The drive to want to perform well, and preferably better than others, can be a very positive trait for managers. So it’s smart to include it in the selection. However, sometimes this performance drive can also work against achieving performance. This is particularly the case in team settings. Research has shown that a strong ‘we’ feeling in the team determines whether performance-drivenness has a positive or negative impact on performance.
Performance-driven people perform better
In the HR literature we know the concept of “Performance Goal Orientation” (PGO), freely translated as performance drive, or a drive to prove. PBO is a focus on wanting to outperform others. Scientists agree that the higher one’s PGO, the higher his/her individual performance tends to be. However, in practice we also often see that a high PGO causes people to perform worse. Research published in the leading Journal of Applied Psychology provides an explanation for this paradox (Dietz, van Knippenberg, Hirst and Restubug, 2015).
The problem: team goals
Performance Goal Orientation (PBO) has a strong motivational potential that stems from people’s natural tendency to compare themselves to others. Wanting to outperform others then becomes a driving force and forms a strong motivation to perform well. In practice, however, there is a complicating factor: professionals usually work in teams with shared team goals. A high PBL can become problematic in these team settings and lead to people actually performing worse. This, it turns out, is because for people with high PGO, the members of the team are the ‘competition’ in that case.
The solution: We feeling
Since most organizations are strongly team-based and performance-driven is a common manager selection criterion, it is important to understand when Performance Goal Orientation helps rather than hinders PBO. Here, a key variable proved to make the difference: shared team identification (GTI), freely translated as the team’s “we feeling.”
Social identification, or how people define themselves as members of a group, influences how people compare themselves to others (Tafjel and Turner 1986). As a result, who people with high PGO compare themselves to depends on their personal social identification. The we-feeling in the team is very important in this because it appears to determine whether people see other teams, or rather other individuals in their own team, as relevant competition. If a team has a high we feeling, the team shares a unity. The “we feeling” fuels comparison with other teams. Conversely, if the we feeling is low, it is not other teams but rather the teammates on the team who are the benchmark with whom one compares.
The study showed that a we feeling has a channeling effect on people’s PBM. Members of a team with a high GTI see teammates as members of an inclusive “we. As a result, team members are no longer seen as targets for competition. The sense of we shifts the priority from individuals to the performance of the team as a whole, and PGO is channeled toward other teams. Although PGO is a person characteristic, it can also be a team characteristic. In that case, we look at the average PGO score of a team and refer to it as TPGO. Teams with high TPGO perform much better with a strong we feeling, but a high TPGO actually works against them with a low we-feeling.
Combine TPGO with we-feeling
The research showed that when there is a high we feeling, individual goals take a back seat and team goals come first. Thus, the we feeling channels performance drive: toward team performance when there is a high we feeling, and toward individual performance when there is a low we feeling. The more an individual identifies as part of a team, the less important individual goals become, but the more important team goals become and outperforming other teams also becomes.
As a leader, it is important to understand how PBM works. Especially in organizations that are highly team-based. Teams with high PGO benefit significantly more from their drive when there is also a strong we feeling in the team. Creating a strong TPGO and a strong we feeling at the same time should therefore be a priority.
Leaders could stimulate the we feeling in a general sense by emphasizing the value of the collective and encouraging thinking from the “we” as a norm. Specifically, think about defining joint responsibilities, giving recognition to collective achievements, and de-stimulating subgroup formation, and providing joint team feedback.