Managers of people, listen up. This is important. I have been writing about learning agility for the last few months. If you remember, I told you in my first column that learning agility is an important factor as to whether someone is high potential, meaning that they are able to advance two or more levels above their current position. I am writing a book about applying learning agility with Warner Burke, a researcher and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Excerpts of the Insights I’ve written for the Business Journal on learning agility will be included in the book. There also will be chapters that explain how learning agility can be integrated into different human resource functions like training, performance management or succession planning.
Performance management is one of the most important of HR functions, but it’s also something many organization struggle with. Well-executed performance management programs focus 50 percent on what an employee did during the last 12 months and 50 percent on what he or she is going to do in the next 12 months. Part of what the employee is going to do in the next 12 months should include a development plan. A development plan typically includes some things the employee has already done this year that he or she is going to work on doing better next year. There are also things that the person has never done before that he or she is going to try to do. An example could be handling a negotiation with vendors to determine the services they will provide to your organization, or with a customer to determine the cost your organization will charge for its services.
Let’s say that your employee has never managed a negotiation before. In your development plan, you as the supervisor are going to send your employee to a two-day class on negotiating. Some development plans stop there, and that’s too bad. In my experience, if you don’t use skills, you lose them. To make sure this doesn’t happen, you will require that your employee conduct a negotiation with two vendors and set guidelines for what a successful outcome should look like. You will discuss how successful your employee was in these negotiations during the next performance review.
So what does this have to do with mindset? In discussing our book, Burke and I were talking about learning agility and using it in the context of performance management, and specifically development plans. He talked about learning goals versus performance goals. This made me wonder – how many managers set learning goals with their people? When I say “learning goals,” I mean goals to learn something for learning’s sake. My guess is not many people to do this.
During that discussion, Burke told me about a woman named Carol Dweck. She wrote a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. If you don’t want to read the book, then go to YouTube and search for Carol Dweck. She has several videos on the subject of mindset. A good place to start is with “Developing a Growth Mindset.”
Through her research, Dweck has determined that people fit into one of two categories: fixed or growth mindset. Dweck came upon this while working with a group of students who were working on progressively more difficult puzzles. As part of her research, Dweck was trying to understand how the students dealt with failure. There was a group of students who became energized by working on the hard puzzles and said things like, “I love a challenge.” These were the growth-mindset people. They saw failure as a gift.
As Dweck began to better understand the differences between these two groups, she came to the conclusion that the fixed mindset people believed that people are born with certain intelligence, personality and character traits. The experiences they have going forward are a confirmation of those capabilities. In contrast, people who have a growth mindset believe that the hand they were dealt is just a starting point, and that people have basic capabilities they can cultivate through effort. A person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable).
Assuming Dweck’s work is well-researched and accurate, and I believe it is, what implications does that have for managers as they try and get the best performance out of their employees? One of the systems for doing that is performance management, and specifically creating and executing a development plan for each individual.
Let’s say you have an employee who has some issues with verbal communications and cannot effectively deliver a presentation to a group. In many other ways, this person is a “star” in your organization. Let’s also assume that this person has a fixed mindset. If you set a performance goal for your employee to attend a presentation skills class and then deliver a presentation to one of the vice presidents, he or she might crumble under the perceived pressure.
Here’s another way that you could help your employee become more comfortable with speaking to groups. Let’s say that in talking to him, you learn that he is a Boy Scout den leader, and has an opportunity to present at a council-wide meeting. You could require him to attend the presentation skills class and set a learning goal for him to present at the council meeting. You could agree to discuss his presentation before and after the meeting, but not include it in his performance review. Assuming the Boy Scout presentation goes well, the two of you could agree to now set a performance goal in his next review for him to present to a high-ranking member of your organization. A year from now, this goal and presentation will be part of his review.
Using the example above, it seems clear that mindset should be another consideration for managers as they develop their employees. This approach also can potentially address the learning agility dimensions of Performance Risk Taking, Experimenting and Feedback Seeking.
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