a change in the conceptualization of these orientations from two ends of a continuum to two separate constructs.[11] More recently, researchers have embraced the idea that individuals can adopt the two orientation styles simultaneously: individuals can be independently high or low in learning and performance orientations. Ultimately, they can entertain multiple competing goal orientations at the same time, and strive to both outperform competitors and improve their performance. This line of thinking led to the conceptualization of two separate continua: one for learning goal orientation and one for performance goal orientation.[12]

Recent conceptualizations

Just over a decade after Dweck conceptualized the two-factor model of goal orientation, VandeWalle proposed that goal orientation is better conceptualized as a three-factor model,[1] further dividing performance goal orientation into the dimensions of avoidant performance goal orientation (APGO) and prove performance goal orientation (PPGO). APGO focuses on the goal of avoiding failure and negative judgment from others centred on lack of competence, while PPGO focuses on demonstrating performance to prove competence. Learning goal orientation has been separated into two categories: learning approach orientation and learning avoid orientation.[13] However, this conceptualization is neither widely accepted nor substantially proven. According to VandeWalle, Cron & Slocum,[14] APGO and PPGO have different relationships with various outcome variables, which support the argument that a three-factor model should be used in place of the originally conceptualized two-factor model.[15]

State versus trait

There has been debate as to whether goal orientation should be operationalized as a state or as a trait. Throughout the goal orientation literature, there are inconsistencies about the conceptualization of the stability of the construct. For example, DeShon & Gillespie stated that goal orientation has been conceptualized as a trait, quasi-trait, and state.[16] They assert that whether researchers conceptualize goal orientation as a trait or a state "depends on the breadth of the inference that the researcher is attempting to support".[16]:1115 State goal orientation refers to the goal one has in a particular situation, and is similar to trait goal orientation in that it represents one's preference in an achievement situation.

However, state goal orientation is "specific to the task and context at hand".[17]:5 For example, VandeWalle, Cron & Slocum stated that goal orientation can be domain-specific,[14] and said that it is possible for an individual to have a strong learning goal orientation in their academic domain but not in their work domain. Trait goal orientation refers to the "consistent pattern of responses in achievement situations based on the individual's standing on goal orientation dimensions".[18] This view of goal orientation treats the construct as a stable, individual difference characteristic.

Button, Mathieu, & Zajac take an integrative view of the construct,[19] stating that goal orientation is best categorized as a relatively stable individual difference variable that can be influenced by situational and contextual characteristics. They found that when few situational cues are present, individuals adopt their dispositional goal orientations. However, when "dispositional goal orientations predispose individuals to adopt particular response patterns across situations, situational characteristics may cause them to adopt a different or less acute response pattern for a specific situation".[19]:40 Therefore, trait and state goal orientations interact, and both should be considered simultaneously.[2]


Since the realization that performance goal orientation is most effectively split into two separate parts, researchers have conducted validation studies to demonstrate the statistical and conceptual distinction of three dimensions to goal orientation. Conceptual and empirical work by Elliot and Church and VandeWalle demonstrated that the factor structure of goal orientation lends itself to three distinct dimensions.[20][1] An explanation of the learning-approach and learning-avoidance goal orientations are also included for completeness.



In communications, there is a theory that coincides with this overall concept, known as "the Theory of Goal-oriented communications". The idea behind it is less confusion occurs when communicating if individuals concentrate on a goal rather than on the communication itself.[21]

Communication is goal-oriented, and it can be effective if the sender and receiver are both aware of the goal of communication and their goals are congruent.


VandeWalle defines learning goal orientation as the "desire to develop the self by acquiring new skills, mastering new situations, and improving one's competence".[1]:1000 Persons with learning goal orientation seek feedback on past performance to evaluate current performance. These individuals focus on improving skills and acquiring knowledge, and are less concerned with making mistakes. Research shows that the adoption of mastery goals leads to greater intrinsic motivation as opposed to performance approach or performance avoidance, which are associated with external motivation.[20] One area where this can be important is in the area of curriculum design; when designing learning environments for students, it is important to create opportunities that promote learning goals as opposed to performance goals. One possible implication for educators is the need to emphasize knowledge-centred classroom environments that encourage "doing with understanding".[22]

