Gerard Beenen

What can managers do to resolve the learning-performance tension in short-term, high impact work assignments?


A tension between learning and performance emerges when people need to do both in a short amount of time. For example, learning can be difficult when people are under pressure to perform. Conversely, performance can be impaired when people are under pressure to learn. This tension between learning and performance has been framed as exploration vs. exploitation (March, 1991), CEO experience vs. firm performance (e.g., Henderson, Miller & Hambrick, 2006), and learning vs. performance achievement goals (e.g., Kozlowski & Bell, 2006).


My research examines the dynamics of this tension in settings where people have a lot of responsibility and a short amount of time (e.g., professional internships, interim managers, contingent workers). I focus on questions such as: How can people both learn and perform in a new setting with limited time? How does individual motivation and organizational context influence this process? What role do manager-subordinate relationships play? Under what conditions is it counterproductive to pursue both learning and performance? These questions have received relatively little attention in organizational research. I address them with several related research streams.


1. Learning and performance in short-term jobs


This stream is based on a series of longitudinal field studies that contributed to my dissertation, and that were funded by the Graduate Management Admissions Council. My dissertation examines how people both learn and perform in short-term work assignments when they have a lot of responsibility but lack experience. I developed and tested a model to explain how a combination of goal orientations and organizational factors help short-term workers both learn and perform. Prior research shows only learning goals are adaptive (Payne, Youngcourt & Beaubien, 2007). I argue and find support for the view that both learning and performance goals are adaptive for short-term workers.


2. Learning and performance in leader-member dyads


I also am studying how the quality of supervisor-subordinate relationships impact subordinate learning and performance in short-term work assignments. One project examines the independent and interdependent effects of subordinate and supervisor achievement goal orientations on subordinate learning and performance. Another investigates how autonomy supportive exchanges (Ryan & Deci, 2000) between managers and subordinates influence subordinatesí skill development. Down the road, I am interested in understanding how subordinate feedback can help managers become more effective leaders.


3. Organizational learning contracts


Another stream investigates how the individual-organizational relationship affects learning. Organizational learning contracts are a particular kind of psychological contract (Rousseau, 1995) covering individual and organizational expectations about what should be learned, and how learning should occur and be evaluated (Goodman & Beenen, In press). In an NSF-funded study, we examine the role of organizational learning contracts in new and established universities. This study answers the question: What are the relevant principles for designing or redesigning a university? Our next focus is to understand how learning contracts translate into performance gains in the studentís work settings. Learning contracts also are relevant to a broader set of organizations beyond universities.