Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Cost of Overemphasizing Measurement and Achievement

The Gifted Leaders March 2009 e-Newsletter by Jeff Thoren, DVM, ACC focuses on the unintended negative consequences of focusing too much on goals, measurable outcomes, and achievement. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately and loved this so much, I am passing it forward. Thanks Jeff.

Many educational and business environments emphasize the importance of performance, results, achievement, and success. All good things, right? But is it possible that when we focus so much on how well we're doing that we lose intrinsic interest in what we're doing?

Common sense suggests we should figure out what our goals are, then check in periodically to see how successful we have been at meeting them. Assessment thus would be an unobtrusive servant of our achievement. In education, assessment is employed in an attempt to motivate students (with grades used as carrots and sticks to coerce them into working harder) or, as with standardized testing, to sort students (the point being not to help everyone learn but to figure out who is better than whom).

If we are truly interested in collecting information that will enhance the quality of learning, then traditional report cards and standardized testing are destined to disappoint us. Grades by their very nature undermine learning. Too many students have been led to believe that getting A's, not learning, is the point of going to school. And standardized tests are associated with a whole host of consequences.

And as business leaders, we must also ask, "what price are we paying for our love affair with measuring results in the workplace?"

Here's this month's feature ...

The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement
By Alfie Kohn

School Administrator - November 1999

Highlights from the article:

There is a fundamental distinction between focusing on how well you're doing something and focusing on what you're doing. The two orientations aren't mutually exclusive, of course, but in practice they feel different and lead to different behaviors.

Consider a school or a business that constantly emphasizes the importance of performance! Results! Achievement! Success! A student or employee who has absorbed that message may find it difficult to get swept away with the process of creating or innovating (i.e. learning). He may be so concerned about the results that he's not all that engaged in the activity that produces those results.

Kohn presents five disturbing consequences that are likely to accompany the obsession with standards and achievement in an academic setting. If you are a manager or business owner who focuses a lot on setting goals and measuring results, where do you see these showing up in your workplace?

Students come to regard learning as a chore. When kids are encouraged constantly to think about how well they're doing in school, the first casualty is their attitude toward learning. As motivation to get good grades goes up, motivation to explore ideas tends to go down. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation tend to be inversely related: the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

Students try to avoid challenging tasks. If the point is to succeed rather than to stretch one's thinking or discover new ideas, then it is completely logical for a student to want to do whatever is easiest. That, after all, will maximize the probability of success - or at least minimize the probability of failure. It's convenient for us to assume that kids who cut corners are just being lazy because then it's the kids who have to be fixed. But perhaps they're just being rational. They have adapted to an environment where results, not intellectual exploration, are what count.

Students tend to think less deeply. The goal of some students is to acquire new skills, to find out about the world, to understand what they're doing. When they pick up a book, they're thinking about what they're reading, not about how well they're reading it. Paradoxically, these students who have put success out of their minds are likely to be successful. By contrast, students who have been led to focus on producing the right answer or scoring well on a test tend to think more superficially. One study after another shows that creativity and even long-term recall of facts are adversely affected by the use of traditional grades.

Students may fall apart when they fail. No one succeeds all the time, and no one can learn very effectively without making mistakes and bumping up against his or her limits. It's important, therefore, to encourage a healthy and resilient attitude toward failure. As a rule, that is exactly what students tend to have if their main goal is to learn: when they do something incorrectly, they see the result as useful information. They figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Not so for the kids who believe (often because they have been explicitly told) that the point is to succeed - or even to do better than everyone else. When the point isn't to figure things out but to prove how good you are, it's often hard to cope with being less than good.

Students value ability more than effort. When students are led to focus on how well they are performing in school, they tend to explain their performance not by how hard they tried but by how smart they are. And the more that teachers emphasize getting good grades, avoiding mistakes and keeping up with everyone else, the more students tend to attribute poor performance to factors they thought were outside their control, such as a lack of ability.

"An overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of excellence." - Martin Maehr and Carol Midgley at the University of Michigan

For the full text article, go to ...

Goals Gone Wild: How Goal Setting Can Lead to Disaster

Consider some recent findings on the consequences of overemphasizing achievement ...

New research by Wharton Business School professor Maurice Schweitzer and three colleagues documents the potential hazards of setting goals. In pursuit of corporate mandates, employees will sometimes ignore sound business practices, risk the company's reputation and violate ethical standards.

This lesson, however, has not been absorbed by corporate America. To the contrary, ambitious goal setting has become endemic in American business practice and scholarship over the last half-century. It's possible, though, that corporate goal setting can cause more harm than good.

Schweitzer believes the practice of goal setting is greatly overused. He argues that, "there are some contexts where goal setting is appropriate, such as when tasks are routine, easy to monitor and very easy to measure." In practice, there are a series of potential problems linked to the misuse of goal setting.

Goal setting may be unnecessary in many cases. Research has shown that employees have a stronger intrinsic motivation to do a good job than their managers tend to give them credit for. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that says, "what gets measured, gets done."

Schweitzer and his colleagues advise, "Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for students of management, experts need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision."

Read more ...

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