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The school year has started once again. Summer vacations are winding down and the “work” season is upon us. Regardless if you are a parent, student, or teacher or anyone else, you are probably setting goals for the months ahead that likely include some type of performance targets. Maybe you want to get to work on time every day, perhaps you committed to earning higher grades than last year, or you strive to be crowned “Employee of the Month.” If you have health and fitness priorities, you may want to exercise more, run a faster mile, or drop some weight. When it comes to setting goals, your actual objectives can be anything you choose. However, what often matters just as much as the goal you set is how you determine the goal targets and what factors you consider when determining your performance standards. In other words, how do you define “success” in goal achievement?
Three strategies with varying consequences
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People usually set goals and determine performance standards using one of three methods. One option is evaluating your anticipated outcomes in comparison to your own past performance on the same or similar task. The self-comparison method means using objective data to measure progress. Earning a better course grade or receiving a higher annual performance ranking than in the past are common examples. More precise measures would include metrics such as how fast you run a mile, the amount of time needed to complete a project, or the amount of a salary increase.
The self-comparative method of goal setting is preferential to the other methods described below and more motivating because your incremental progress and surpassing your own past achievement is the barometer of success. In turn, the perception of progress heightens our awareness to the details of the task and helps generate internal feedback, which is used to adjust our performance when needed. A very simple example of feedback would be changing our style of delivery when proposing ideas to others. If we positively assess the attention and engagement of our audience and feel confident about making points, we will continue with the same or similar approach. If we perceive difficulty getting our points across, we can shift gears and try an alternative approach. In addition, the conscious awareness of task progress is one hallmark of the most successful performers (Wigfield & Eccles, 2001). Perhaps even more importantly, when performance is thought to be improving, positive emotion is generated that ultimately enhances task motivation and helps the individual be more resilient and persevere when encountering task obstacles.
The second option for establishing performance goals, and almost equally effective for performance motivation, is calibrating your performance against a criterion standard. While the range of standards you might choose is infinite, many of the goals we set and tasks we attempt are geared toward established “benchmarks. These targets are usually mutually agreed upon standards of acceptability needed to demonstrate competence or to determine the cultural suitability of an outcome. For instance, speed limit is a culturally-nuanced criterion standard designed to provide a high probability of driving success (which usually means being accident- and citation-free). While we could hypothetically set our own speed standards, our culture and scientific research suggest that 25 mph is a safe speed for local streets, while the standard for freeway driving is much higher.
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Similar criterion standards exist for professional competencies such as certification exams and passing rates to be awarded the title of doctor, lawyer, or a certified public accountant (CPA). It doesn’t matter how many people reach the passing threshold, as long as the required competencies are achieved. Setting criterion standards is almost as effective to motivate performance as self-referent comparisons because the targets are usually collectively determined based upon past results of successful individuals. When the standard is met or exceeded, competence is assumed, resulting in the generation of positive emotions based on the accomplishment. Unlike self-comparison however, criterion standards remove the perception of two critical motivators: autonomy and choice. Motivation and effort toward the task may be diminished because we perceive lack of control in determining the criterion standard, and instead may feel handicapped by the standard or goal itself.
The third method of determining performance targets is social comparison. This method is highly common, but most problematic. The social comparison view suggests individuals develop performance targets based upon comparisons to significant others. When people use social comparison they identify a specific person or group of people as the metric to benchmark their own performance. The colloquial “keeping up with the Joneses” best describes the social comparison motive. Thinking that you need to make more money than a coworker or need to buy a more expensive car than a friend or relative are two of the many examples of how we often compare what we want and need to what others achieve. This comparison approach, often labeled as “normative,” diminishes the emphasis on performing up to a particular standard but rather allows the individual to designate a familiar target to which the individual aspires and believes he or she is capable of achieving.
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There are three reasons individuals may opt for the social comparison method. First, individuals may not have sufficient experience or past performance or may lack available or understandable information to make informed comparisons with a mastery standard. Second, individuals may be highly motivated to make positive comparisons with others as a means of attaining a self-serving ego boost (Wheeler & Suls, 2005). Individuals may either strive toward besting the performance of a rival or protecting themselves from deflating consequences and humility by avoiding the performance of a task failed by someone else. Surprisingly, during self-evaluations individuals display significantly greater motivation to avoid being perceived as a failure than being recognized for their successes (Marsh, Trautwein, Ludtke, Baumert, & Koller, 2007). A third viable explanation for person-to-person appraisals suggests that social comparison fosters positive self-evaluation and serves as a way to validate personal capabilities against societal norms (Buunk, Groothof, & Siero, 2007).
From a beneficial perspective, social comparison can enhance productivity and personal ability perceptions. Organizationally, social comparisons serve as a barometer to calibrate and justify leadership styles, set performance standards, and establish organizational norms for social behavior (Greenberg, Ashton-James, & Ashkanasy, 2007), which subsequently helps individuals successfully assimilate within an organizational culture. In school, many social comparisons are motivated by the desire to fit in with emerging peer groups, which potentially contributes to affirming positive self-images based upon group inclusion. The surprising thing is that most people don’t often consciously think about which comparison method they use to determine performance targets. Often we habitually default to comparisons of familiarity, which are most likely with other people we know, or those we prefer to avoid being compared!