Learning-approach and learning-avoidance

Although learning goal orientation is most commonly conceptualized as a single construct, researchers have begun to make the approach and avoidance distinction that they have previously done with performance goal orientation. According to Elliot, learning-approach goals "entail striving to develop one's skills and abilities, advance one's learning, understand the material, or complete or master a task".[23]:181 This type of learning goal orientation is consistent with the way general learning goal orientation has been conceptualized previously. Alternatively, learning-avoidance goals "entail striving to avoid losing one's skills and abilities (or having their development stagnate), forgetting what one has learned, misunderstanding material, or leaving a task incomplete or unmastered".[23]:181 Individuals are likely to pursue learning-avoidance goals when they feel that their skills or abilities are deteriorating. For example, an elderly individual may notice that their physical and mental capacity is declining, and as a result, may focus their goals on sustaining or improving these diminishing capacities.

Prove performance

VandeWalle defines prove performance as the "desire to prove one's competence and to gain favorable judgments about it".[1]:1000 It represents a desire to achieve a high level of performance. People with performance approach orientation seek positive reinforcement and feedback.[24] These individuals do not want to put forth a lot of effort unless they will be positively evaluated and tend to avoid tasks where they may make mistakes and therefore be evaluated poorly.[17]

Avoid performance

VandeWalle defines avoid performance as the "desire to avoid the disproving of one's competence and to avoid negative judgments about it".[1]:1000 It represents a desire to avoid instances of low beliefs. People with avoid performance orientation focus on avoiding situations in which they will receive evaluations or risk demonstrating a lack of confidence. Individuals high in fear of failure are more likely to adopt avoid performance goals.[20]


Many studies have examined relationships between goal orientation and various antecedents. These antecedents[definition needed] have been identified to have varying levels of importance. In a meta-analysis by Payne et al.,[17] both the need for achievement and the Big Five personality traits were identified as important antecedents of goal orientation, while cognitive ability was found to have almost no relationship with goal orientation. The following sections go into more detail about each antecedent. Payne and her colleagues did not distinguish between proximal and distal antecedents.

Cognitive ability

Research has produced mixed results when examining the relationship between cognitive ability and goal orientation. For example, Eison found that learning-oriented (learning goal orientation) students had higher levels of cognitive ability than grade-oriented (performance goal orientation) students.[5][25] However, Dweck and her colleagues were unable to find any relationship between the constructs.[9] Although findings are mixed, "a substantial body of theory and research suggests motivational and ability traits are generally uncorrelated".[17]:130 In a meta-analysis by Payne et al.,[17] cognitive ability and goal orientation were found to be independent constructs. Accordingly, individuals with high cognitive ability are equally likely to hold learning, prove performance, and avoid performance goal orientations. These authors also found that LGO predicted job performance above and beyond cognitive ability.[17] Based on this research, goal orientation, rather than cognitive ability, serves as a useful tool for practitioners to use to predict job performance.

Need for achievement

The need for achievement refers to the degree to which an individual "maintains high standards" and "aspires to accomplish difficult tasks".[26] Goal orientation dimensions have been conceptualized as manifestations of Atkinson's (1957) need for achievement and need to avoid failure competence-relevant motives.[17][20] In a meta-analysis by Payne et al.,[17] they found that the need for achievement was positively correlated with LGO, negatively associated with APGO, and unrelated to PPGO. They also found that the need for achievement correlated more strongly with LGO than conscientiousness. Although LGO and the need for achievement were found to be strongly related, the findings demonstrate that LGO is related to, but not synonymous with the need for achievement.

Big Five personality characteristics

Research has been done on personality and many researchers have agreed that personality is best conceptualized as a five-factor model (the Big Five).[27] These traits are extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.[28] In a study by Zweig and Webster,[29] the relationship between the Big Five and goal orientation was examined. They found that goal orientation and the Big Five are related yet distinct constructs, and also that personality factors combine to create people's various orientations toward learning and goals, which in turn predict the types of tasks they will engage in. In a meta-analysis by Payne et al.,[17] goal orientation was found to predict job performance over and above the Big Five.

