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Employees seek challenging experiences in their job in order to develop their skills. It is no surprise then, that many people are looking for challenge. According to the results of a new study, led by organisational psychologist Roy Sijbom, challenging job experiences can be meaningfully distinguished into challenges that are more publicly visible and those that are more private in nature. The willingness to perform these challenging job experiences is driven by our specific personal goals. Organisations seeking to retain talented staff would thus do best to tailor the nature of challenging tasks to employees' goals.

woman giving presentation

Challenging job experiences offer us an opportunity to develop our skills and rise up the ranks of our organisation. While challenging work experiences are an effective way of retaining talented staff, 'we must also take account of the various types of challenges, and the individual motivations of our employees', according to organisational psychologist Roy Sijbom.

Challenging job experiences

The study on challenging job experiences was centred on two key questions: (1) can we identify different 'types' of challenging experiences, and (2) are employees' personal goals a determining factor in the challenges they take on? The researchers contacted employees at various organisations through LinkedIn and other professional platforms, and asked them to answer questions on their personal goals and challenging work experiences at various measurement moments. This helped the team resolve the two central questions.

Private versus public challenging job experiences

Challenging job experiences are best described as experiences that involve solving unusual problems, overcoming difficult challenges and/or taking high-risk decisions. This includes 'holding a presentation on behalf of your organisation' and 'handling relatively new and unfamiliar tasks'. While both challenging experiences involve a certain degree of complexity and offer opportunities for personal development, they also differ in key aspects. The first task, holding a presentation, is publicly visible and clearly defined. The second, handling relatively new and unfamiliar tasks, is less visible to others and less clearly defined.

Different challenges, different goals

'Our research underlines the value of distinguishing between, what we call,  public and private challenging job experiences', Sijbom explains. This is relevant, because employees may be striving towards different goals. For example, employees may be striving to improve and develop themselves (mastery-approach goals), or demonstrate competences to others (performance-approach goals).

Sijbom: 'Our study assessed these various goal types and their relationship with challenging job experiences they execute. As it turns out, the employees that were highly focused on mastery-approach goals wanted both public and private challenges. After all, these challenges offer an opportunity for personal development. Employees that were more focused on performance-approach goals exclusively sought public challenges.'

Positive assessments of others

According to Sijbom, the explanation is simple: 'Public challenges offer employees the opportunity to demonstrate their competences and gain the approval of others (e.g. managers or other co-workers). Moreover, public challenging job experiences are clearly defined, allowing the employees to prepare and practice effectively. This increases the chances of success.'

Offering challenging job experiences

Challenging job experiences offer employees an opportunity for personal development and growth. Providing such challenges should therefore be a key priority for any organisation seeking to retain talented staff. In doing so, the organisation should take account of employees' individual goals and adjust the challenging job experiences they offer.

Publication details

R.B.L. Sijbom, B. Carette, & N.G. Dimitrova: Are All Challenges Equal? Goal Orientations and their Relationship with Private and Public Challenging Job Experiences' in: Journal of Personnel Psychology, (2020), 19, pp. 33-43.

dr. R.B.L. (Roy) Sijbom

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Work and Organizational Psychology