A senior manager responsible for a development program for 1,400 customer service (CS) representatives used the following approach to performance improvement:
- Conducted an organizational assessment to define the current and desired future states.
- Converted this analysis into a list of 14 critical “competencies.”
- Created an online individual “skills” assessment that examined each CS person’s competencies and identified “areas needing improvement.”
- Developed online and instructor-led courses to “train” the areas needing improvement.
- Required managers to use a learning management system to review the results of the assessment and monitor participation in the training.
- Promised rewards to those who followed the program while “performance management” was implied for those who did not follow it.
While these are commonly accepted practices, significant advances in research about human learning and organizational change are showing that the core of this model--assessments and competencies--may actually be detrimental to the improvement of organizational performance. This science suggests that, at the level of human brain function, models of change that rely on assessments and competencies produce undesirable results. This research also suggests new “affirmative” methodologies for performance improvement that are in keeping with training’s core values of helping others and have proven effective in hundreds of organizations.
Assessments Wire Negative Neural Patterns
Jeff Schwartz and Sharon Begley, in their seminal book on neuroscience, The Mind and The Brain, report that the most fundamental building block of learning is the principle of “neurons that fire together wire together.” All learning is the development of linkages between neurons and the packing of neurons closely together. Neurons pack together—and learning occurs?through mental repetition of key ideas. For example, do you remember writing out your times tables in your early math classes? The mental repetition wires the behavior.
Since most assessments include identifying individual and organizational deficits, they are inherently focusing on what someone is doing wrong, which means they drive individual and collective mental rehearsing of the undesirable attitudes and behaviors. This repetitive, negative mental focus packs neurons around the undesirable attitudes and behaviors, making them stronger and harder to change.
Furthermore, David Rock, in Your Brain at Work, presents studies that show that the “constructive feedback” usually associated with individual skills assessments causes the release of neural chemicals associated with “fight or flight.” When people are given feedback about what they are doing wrong, particularly if done by a manager, social status is decreased, provoking a fear reaction. Most of us have experienced this effect when we receive our own “constructive” feedback. It rarely feels very constructive.
In short, neuroscience suggests that assessments reinforce the wrong things and increase resistance to learning the desired outcomes.
Competencies Miss Passion
Similar issues exist with competencies. The basic premise of competencies is that all functions can be reduced to a defined set of capabilities that can be discretely identified, completely described, and addressed through some sort of training or coaching.
However, the notion of competencies as a set of specific, independent skills seems to be in conflict with recent research on motivation and learning. Research on positive deviants by Richard Pascale, Gerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin in The Power of Positive Deviance, and on motivation by Daniel Pink in DRiVE, indicates that holism of “purpose” around creation of a greater social good is the most powerful motivator for all top performance. These intangibles?holism and the social commitment?are the foundation of all long-term high performance.
In contrast, most competencies focus on what is observable and tangible and omit intangibles. For example, while the team described in the introduction was building their list of 14 competencies, another program that focused on gathering expertise from top performers ran in parallel. The top performers indicated that the single most important attribute of CS success is a passionate commitment to providing clients with a greater social good from their products and services. None of the competencies were related to the passionate commitment or the creation of a greater good for the end client. The competencies completely missed what the experts said was most important.
In addition, competency analyses usually produce a lengthy list of competencies that have to be processed simultaneously during the assessment and development of a remediation program. Here too neuroscience research suggests barriers to success. Specifically, Chip and Dan Heath in SWITCH and Rock present research that the pre-frontal cortex--the primary controller of attention--has very limited capacity and can be easily overwhelmed. By asking a learner or manager to think about all of the competencies at once, attention is overwhelmed, and that causes people to default to their existing comfort zone, thus inhibiting the development of new capabilities. Focusing on competencies?such as assessments?can undermine performance improvement.
Affirmative Performance Improvement
The research above, combined with related research in “positive deviance,” “fair process,” and “mass customization” has led to development and wide-spread use of a simple, yet extremely robust “affirmative” model of change. This model is based on using positive images as the driving force for developing a strong “purpose” in an organization and “mastery” of a function by focusing on doing the function correctly the first time.
The first step in utilizing an affirmative approach to performance improvement is to capture the positive images and emotional commitment to achieving a greater good, which drives operational excellence.
These positive images can be quickly gathered from an organization’s “positive deviants”--the few people in an organization who consistently outperform others. They hold a disproportionate amount of the organization’s “tribal wisdom,” the true expertise of the organization.
