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Improving employee performance? Focus on learning!

At the moment, the Learning & Development market is developing at the speed of light. It creates platforms, tools and apps for an easier and more effective way of learning for employees: learn WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW you want it. Even though organisations provide the framework for learning (e.g. a digital platform), they often fall short of creating the conditions required for a learning culture. It is time for organizations and its managers to shift the focus.

Performance goals

The tactics managers usually apply to enhance employee performance, are directed towards performance goals. These tactics focus on salary and bonuses, control mechanisms, promotions, and appraisals. Benefits of a culture focused on performance goals are evident: it stimulates employees to be result-oriented, aligned, hardworking, and motivated. In this culture, feedback is focused on achieving performance goals. All these elements have strongly shaped organizational cultures around the world today.

A few of the less attractive, but well-known side effects of performance goals are that it tends to lead to extrinsic motivation, technocratic cultures, rigid organizations, a focus on short term results and a loss of the human dimension. Maybe the main downside is the neglect of the employee’s own development.

Learning vs Performance goals

Another way of framing your goals towards your employees is to introduce learning goals. What distinguishes a learning goal from a performance goal? The latter is for example focussed on raising sales by 20%, while the former is focused on coming up with new tactics to reach the target or developing new skills that increase the likelihood of achieving the goal. Let’s take a look at some characteristics of both.

Learning goals can invite you to try new things, which is especially interesting in open systems or innovation cultures. It focuses more on the journey than on its destination. It leads to a more flexible and adaptable organization, which helps to improve the organizations’ agility.

Advantages of learning goals

Besides the fact that learning and development is a basic human need for most people, we all know that it’s strongly linked to employee performance as well. If you acquire more skills and therefore gain confidence, you are better able to reach your goals. Organisations tend to significantly outperform their peers if they focus on learning goals: higher employee productivity (37%), better response to customer needs (34%) and more likely to have skills that meet future demand (58%)[1]. Other positive effects are that 1) it stimulates and increases employee engagement and satisfaction,  2) it enhances the ability of employees to adapt to change, 3) it develops a sense of ownership and accountability and 4) it stimulates a mindset of personal growth of the employees.

However, research outcomes[2] indicate that the impact of learning (goals) on performance is even more positive.

Employees that work with Learning goals vs Performance goals only tend to:

  • Put in more effort in their tasks.
  • Experience mistakes not as a step backwards, but a step forward.
  • Experience the success of others not as discouraging, but as part of the learning process. With this comes a natural curiosity about how they obtained this success.
  • Lead to higher innovation.
  • Challenge themselves to develop new skills and capabilities.
  • Ask more for feedback and valuate feedback of others more.

Employees that work with Performance goals only tend to:

  • Hide their shortcomings and mistakes, which inhibits them to learn from them.
  • Show the skills that they already possess. This is extra strong for people with low self-esteem. With them it can even lead to unproductive behaviours like self-defensiveness, trivializing the goals, and in the worst case fraudulent behaviours.
  • Put in just enough effort until the goal is reached.

Research of psychologist Carol Dweck stated that people that view intelligence as something that could be developed (instead of something that is set) create learning goals and use their errors to develop themselves. She found that learning goals tend to give you a stronger sense of empowerment. One condition to make it work is that failure and learning are allowed for and employees are not afraid of the negative consequences. It demands an open and transparent ‘learning orientated’ culture on the work floor.

Shifting the focus towards learning

There are a few pragmatic steps, you as a manager could take to translate performance goals into learning goals:

1. Analyse the current performance goals.
2. Translate the goals into competencies (skills, behaviours, knowledge, tactics).
3. Set learning goals together with the employee to develop competencies in their day-to-day work. If you cannot let go of all performance goals, try to at least balance them with learning goals. The learning goals invite the employees to step out of their comfort zones.
4. Incorporate these goals into your performance management cycle.
5. Evaluate the goals every working cycle or sprint.
6. Coach employees mainly on the learning goals; shield them from too much pressure on the performance goals.

If you want to change your organization towards adopting learning goals, the organizational culture has to support this as well. There are some practical guidelines to embed a learning culture as well:

  • Manage employees mainly their learning goals; protect them from pressure on the performance goals. With stimulating learning goals, managers need to possess more coaching skills to apply learning in the day-to-day activities. It is all about the shift in mindset to focus on the process instead of the results.
  • Create a working environment where employees are able to practice new skills, in situations where mistakes are allowed, experimentation is encouraged, help is asked for and employees feel safe. This way, the desired playful working climate arises where most learning takes place.
  • Introduce a continuous dialogue on learning. In meetings, try to steer the conversation at the end towards the individual learning goals of the employees. Cultivate the discussions on (personal and team) learning goals until it becomes natural. This way, employees can get feedback and support from their colleagues as well. 
  • Let employees know that they are in charge of and responsible for their own development.

If you look at all of the developments listed above, you come to think that the required competencies for a manager are slowly changing. Business and operational skills probably got you the role of a manager in the first place. However, for the next step in developing the performance of your people, a manager must become a coach.

About the authors

Arnout Leeman – Project Manager HR, Transformation & Change Management

Arnout is an experienced consultant within the field of HR and Change Management. He managed projects in highly dynamic environments in different sectors. His roles vary from designing and implementing large people & change programs, facilitating Leadership & Team development and coaching. His main conviction is that you only can create organizational value when your primary focus is on the development and engagement of your people.

Marie-Emilie de Wit – Consultant HR, Transformation & Change Management

Marie-Emilie gained experience through various projects in the Learning & Development and performance management field at different corporate companies, varying from Douwe Egberts to ING bank. During her most recent project, she got more inspired to find new ways of learning which make it easier for employees to focus on their personal development and improve their performance to they can create a unique added value within their organization.


[1] According to a study by Bersin & Associates, titled “High-Impact Learning Culture: The Best 40 Best Practices for Creating an Empowered Enterprise” (June 10, 2010)


[2] Van Dam, A. (2009). De kunst van het falen. Antwerpen: Veen Bosch & Keuning uitgevers nv.

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