Kelman: More management insights

A learning-oriented workplace produces more positive achievements but also more mistakes

I recently reported on an interesting paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, a group of academics who study organizations. I promised then to report on other interesting papers. 

One was a paper by Karen van Dam of Tilburg University in the Netherlands. It has important implications for government, which has a tendency to emphasize avoiding mistakes rather than achieving successes.

In a survey of about 400 employees in a variety of organizations, van Dam tried to find out what people thought about their workplaces. Did they encourage a performance goal orientation — a desire to demonstrate competence and achievement — or an avoidance goal orientation — a desire to avoid failure and unfavorable judgments?

Van Dam also asked survey participants whether they thought the leaders of their workplaces encouraged people to learn.

The results are fascinating. A learning-oriented environment has a greater positive effect on achievement than an achievement-oriented environment does. Second, van Dam found that people who are oriented toward avoiding mistakes achieve fewer successes than those who aren’t. Finally, she found that people who are oriented toward learning — and work in environments that promote learning — make more mistakes.

So there you have it. A learning-oriented workplace produces more positive achievements but also more mistakes. That’s a trade-off we are seldom willing to accept in government. The media, inspectors general  and self-styled watchdogs insist that we avoid mistakes, perhaps not realizing that by avoiding them, we often prevent positive achievements. That trade-off is a good one only if we are satisfied with mediocrity instead of excellence.

Another useful paper was presented by Rebecca Levine, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Columbia Business School. The paper describes the effect of supervisors’ views about whether other people’s behavior is malleable. Some people — whom psychologists refer to as entity theorists — believe that behavior is unchangeable and that people are who they are. Others believe that, with help, people can change their behavior.

In one study, Levine found that participants who identified themselves as entity theorists are less likely as supervisors to get training or coaching for employees with performance weaknesses. In a second study, Levine asked participants who were part of workgroups to provide feedback on others’ performance.

Levine found that feedback provided by participants who classified themselves as entity theorists consisted of fewer words on average — 53 words compared with 88 — than those who said they believed that people can change their behavior. Third-party raters, who were not told whether an entity theorist provided the feedback or not, graded the quality of the feedback of entity theorists significantly lower than that of the others.

The behavior of supervisors who are entity theorists can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. By failing to give employees sufficient feedback, entity theorists reduce the chances that employees will improve. When that happens, entity theorists may feel justified in their view that employees can’t change their behavior.

The study has practical value for managers. Before they select people for supervisory jobs, they should find out what the job candidates think about the malleability of behavior.

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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