Goal setting

Historically, goal-setting theory has primarily been concerned with performance goals. Locke and Latham summarize 25 years of goal setting research by stating that as long as an individual is committed to a goal and has the ability to achieve it, specific, hard goals lead to a higher level of task performance than vague or easy goals.[30] However, the vast majority of goal setting studies have been conducted with a specific performance goal. Studies in laboratory settings gave subjects fairly simple tasks. It is possible that when tasks are more complex or require a long-term commitment, adopting a learning goal may lead to higher performance. Fan et al. found that the relationship between trait learning goal orientation and goal-setting was moderated by self-efficacy such that individuals high in learning goal orientation and self-efficacy set higher goals that those high in learning goal orientation but low in self-efficacy,[31] which suggests that, while learning goal orientation can influence goal setting, the relationship also depends on other factors such as the individual's level of self-efficacy. They also found that learning and prove goal orientations facilitated striving for challenges, suggesting that either orientation can effectively facilitate motivation for goal attainment.

Another factor to consider when examining the relationship between goal orientation and goal setting is the level of inherent complexity in the situation or task. In situations with more complex tasks, "do your best" goals may lead to higher performance than specific goals. It is possible that in complex tasks, a specific, difficult goal imposes greater cognitive demands on employees, making it difficult for them to learn the complex task due to this increased pressure.[32] Kanfer and Ackerman found that in an air traffic controller simulation (a highly complex task),[33] performance-outcome goals interfered with acquiring the knowledge necessary to perform the task, and individuals performed better when they were asked to do their best, suggesting that adopting a learning orientation may be appropriate for complex tasks or in specific settings. However, it may be possible to set a specific, difficult learning goal. Latham and Brown found that when MBA students set specific, difficult learning goals such as mastering complex course material,[34] they outperformed MBA students who set a performance goal for GPA. Locke and Latham claim that creating a specific, difficult learning goal in this type of situation facilitates meta-cognition which is particularly helpful in complex environments with limited guidance, such as in an MBA program.[30]

Consequences and outcomes

The goal orientation literature has examined the relationships among goal orientation and various proximal (e.g., self-efficacy, metacognition, & feedback-seeking) and distal consequences (e.g., academic outcomes, organizational outcomes). In a meta-analysis by Payne et al.,[17] the goal orientation dimensions were found to be more strongly related to the self-regulatory constructs (i.e., self-efficacy, metacognition, & feedback-seeking) than the performance constructs (i.e. academic and organizational performance). They also found that APGO was the only dimension negatively related to the various outcomes. Payne et al. found that the learning strategies (including metacognition) and self-efficacy are the most important proximal consequences of goal orientation followed by feedback-seeking, academic outcomes, and organizational outcomes.

In their review of the goal orientation literature, Vandewalle, Nerstad, and Dysvik strongly advocated that the relationship of goal orientation with an outcome variable such as task performance should be assessed in conjunction with moderator variables such as self-efficacy, commitment, and feedback on prior task performance.[3]


Bandura (1982) defined self-efficacy as "a belief in one's ability to effectively perform and to exercise influence over events".[35] Individuals with high self-efficacy set more difficult goals exert more effort to achieve those goals, and seek to learn from the processes of pursuing those goals.[2] In a meta-analysis by Payne et al., self-efficacy was identified as a proximal outcome of goal orientation.[17] Similarly, VandeWalle, Cron & Slocum found that LGO was positively related to self-efficacy, effort, and goal setting level.[14] Since "self-efficacy functions as a primary motivational mechanism by which goal orientation influences subsequent learning processes", employees with higher levels of self-efficacy were found to exert more effort toward and learn more from task assignments.[2]:164


Metacognition is conceptualized as an individual's knowledge and regulation over one's own cognition.[36] Individuals high in metacognitive awareness are skilled at monitoring their progress towards goals, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting their learning strategies accordingly to achieve favorable outcomes.[37] Although there have been relatively few research studies conducted on the role of metacognition in leader development outcomes, some studies have found that metacognition plays an important role in such outcomes. For example, Ford et al. linked LGO and metacognitive activity and found that metacognitive activity was significantly related to knowledge acquisition, post-training performance, and self-efficacy.[37] In a study by Schmidt & Ford, metacognitive activity was positively related to LGO as well as cognitive, affective, and skill-based learning outcomes.[38] Similarly, Bell and Kozlowski found that LGO was significantly related to the metacognitive activity.[39] The National Research Council states that it is important to remember that metacognitive skills can be taught and essential that teachers explicitly teach metacognitive skills across the curriculum in a variety of subject areas.[22]

