When Learning and Performance are at Odds: Confronting the Tension

by Sara J. Singer & Amy C. Edmondson

Overview — While most people agree that learning leads to improved performance, there are several ways in which learning and performance in organizations can be at odds. First, when organizations take on a new learning challenge, performance often suffers in the short term, because new behaviors or practices are not yet highly skilled. Second, by revealing and analyzing their failures and mistakes—a critical aspect of learning—individuals or work groups may appear to be performing less well than they would otherwise. This paper reviews research that describes the challenges of learning from failure in organizations, and argues that these challenges can be at least partly addressed by leadership that creates a climate of psychological safety and that promotes inquiry. Key concepts include:

  • In organizations, the costs of learning may at times be more visible than the benefits. Therefore, leaders must publicize this idea broadly, or else learning may not happen.
  • Experimentation, by its nature, will inevitably result in failures; yet without these failures learning cannot occur.
  • Leadership is essential for fostering the mindset, group behaviors, and organizational investments that promote learning now and invest in performance later.

Author Abstract

This chapter explores complexities of the relationship between learning and performance. We start with the general proposition that learning promotes performance, and then describe several challenges for researchers and managers who wish to study or promote learning in support of performance improvement. We also review psychological and interpersonal risks of learning behavior, suggest conditions under which exploratory learning and experimentation is most critical, and describe conditions and leader behaviors conducive to supporting this kind of learning in organizations. We illustrate our ideas with examples from field studies across numerous industry contexts, and conclude with a discussion of implications of this complex relationship for performance management.

Paper Information