Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 250
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

When the Going Gets Tough

Recent findings about human performance reveal new ways supervisors can help their best employees.

Have you ever noticed that employees differ in their reactions to demanding work? Have you ever wished you could help people who were having difficulty? It's tough to see employees get tired and miserable and not be able to help them, especially when others are working just as hard and getting just as tired, but they are satisfied at the end of their day.

Nico Van Yperen, a Dutch visiting scholar at Wharton School, is interested in human performance, and he recently made a discovery in a study of achievement orientation that will give supervisors a new target for their efforts to help.

Here's the story.

When we hire for demanding jobs, we try to find people who have reacted well to difficult situations in the past. Van Yperen surveyed a large number of employees and identified people who were currently in demanding jobs, and he studied them. He tested a theory about achievement to see if it explained their reactions, and it did.

The theory involves achievement orientation. It states that people adopt an orientation toward their own achievement that helps them 1) approach achievement situations, 2) experience these situations, 3) respond to them, and 4) evaluate them. The theory claims that people generally choose between two possible orientations.

The first is called performance orientation. The second is called mastery orientation.

With a performance orientation, people are concerned with comparisons with others. They want to appear smarter and more productive. With a mastery orientation, people want to feel they have mastered the task that must be completed and gained new capacities by exerting great effort.

People with a performance orientation are challenged by the opportunity to display their ability, but they aren't particularly interested in the task. People with a mastery orientation can exert just as much effort, but they are interested in the task.

Van Yperen found that people often had both orientations, but that in demanding work settings, one tended to be stronger. He also found that people in demanding settings with a predominant performance orientation were not happy in their jobs, but that people with a predominant mastery orientation were happy in their jobs.

People with mastery orientations experience satisfaction merely by exerting great effort. But people with performance orientations lose their ability to predict others' capabilities in demanding work settings. The more demanding the work, the lower their confidence that they will be able to be the best. Hence, they become unhappy in their jobs.

Two conclusions follow: 1) We want highly productive people in our difficult jobs who are happy with their work, and 2) If we want them to be happy, then we need to help them adopt mastery orientations.

Here's how to do it:

Van Yperen believes it is possible to influence achievement orientation. Generally, one's environment will shape these choices. For example, work settings with a compensation system that identifies and rewards individual performance will encourage a performance orientation. One that rewards groups of people equitably encourages a mastery orientation.

Managers' comments drawing attention to the task encourage mastery. Comments comparing individuals encourage a performance orientation.

Managers who display their own pleasure when performing the same tasks as their people, encourage mastery. Those who don't, encourage a performance orientation.

Hard working, effective employees are a valuable asset we'd like to preserve. Helping them be satisfied in their work by encouraging a mastery achievement orientation is one way to do it.

Now you know how.

Reference: Van Yperen, Nico W., and Onne Janssen (2002) Fatigued and Dissatisfied or Fatigued But Satisfied? Goal Orientations and Responses to High Job Demands. Academy of Management Journal, 45 (6), 1161-1171.

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