Feedback seeking and interpretation

In an organizational context, the extent to which employees actively seek feedback can positively influence job performance.[17] Goal orientation influences how individuals evaluate the costs and benefits of feedback-seeking opportunities.[40] According to VandeWalle, when individuals have the opportunity to seek feedback, they face a cognitive dilemma between the need for self-assessment and the need for self-enhancement.[40] Since individuals with a learning goal orientation are interested in developing competencies, they are more likely to interpret feedback positively, engage in more feedback-seeking behaviors to enhance performance, and interpret feedback as valuable information about how to correct errors and improve future performance on a given task. Conversely, individuals with a performance goal orientation are likely to interpret feedback as "evaluative and judgmental information about the self",[14]:631 and as a result, are less likely to seek feedback. Consequently, individuals with high levels of learning goal orientation are more inclined to seek feedback, while individuals with high levels of prove performance goal orientation or avoid performance goal orientation are less inclined to seek feedback (VandeWalle & Cummings, 1997)[citation needed].

Academic outcomes

Because goal orientation refers to individuals' behavioral tendencies in achievement-oriented tasks, it is intuitive to associate goal orientation with various academic outcomes. According to Payne et al., learning goal orientation is positively associated with self-regulatory behaviors such as planning and goal setting, which in turn are associated with academic performance.[17] Therefore, individuals with high levels of LGO are more likely to perform well on academic tasks than individuals with high levels of the PGO dimensions.[17] Research has also shown that students' motivation can predict both the quality of the engagement in academic learning as well as the degree to which they seek out or avoid challenging situations.[41] "Goal-setting is a technique that is often employed in the organization as part of traditional performance appraisals and broader performance management interventions."[42] Long et al. assert that if all students are to move "through the increasing challenges and academic rigors" of school, then their motivation to learn must be identified and nurtured.[43]

Organizational outcomes

Goal orientation has also been linked to organizational outcomes, specifically job performance. Payne et al. found that individuals with high levels of trait and state LGO and low levels of trait APGO had better job performance, PPGO was unrelated to performance, and LGO predicted job performance more accurately than both cognitive ability and the Big Five personality characteristics.[17] Their findings suggest that LGO is a valuable predictor of job performance and it may be in the best interest of organizations to create a climate in which learning is valued over performance.

In a study by VandeWalle, Cron & Slocum, the authors found that individuals with a learning goal orientation had higher sales performance than those with performance goal orientations, which suggests that in order to be successful in an organizational setting, individuals must have the desire to develop their skills.[14] Another performance construct that has been examined is adaptive performance or performance adaptation. According to a meta-analysis, goal orientation is relevant when predicting subjective (e.g., self-reported) rather than objective adaptive performance (e.g., task outcomes).[4]

Learning environments

Research (primarily centered on school and job performance outcomes) has shown that goal orientation is linked to outcomes and performance.[9][13][43] When examining research on learning environments and curriculum design, one could argue that there is a significant alignment with LGO and ideal learning environments. The National Research Council recommends that when designing learning environments, there are three essential principles—as outlined in its 2000 report "How People Learn: Brain Mind Experience, and School"—that should be upheld:[22]

  1. Classrooms and schools should be learner-centered. Teachers need to be aware of the strengths, skills, attitudes, and knowledge that students bring with them when they enter school, which can include acknowledging cultural differences and creating a place for the inclusion of their everyday lived experiences in the classroom.
  2. Teachers should strive to create a knowledge-centered classroom by focusing on what is taught, why it is taught, and what competence or mastery looks like. Emphasis should be placed on learning with understanding. One way students can demonstrate this understanding is by successfully transferring content and skills to new situations and problems, which relates to metacognitive skills, which are linked to learning goal orientation.
  3. Educators should consider the environment in which learning takes place, and create an environment that nurtures a learning goal orientation instead of a performance goal orientation. This means encouraging a community of learners who are willing to take risks and make mistakes for the sake of learning. Teachers should create environments that emphasize mastery over performance. Performance is primarily focused on learning in the moment and a demarcated demonstration of understanding. Mastery implies skill development over a period of time that includes experience and practice.

See also


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