Process and Outcome Goal Orientations in Conflict Situations: The Importance of Framing
by Tal Y. Katz and Caryn J. Block
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Process and Outcome Goal Orientations in Conflict Situations: The Importance of Framing" in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000, pp. 279-288.
The authors argue that a person's goal orientation has significant implications for their behavior in conflict situations, and for the likelihood of a constructive resolution. They suggest ways to encourage parties to adopt productive goal orientations.
Generally, people interpret, or "frame", a situation either as requiring some performance, or as an opportunity to learn. People who think of a situation as a learning opportunity tend to focus on process, and on gaining competency. They show more enthusiasm and effort for their tasks. They seek out new challenges, and view failure as another opportunity to learn. People who think of a situation in terms of their performance tend to focus on outcomes, and on how their performance will be judged. They show challenge avoidance and learned-helplessness due to fear of failure, since failure is viewed as a lack of personal worth.
Various factors influence a person's goal orientation. The organizational setting may favor one orientation over another. Receiving comparative feedback on a task tends to shift a person toward the outcome orientation. Information on how much a person has improved encourages the process orientation. People who think of their abilities as fixed talents tend to adopt an outcome orientation. People who think abilities can be cultivated and improved tend to adopt a process orientation. Similarly, people who think of positions as fixed tend toward an outcome orientation, while people who think of positions as malleable tend toward a process orientation.
These orientations have significant impacts on people's conflict behavior. Outcome oriented parties tend to focus on positions, often becoming increasingly locked in to one position. Process oriented parties tend to focus on finding the best negotiation strategy to resolve the conflict. Hence, the process orientation is more likely to result in constructive conflict resolution. Process oriented behaviors tend to be beneficial in conflict situations. Process oriented people have more positive feelings for the conflict situation, invest more effort into resolution, and are more likely to take risks and make goodwill gestures. Outcome oriented behaviors tend to be maladaptive in conflict situations. They avoid challenges or risks and focus on their own positions to the exclusion of the other party. Process oriented negotiators view negative feedback as an opportunity to revise and improve their negotiation strategy. Outcome oriented negotiators tend to take negative feedback personally, as showing their lack of ability. Negative feedback threatens their self-esteem, making them anxious and reducing cognitive flexibility.
The authors identify several factors that influence choice of orientation in conflict situations. First, the conflict setting itself may emphasize outcomes, or processes. Conflict situations that emphasize party outcomes should be reframed, either by the parties or with the help of a mediator, to focus instead on processes such as developing common ground, mutual understanding, trust and empowerment. Parties and mediators can influence goal orientation by the types of feedback they offer. They can also encourage adoption of the process orientation by stressing that positions are malleable and flexible.