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Choices Made Under Pressure

Written by: Bill Sherman on Saturday, 1 June 2013, 2:31 PM

Your goals affect your performance. Seems simple and straight-forward, right?┬áIt’s actually more complex, because your goal orientation will impact the choices that you make, especially under pressure.

Let’s look at three individuals: Alice, Bob, and Carol. They work for the same boss and have been given the same task:

  • Alice is excited about the task, because it gives her a chance to learn new skills;
  • Bob is determined to do the task right, so that his boss notices strong performance; and
  • Carol wants to do a good enough job so that her boss doesn’t become upset.

These three individuals are assigned the same task, but they’re going to approach it very differently.

  • Alice has a mastery-orientation: she’s likely to take more risks and be open to learning from mistakes made along the way;
  • Bob has a performance-prove orientation. He wants to prove that he can perform well, so he will likely stick to things that he knows, avoiding new ideas and minimizing risk;
  • Carol has a performance-avoid orientation. She doesn’t want to be seen as a screw-up, so she will avoid any chance of risk (even if that avoidance might mean project failure).

When you think about it this way, mastery-orientation is the best mindset for learning and long-term growth. It’s where we want to be when we approach new tasks.

However, new research by James Beck and Aaron Schmidt, shows that time-pressure changes how people set their goal orientation. When people face a time-crunch, they avoid the mastery-orientation. Instead, they choose the performance-avoid orientation. (article summarized at

As life accelerates, it becomes easy to skate from project-to-project doing just enough to “get by” without making major mistakes. However, we close ourselves off to developing mastery–one of the long-term keys to success.

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