Rewarding Practice not Performance

By Mary Henson, chief executive of the Agile Business Consortium | 17 July 2017

In a competitive market, organisations make recruitment choices based on what an individual could become, not just what they know. Developing people’s potential in this way is a very Agile concept, and one that can work as well for talent development as it does for product development.

It’s accepted that relevant knowledge and skills can be taught, if attributes such as commitment, interest and resilience are in place. Employment is no longer just about rewarding the performance of a fixed set of services. There is increasingly the expectation that people should be able to explore and extend their talent and capability within the context of the workplace.

Within an Agile culture, it’s ok to ‘fail’. New products are tested frequently throughout development, and are allowed to evolve based on regular and frequent feedback. Research from Dr. Robert Kegan, Professor of Professional Development at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education* suggests we should use the same principles to build on human potential, so that organisations and individuals can learn faster and stay competitive in challenging times amidst fast-paced change.

Agile approaches are designed around short cycles that allow individuals and teams to experiment, learn, and then apply that learning quickly for the benefit of the organisation. For this to be effective in developing the potential of human resources, there needs to be a culture where growth is valued above perfection. Where an organisation’s culture is built around Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’, this combines a love of learning with the support needed for individuals to achieve.

Growth mindset organisations readily embrace Agile ways. In such organisations improvement is seen as the goal, and guidance and direction from frequent feedback is welcomed. People with a growth mindset are likely to be more focused on their tasks and less distracted by the need for comparison to others. For them setbacks are more like puzzles that are a challenge to solve. This has implications for traditional methods of appraisal, which have historically tended to be an infrequent evaluation of ‘performance’ by managers whose knowledge and experience entitles them to ‘give advice’.

In a developmental culture, the very phrase ‘performance management’ seems flawed and judgemental – harking back to ‘command and control’ times where managers were employed to evaluate and drive the actions of others. Career ladders in today’s businesses are no longer tall and narrow with a clear progression path that promotes people up step by step. Organisational hierarchies are flatter and working methods more collaborative. We tend to have leaders, not managers: leaders that encourage a focus on team goals and innovative ways of working. Leaders no longer profess to have all the answers, and don’t themselves claim to be the model of excellence. The benchmark against which ‘performance’ can be measured is therefore more complex than ever, and the workplace is becoming a place to ‘practise’ and grow rather than to ‘perform’. 

In an Agile organisation, frequent and regular feedback is critical to iterative improvement. Yet Robert Kegan stresses 

whilst feedback is very powerful, it’s nature is often misunderstood and its benefits underutilised.

The human brain is built to detect errors – noticing variance is a part of our survival mechanism. So we tend to point out what people are doing wrong first, and it’s easy for people to take this personally. Receiving feedback can attack a professional’s sense of status and their autonomy, leaving them disheartened and diminished – although it may equally enhance feelings of status for the giver.

The NeuroLeadership Institute is currently researching this area. Amongst their recommendations is one simple change to improve the impact of feedback – rather than waiting for feedback to be given, employees should be encouraged to ask for it. When asking for feedback becomes an accepted part of company culture, colleagues and managers collaborate and contribute to one another’s development. Individuals stay in control, protecting their status and their autonomy. By referring to different people for feedback, any bias becomes filtered out, and the flow of feedback is regulated to match what can be absorbed at any one time.

Kegan points to the talent and productivity that’s lost in organisational cultures where it’s not ‘ok’ to fail. Cultures where a massive amount of resource is used up by people trying to work around or hide their weaknesses. In an Agile culture, people should feel able to acknowledge their weaknesses and work to improve them – as part of an iterative, collaborative development effort.

Just consider – is work a place where people go to ‘perform’ with the goal being perfection, or a place where people can ‘practise’ and grow?

*An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (Harvard Business Press), 2016


Article published in the HR Director – July 2017 issue

Republished by the Agile Business Consortium