Blog · Jul 18, 2013

Focusing on Performance Rather than the Results: why does it Matter?

Over the last few weeks we at Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? have been thinking about performance and trying to apply a performance focus rather than a results focus to all the work that we do for ourselves and with our clients. Of course results matter, but by focusing on the performance and the process we believe the rest will come. But is that really the case? In business we’re given so many targets and deadlines, surely we have to focus on the results sometimes? And equally in sport, hasn’t Murray had his heart set on winning Wimbledon since he was a boy? What are the implications of focusing on either performance or results? I am going to explore these questions briefly now.

When setting goals, by choosing to focus on either results or performance can have large implications on many things, but the area I am going to look at here is the effect it has on an individual’s motivation. One theory of motivation, Self Determination Theory, proposes that we, as humans, will be motivated if we have 3 basic needs fulfilled; Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. Competence is often called ‘ability’ too and refers to the feeling that you are ‘good’ at something, the feeling of success and satisfaction. Autonomy refers to having control over your own destiny and relatedness is the need we have to feel related to others around us, the need to have a common cause. Goal-setting has typically been framed around the need we all have for the first basic need, Competence.  If we set a goal and complete it, we feel competent and if we feel competent we are much more likely to feel motivated. So, how we define competence and what we focus on in our goals is critical in determining how we feel about our ability, success and the satisfaction we have in performing goal-related tasks, and ultimately will affect our motivation.

Research around goal-setting and achievement motivation has typically focused on two approaches to competence, a task perspective and an ego perspective. A task perspective is when a goal is approached with a mastery or self-referenced focus and involves demonstrating competence through personal improvement. On the contrary, an ego perspective is when the goal is approached with a comparative focus and involves demonstrating competency by showing superior ability to others (or equal ability with less effort). So, basically in our language, if you focus on your performance then you will judge your competence and ability against yourself, you’ll feel motivated and satisfied when you improve. If you just focus on results, which has been shown to link a great deal to an ego perspective, you’ll compare yourself to others and you’ll only feel competent if you meet your targets or perform better than others. Now if you are hitting your targets and achieving superior results to your peers then that is fine, but if you start missing targets and under-performing in comparison to peers you may experience motivational problems. People often link their self-worth and esteem to their feelings of competence, so this isn’t a good situation to be in when you consider that how other people perform is completely outside of our control.

How does this pan out in a real scenario? Ben sometimes speaks about a time when he was lacking motivation and confidence and he links it to a time where he was also constantly comparing his results to other rowers in the GB team e.g. Redgrave and Pinsent. If you spend all of your time comparing yourself and your results with others, especially others who are ridiculously good at what they do, this is going to have an impact on how you feel about yourself. In the latter years of Ben’s rowing career, when they had changed their approach, he realised that it was no good comparing himself to others as it wasn’t relevant to his own performance. Effectively, it wouldn’t make the boat go faster so he stopped doing it and started focusing on his own performance and self-referencing his improvement – something that was much more within his control.

One study found some interesting results when looking at the differing outcomes of the two approaches to competence. They looked at how the individuals with the different approaches responded when they ‘failed’ the task they were set:


Task perspective


Ego perspective
Attributing failure to insufficient effort Attributing failure to insufficient ability
Continued positive affect and expectancy Onset of negative affect and expectancy
Sustained or enhanced persistence and performance Decrements in persistence and performance
Pursuit of subsequent challenge Avoidance of subsequent challenge


So, as you can see there are some definite advantages to taking a task approach to an achievement situation. An individual that takes a task approach or a focus on performance is more likely to attribute their failure to insufficient effort and continue to work hard and with persistence when faced with another challenge. However, the ego approach resulted in individuals attributing their failure to a lack of ability and hence expected to fail next time and so stopped trying.

  • How often do you compare your own ability and results to other people at work?
  • How often do you have markers of self-referenced improvement for yourself, for your own performances?
  • How could you adopt a more task-oriented approach?

Although there are many advantages to a task perspective when it comes to motivation and confidence, it must be said that neither approach really is ‘better’ than the other and actually both can lead to high motivation and excellent performance. In fact, many elite performers utilise both approaches and, crucially, know when to apply each perspective in different situations to make the most out of their performance.

In conclusion, there is a time and a place for both a results and a performance focus, but it is definitely dangerous territory to have a high results and ego perspective when combined with low confidence – that is when motivational difficulties can arise. The best performers, however, know when to apply either an ego or a task perspective and their associated goals in different situations to stay optimally motivated. It is fine to be competitive against your co-workers, it might help you raise your game, but when you’re not ‘beating’ others have you got the ability to change your focus to self-improvement? Next time we’ll look a bit more at a results and ego approach, but for now consider:

  • In what situations does focusing on performance bring out the best in you?
  • When does focusing on results or being competitive help you?
  • How can you begin to apply a more performance orientated approach?
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