Goal Orientation Theory


In a recent workshop I was training with a management team and I was asked the question, "I was watching the Australian Open, and there was a player who was just smashing the other player. The player was in front 5-2, serving for the match. Then they lost every game including the last set, 7-5. Why do some people choke in the face of winning?"

Very interesting question! So why do people buckle under pressure?

When we are presented with an opportunity to perform we can be driven by 3 main focuses.

1. Ego Boost - This is where we are only interested in doing well so that our ego is inflated. We want to perform so that we get praise and recognition. Our only interest in the task is the adulation that we perceive to be on the other side. These people believe that doing well confirms their own self-concept ("I am smart, I am funny, I am capable, I am popular").

An example of this was basketball player Scotty Pippen. At the end of the 1993-1994 season the Bulls (Pippen's team) were playing their rivals, the New York Knicks. They were down by two games and desperately needed to win. With 1.8 seconds left, the Bulls were losing by 1 point. Phil Jackson, the coach, had designed the play for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot. When he heard this, Pippen refused to go back in the game unless he took the final shot. What was his focus- the team? No, his own ego.

Ego is a dangerous driver because you can become discouraged when you get negative feedback, it makes you a non team player, and when you start to lose or face adversity, you can fall apart.

As well as that, people with this strong driver are more likely to cheat (as they will do anything to win), or rely on shallow improvement such as rote learning, rather than a deep understanding of their goals.

2. Avoiding failure - This is where not failing, or not looking stupid, drives you. Your focus is all on the fact that you do not want to look like an idiot. This is a disastrous driver because it gets you to focus on the negative things that could go wrong, and puts you in a state of anxiety, as well as causing you to feel negative emotions such as fear or panic. This is what the tennis player in the above example shifted into. When the player realized they were 5-2 in front their focus became, "Don't lose this- you will look like an idiot if you lose this match from 5-2 in front. Do not screw up". Once the player shifted into this pattern of thinking, their game started to fall apart.

Another example of this pattern of thinking is tennis player Sam Stosur, who in 2009 had 3 match points against Serena Williams. When asked why she faltered in a winning position, she said, "I looked over the net and realized I was in a position to beat the number one player in the world and it freaked me out!"

3. Mastery – This is the final driver of performance. This is where your entire personal drive is to improve your performance and complete the task in a better fashion. Your sense of satisfaction stems only from becoming more competent at what you are doing. In other words, you are driven by internal motivation, not external. You are not being influenced by external motivation like praise, scores, or winning. Because of this, you are far more likely to have a consistent performance, as you are not derailed by external factors. Mastery orientation is associated with deeper engagement with the task and greater perseverance in the face of setbacks.

We should also understand that when we focus on mastery we are much more likely to get into FLOW (being 'in the zone'). One of the many benefits of focusing on mastery is that it is a state of continual improvement. When I was at the Australian Institute of Sport I noticed that some of the most talented athletes never achieved their potential because success came easily to them, and they never developed a strong work ethic. I also found that the athletes who had to work hard for success would eventually leap frog the more talented athletes because of their commitment to mastery.

One example of a man who got his team to focus on mastery is college Basketball coach John Wooden. John is one of the most successful coaches in history, and what made him unique is that he never talked to his team about winning or losing. All he focused on was getting them to master the game of basketball. His view was that if you focus on the metrics of the game, the result would take care of itself. Going into a game he wanted his players to focus on specific aspects, for example, one player may focus on reducing turnovers, or increasing his court speed.

John once said that he knew he was a successful coach when his team left the dressing room and others wouldn't know whether they'd won or lost, because ideally they should leave the dressing room with the same attitude and emotions every time. Even if his team won, he might be bitterly disappointed in them if they did not improve in the metrics of the game. The whole focus was mastery.

I want you to think about what drives you to succeed at work. Are you doing just enough so you don't run into trouble? Are you the type of person who only puts in a determined effort if you know it will further your career, or get you praise? Or do you show up to work hoping to do it a little better every day?

It's imperative that we start to implement mastery into more parts of our life – at work, in our personal relationships and with our passions.