Adapting to Change: Learning versus Performance

It turns out that life isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be.  A May 2010 study about the impact of people’s learning orientations on the outcomes of organizational change clearly illustrated that for me. 

Michael Aherne and Willy Bollander (University of Houston), Son Lam (University of Georgia) and John Mathieu (University of Connecticut) recently examined the implementation of a new Customer Relationship Management software tool at a large pharmaceutical company. Their objective was to better understand how an individual’s orientation to learning as compared to performance affected their overall sales performance.

It turns out that we as individuals have an orientation to either learning or to outcomes, which are called a learning orientation (LO)  or a performance orientation (PO).  The authors of this study set out to see if there were any differences in terms of organizational change between these two orientations.  Learning orientation is about an internal drive to improve one’s skills and knowledge in order to be able to do something better. High LO people “use obstacles as a cure to increase their effort, consider mistakes part of the learning process, and place high value on personal growth.” (Carole Dweck, 1986, p 1042)

They measured each individual’s orientation, and also tracked their sales performance versus a pre-set sales quota before, during and after a major change initiative that required employees adopt a new way of doing business.  The company was implementing a new CRM software that was expected to make sales people both more effective and efficient, and increase sales.

Sales people who reported a learning orientation reported a large drop in sales performance while the new system was being implemented, while those reporting a performance orientation reported a much less significant drop in sales performance.  Ah ha, you say.  So, the conclusion is that we should select people with performance orientations in order to adapt to change more effectively.

Not so fast Kimosabe.  At about the five month point, things changed. People with high learning orientations performance recovered signficantly, in fact out performing those with average and low learning orientations. Those with high performance orientations did not recover much at all from their low, and in fact, lost ground from their pre-change sales levels.

How do the authors explain this?  They hypothesize that in the first five months of the change, people with a LO shifted focus from their sales activities to learning how to use the new system. Because they shifted their attention, their sales performance declined a lot. But they employed very deep learning strategies that gave them the knowledge, skills and experience to leverage this new technology once they were through the learning phase. The result was much higher performance than people with low LO.

On the flip side, those people who are very concerned with performance outcomes spent less time during the learning phase, in order to maintain their performance.  Hence they had a lower initial drop in sales performance. Because they maintained their focus on sales, they spent less time learning about the new system, and learning just enough to be able to continue operating. This lack of deep learning meant that they could not leverage many of the new tools the system provided.  As a result, their performance did not recover in a meaningful way.

Some interesting conclusions.  When implementing change that requires learning, don’t be too hasty to jump to conclusions about the effectiveness of the change. It takes time to learn something and then incorporate it in our daily behaviour.  We need to start thinking about how we demonstrate that deep learning will provide long-term benefits, even though there are short-term costs.  For performance oriented employees, we need to reassure them that this is part of learning, we need to redefine goals during a period of extended change, and we need to help them develop effective learning skills.  

Learning is a key part of organizational life. If we are going to succeed in an era of unremitting change, we need to develop a learning orientation.


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