What to do when Working Harder Doesn’t Work

Mary feels like a caged animal. Barry, her inexperienced manager, just set a goal of increasing her production by 15%. She already works overtime!

Mary asks, “What do you suggest I stop doing? I already work overtime. What new resources are you willing to provide?”

Barry concludes Mary is resistant.

All Mary wants to do is succeed.

in challenging environments those who learn and apply new ideas win.png

Mary’s sincere questions confused Barry. He ended the meeting. The topic never came up again.

A pushy manager would have said, “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done.”

Barry might have succeeded if he set learning goals along with performance goals.

(The story is true. The names aren’t.)

Performance goals:

  1. Clarify focus. A good goal tells you what matters now.
  2. Increase frequency.
  3. Elevate energy
  4. Eliminate distraction.
  5. Enhance endurance.

Set high performance goals when:

  1. Skills have been developed.
  2. Strategy is clear.
  3. Processes are tested.
  4. Innovation isn’t necessary.

Learning goals:

Learning goals focus on discovering new ways to achieve desired results.

Set high learning goals when:

  1. Innovation is required.
  2. Managers are inexperienced.
  3. Teams are newly formed.
  4. Employees are new.
  5. Systems and processes are untested.

Focus learning goals on behaviors that deliver results in new ways.


  1. Develop three new strategies to find 15% more clients this quarter.
  2. What four things could we try to increase efficiency by 2% this month?
  3. Create three ways our virtual teams might communicate and connect this week, that we aren’t already doing.


  1. Focus on learning when launching into new areas.
  2. Set deadlines.
  3. Seek constant feedback.
  4. Evaluate results. Learn what doesn’t work; embrace what does. If everything works, you didn’t try enough stuff.
  5. Highlight learning. “What have we learned this week?”

Leaders who value improvement and innovation set high learning goals.

When working harder doesn’t work, try learning.

What might a high learning goal look like in your context?

**This post is inspired by, “Learning versus performance goals: When should each be used?” Thanks to Joe McBreen for sending it to me.