Article Review #5: Team Learning and Performance Goals

Nahrgang, J. D., Jundt, D. K., DeRue, S. D., Ilgen, D. R., Hollenbeck, J. R., & Spitzmuller, M. (2013). Goal setting in teams: The impact of learning and performance goals on process and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 122, 12-21.

Since we’ve been reading about writing learning goals and objectives, I wanted to relate the current topic to the class I am teaching this semester. We do a “group” section of the basic communication class, where speech students learn small group theory and must do activities and a speech as a group. I am interested in how to write goals that  require collaboration to reach. This article gives a framework for how to test the effect of different types of group goals, but didn’t include explicit examples of the wording used to set goals for the different group conditions. I would have loved to see an appendix that spelled those out.

Nahrgang et al. (2013) studied 80 teams of undergraduates as they completed a military style strategy simulation. Students were assigned randomly to teams of four. The researchers had several hypotheses related to differences in how teams would orient to learning goals versus performance goals. Also, task complexity and specificity of learning goal were varied. In sum, the authors state that “we theorize that the combination of a learning focus and high specificity will cue team members to adopt a more narrow focus on learning specific aspects of the task and therefore impair team coordination. We also expect task complexity to be an important boundary condition of the goal-performance relationship in teams” (p. 12). Also, “We propose that specific learning goals are less effective in team contexts than general ‘’do your best’ learning goals and specific performance goals, and that these differential effects operate through the process of team coordination” (p. 13).

All teams were offered a $40 prize as an incentive for reaching the top level of whatever their goal condition was. Teams were not told what the different goal conditions or hypotheses were. Each team of four met separately from the other teams, in a room where each team member was at a separate computer. Each team member controlled a different “asset” in a situation where they were strategizing how to move friendly military forces into a certain geographic area while keeping enemy forces out. I thought this was a good design for ensuring that the teams were not influenced by other participants in the study. By not having multiple teams in the same room, there is no chance they will overhear the differences in goals for other teams, or be influenced by their decisions.

To illustrate the difference between “learning” goals and “performance” goals, the authors explained that “participants in our specific learning goal condition were told that their team should focus on learning specific strategic aspects of the task” including how to
execute successful attacks” and “understand speed and accuracy trade-offs” (p.15). Performance goals were “specific offensive and defensive goals” based on a points system. As I was reading, this part was a bit confusing. I’m not sure students would automatically be able to separate, in their thinking, what they’re supposed to be learning from what they’re supposed to be doing.

It seems to me like there would be a gray area, tough to define or measure, where students are moving from learning to performing (and back if they are reflecting on successes and failures). The authors did note in their results that groups reacted differently to performance versus learning goals. In their discussion they note that “the best team performance  may occur when teams are given learning goals in order to learn  tasks or develop strategies for the task, and then are switched to  a performance goal after they have mastered the task.” So I think the authors would perhaps agree that students need assistance separating the two types of goals and when to focus on them. I’ve been doing this somewhat in my classes when I have groups go over the chapter and identify what they think are the take-aways and would make good test questions, and how the concepts might apply to their own life. After we brainstorm best practices for application, they move to actually practicing the new information in an outline or speech.

As a supplement if folks are interested, here are the verbatim hypothesis compiled, as well as whether or not they were supported. From pp. 16-17:

  • In Hypothesis 1 we predicted that teams with specific learning  goals would have lower performance relative to teams with general ‘‘do your best’’ learning goals.
  • Hypothesis 2 predicted that the negative effect of specific learning goals on team performance relative to general ‘‘do your best’’  learning goals would be mediated by lower team coordination.
  • In Hypothesis 3, we predicted that teams with specific learning  goals would perform worse than teams with specific performance  goals.
  • Hypothesis 4 predicted that the negative effect of specific learning  goals on team performance, relative to specific performance goals,  would be mediated by lower team coordination.
  • Hypothesis 5 predicted that the negative effect of specific learning  goals on team coordination relative to general ‘‘do your best’’  learning goals would be stronger for teams operating in a complex  task.
  • Hypothesis 6 predicted that the negative effect of specific learning goals on team  coordination, relative to specific performance goals, would be  stronger for team performing a complex task.

Hypotheses 1 and 3 were supported. Hypotheses 2 and 5 were supported “in that complexity moderated the negative effect of specific  learning goals on team coordination, relative to general ‘do your  best’ learning goals, and team coordination mediated the moderated negative effect of specific learning goals on team performance,  relative to general ‘do your best’ learning goals.”  Hypotheses 4  and 6 were supported “in that complexity moderated the negative  effect of specific learning goals versus specific performance goals  on team coordination, and team coordination mediated the moderated negative effect of specific learning goals on team performance  versus specific performance goals on team performance.”

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