Social comparisons are broadly categorized as either upward or downward in trajectory. Upward comparisons can provide useful information for positive self-enhancement (Mussweiler, Gabriel, & Bodenhausen, 2000), suggesting that the individual is motivated by self-improvement, enticed by the prospect of attaining the skills and abilities of a viable and respected behavioral model, and perceived to have similar characteristics to the individual (Buunk et al., 2007). Upward comparisons are better for motivation because the individual strives to improve, such as when academically aspiring to earn better grades or to master content. Upward comparisons are more productive when undertaken anonymously, as individuals are able to physically insulate themselves from the evaluation of others, who, if physically present, may potentially ascribe skill deficits or inferior ability to the individual (Ybema & Buunk, 1993).
Downward comparisons are self-protective and are typically undertaken by individuals lacking the necessary confidence to make upward comparisons, by persons with lower levels of self-esteem, and by those who are worried about what others think of them. Individuals with a downward comparison trajectory tend to have inflated perceptions of their subjective well-being because they believe they are better off in comparison with others. The downward comparisons feels good to many individuals because of the presumption that others are more disadvantaged than the individual making the downward comparison. Ultimately, the feeling of superiority enhances the self-esteem of the person who feels superior. The phenomenon of downward comparison is especially striking for individuals suffering health complications (Tennen, McKee, & Affleck, 2000). For instance, individuals who perceive themselves as better off than someone else (or who believe that someone else is more ill), independent of physical disability, report higher overall subjective well-being (Buunk et al., 2007) and have greater reductions in the severity of health problems following cancer (Eiser & Eiser, 2000).
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The biggest concern about social comparison is the impact on evaluations of overall self-worth, which are impressions based upon how we see ourselves in the eyes of others. Individuals frequently base their self-evaluations on their perceived degree of fit and alignment with significant others and people they respect. Individuals will tend to appraise their degree of competence not entirely based upon actual ability and knowledge, but will instead make evaluations based upon the presumed capabilities others ascribe to the individual. The perspective of others can inhibit approach motivation as individuals will naturally tend to seek out environments that generate positive self-evaluations, which, in turn, promotes improved perceptions of self-worth, but avoid tasks and situations where self-worth is vulnerable. This is one reason why we don’t take classes we think we might fail, and usually avoid activities and projects that don't showcase our expertise. The environmental restructuring as a result of negative self-worth evaluations is often found to be a primary reason why students may avoid school, and why some workers disengage from their jobs.
Academic and workplace performance arenas are high-stakes and competitive for many individuals. As a personal motive, the perception of positive self-worth alone can be a catalyst directing individuals toward performance tasks for which they have a probability of being successful while steering clear of those targets deemed overly challenging or having a high probability of failure. When individuals believe they will compare favorably with others, which usually happens when a task is perceived as easy or is well-learned, the prospect of competition will boost performance. Favorable comparisons elevate self-worth and energize the performer through associating positive affect with the process of reaching performance goals. Individuals see themselves as “winners,” ultimately enhancing intrinsic motivation and feelings of competency and pride. Conversely, competition will inhibit goal attainment and interfere with reaching performance targets when a person believes he or she compares unfavorably with others, which typically happens when tasks are perceived as overly complex, or when novice self-perceptions prevail. The dubious individual who questions personal competency may likely feel like a victim of circumstance, overmatched and faced with the precarious prospect of real or imagined impending failure. Lack of positive outcomes is attributed to personally inferior skills or to the superior ability of others, often impeding intrinsic interest and undermining the will to compete.
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In the end, we have a choice regarding how we establish our performance goals. When possible, we should strive toward bettering our past performance and understanding which strategies accelerate our success and the attainment of our desired outcomes. A focus on our own behavior, and less fixation on the evaluation of our efforts by others, shifts attention to factors that are within our control and provides the opportunity to do things differently and enhance the probability of a successful outcome the next time around. When fixating on what others think and adapting a social comparison motive, we tend to get distracted from strategy improvement and focus more narrowly on the consequences of our efforts. Social comparison motives often contribute to rumination and generating negative emotions based on the speculated impressions and thoughts of others, something that we cannot control. Sadly, the difference between personal perceptions of success and failure is often not made on outcomes alone, but instead based on the perception of what we accomplish and our own personal definition of success.
For more information on learning, motivation, teaching, and performance follow Dr. Hoffman on Twitter @ifoundmo. His latest book "Motivation for Learning and Performance" outlines dozens of researched-based work improvement strategies.
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Greenberg, J., Ashton-James, C. E., & Ashkanasy, N. M. (2007). Social comparison processes in organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(1), 22–41. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.09.006.
Marsh, H., Trautwein, U., Ludtke, O., Baumert, J., & Koller, O. (2007). The big-fish-little-pond effect: Persistent negative effects of selective high schools on self-concept after graduation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(3), 631–669.
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Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2001). Introduction. In A. Wigfield & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 1–11). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Ybema, J. F., & Buunk, B. P. (1993). Aiming at the top? Upward social comparison of abilities after failure. European Journal of Social Psychology, 23(6), 627–645.