The most important element of a positive deviant’s wisdom for performance improvement is his passion for what he does; he loves his work. Underlying this love for their work is a profound, rarely articulated, commitment to achieving a great social good. For example, positive deviant pharmacy managers think of themselves as “a critical part of the family emergency response system.” They were all about helping families in distress. Conversely, all of the other pharmacy managers focused on selling 120 prescriptions per day. “Helping families in distress” is a far more positive and compelling image than just pushing prescriptions. All positive deviants, regardless of their specific profession, have this profound commitment to creating a social good. Almost all aspects of positive deviant knowledge contribute to an extremely strong, positive image of extraordinary performance.
Motivating Performance Improvement
Positive images only become valuable when people embrace them as their own. Research into the fair process--the neuroscience of positive visualization and the neuroscience of teams--provides excellent guidance on how to motivate people to embrace the positive deviant wisdom.
Fair process research, reported by W. Chan Kim and Renee Maubauge in their Harvard Business Review article “Fair Process,” shows that willingness to embrace a change increases sharply when participants’ sense of honor and dignity is enhanced as part of the change. Other research shows that people are more willing to change when their sense of social status increases and they are working toward a greater social good. When an organization presents the positive deviants’ images of the greater social good in a way that conveys the expectation that every participant can make a substantial contribution, people feel that their honor, dignity, and social status actually increase and they become more open to new ideas and learn more quickly.
The potential of using fair process to motivate high performance is expanded significantly by Rock and Richard Allyne in a 2009 Telegragh article “Writing Poems Helps The Brain Cope With Emotional Turmoil, Say Scientists” that shows:
- Positive images can cause a release of neurotransmitters associated with a heightened ability to learn. When people see themselves as being as great at achieving the social good as the positive deviants, there appears to be a “dopamine squirt” that significantly increases people’s willingness and ability to learn new things.
- The sharing of positive images with colleagues in a social environment stimulates a release of additional neurotransmitters – the release of oxytocin – that promote learning.
- The writing of these positive images transfers neural resources from fear centers of the brain to portions of the brain associated with empowerment to reduce resistance to change.
If presented, discussed, and recorded appropriately, the positive deviant positive images create openness to new ideas, speed learning, and suppress resistance to change.
Sustaining a Performance Improvement
To achieve sustained performance improvement, this initial positive reaction must be converted into into a long-term attitude and behavioral improvement.
Research from David Rock and Jeff Schwartz in a March 2010 Psychology Today article “The Neuroscience of Leadership” and John Assaraf and Murry Smith in The Answer, extends the notion of “neurons that fire together wire together” to the development of long-term positive attitudes and behaviors. This process, called “self-directed neuroplasticity,” can be used to systematically cause people to fully internalize the positive deviant best practices.
The key to this long-term internalization is doing frequent, small practice exercises over a period of time.
Optimally, these exercises should meet these criteria:
- The mental practice is very positive, personal, and always about an doing something “right.”
- The practice is very “real” and applied because it is done in actual situations where the credibility and importance are obvious to the learner.
- The learning exercises and discussions occur in a social setting that brings multiple perspectives and group support to the experience.
The overall result of this approach is extremely rapid internalization of the desired attitudes and behaviors.
Scaling a Performance Improvement
Affirmative models of change are easy to scale because they tend to activate broad social support mechanisms. Both Pink and Rock show that people working together toward a greater goal tend to produce higher levels of performance. Consequently, when the affirmative models are developed and implemented collectively, there is a group effect that accelerates adoption of a performance improvement even to large, dispersed populations.
This social effect is multiplied when it is designed around the principles of mass customization developed initially by Joe Pine in Mass Customization. Mass customization is a system for simultaneously obtaining the benefits of centrally driven change?economies of scale, consistency of execution and high quality?while guiding adaptation to local needs. Mass customization, as applied to performance improvement, guides each individual to understand, uniquely adapt and apply the positive deviant content while preserving the core aspects of the positive images. Mass customization makes large scale performance improvement initiatives look and feel as though they are a local “grassroots” movement.
While affirmative models may seem complex, they are quick and easy to adopt. Here are a few simple tips to get you started:
- Focus intensely on defining your organization’s greater social “purpose.”
- Leverage your positive deviants’ wisdom to create positive images of extraordinary performance.
- Focus your programs on doing functions right the first time.
- Ensure that your language is always about achieving a “culture of greatness.”
In short, always be positive.
Affirmative models of performance improvement can be transformational for practitioners. Embracing a scientifically-proven, positive approach to performance improvement creates possibilities for practitioners that were previously thought unattainable. With affirmative performance improvement, our ability to make the world a better place, presumably our true purpose, has improved dramatically.