Gaye van den Hombergh is a Director for Partners In Leadership and works with leaders to drive greater employee engagement, create accountable cultures, and deliver improved results. @Gayevdh
It's 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. You're halfway through a meeting when you realize you've been spacing out, and are completely lost. You desperately need clarification, but can't bring yourself to pause the conversation and admit you didn't understand. The meeting ends, and everyone, including you, has their assignments. You now have three days to get it (whatever "it" is) done.
This kind of scenario happens every day in organizations around the globe. Individuals aren't delivering their best work because they're afraid of how they will be perceived if they admit what they don't know. Employees waste precious time and energy managing their reputations rather than capitalizing on opportunities for professional growth that would benefit not only them, but the organization as a whole.
Wanting to look good is more than a simple human desire. At many companies, it's how employees must survive, maintain professional relationships, and move up the pay ladder. Team leaders at these companies often view gaffs or clarification questions as signs of incompetence, so employees learn to get by in silence.
The culture at these companies is one of pressure to look good at the expense of personal growth, and the entire organization suffers as a result.
To overcome this negative culture, organizations must first acknowledge the fact that we're all human, with a complete package of both strengths and weaknesses. They must create a culture that consistently celebrates employees' strengths and regularly provides constructive critique for improvement.
Radical? Yes. Impossible? No.
In their book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Robert Kegan and his colleagues advocate building an organizational culture in which employee development is "woven into the daily fabric of working life and the company's regular operations, daily routines, and conversations."
In these organizations, development isn't just something done for poor performers or high potentials. It is a valued and supported goal for every employee at every level.
These organizations create a culture of developing talent through feedback. They use all employee interactions-from meetings to hallway conversations-as opportunities for learning and professional growth.
The upside of this culture is powerful: as all people grow, the organization's results improve. Time formerly wasted trying to "look good" is now spent developing and delivering for the benefit of the individual and the organization.
A senior analyst at Bridgewater Associates, a Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO) featured in Kegan's book, describes the way such companies transform feedback into an empowering experience: "[The company] calls you on your 'bad,' but, much more than that, it basically takes the position that you can do something about this, become a better version of yourself, and when you do, we will be a better company because of it."
Obviously, this culture of ongoing feedback is a far cry from what exists in most organizations today. After a career spent hiding weaknesses and posturing for success, many people will struggle to embrace this new way of operating. Some may never get there.
The easiest way to establish this culture is from the very beginning. However, established companies can make this shift with an unwavering commitment from the top.
Begin the Change
People look at how top leaders behave. So it is up to those leaders to establish a tone that conveys that people-development is a priority for the sake of both employees and organizational results.
Here's how to get started:
- Make sure your company's core beliefs or values include development for all employees. This is an essential building block of your culture. For example, one organization we worked with established a core belief of "Talent Counts." This belief was the foundation for their steadfast commitment to invest in the development of their people. They create individual development plans aligned with employees' career goals, and feedback is becoming a regular part of their operation.
- Leadership must model the giving and receiving of both appreciative feedback that highlights strengths, and constructive feedback that facilitates growth. Actively solicit this feedback and make it safe and productive for your team to share it with you. Act on the feedback you receive, and coach others on how to follow your example.
- Reward the behaviors that contribute to this new culture of feedback. Recognize people by widely sharing stories about how they are succeeding in actively seeking and using feedback from others. One of our clients provides formal recognition through monthly gift-certificate awards for those that embrace and use feedback to make a difference.
Transitioning to a culture of feedback is far from easy, but it is invaluable for an organization and its people. The more organizations close the gap between who employees really are and how they need to show up at work, the greater the reward as skills improve, engagement grows, and results soar.