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According to Publishers Weekly, 15,473 business books were published in the U.S. in 2013 and 16,604 were published in 2014. At that pace, there have been over 300,000 business books published in the last two decades in just the U.S. alone. More than half of them were focused on human resources and productivity issues… recruiting, hiring, training, and managing people in order to generate an excellent work product. There is a profound desire to know the best way to help employees do their best work possible. And, there has been a lot of scientific research in this area. That’s because organizations everywhere – whether for profit, not-for-profit or even charitable – want to have the most efficient, effective and accomplished workforce. They need employees to produce first-rate work just to stay competitive. This is true regardless of industry or sector. From athletes playing a professional sport to the surgeons operating on patients to programmers writing complex algorithms, we want people to do excellent work.
Despite all that research, there is still a lot of debate about how to help people improve their work. Nevertheless, there is some growing clarity about what works and what doesn’t. Let’s start with what doesn’t. Here are some of the more common mistaken beliefs about how to help employees excel.
Mistaken Management Belief 1: Excellence can be analyzed, described and transferred/taught
Many employers believe excellence is a tangible thing – a fixed mark — that can be defined, achieved and replicated. However, that could not be farther from the truth. First, people aren’t machines and they cannot be calibrated to perform at an optimal setting. Second, excellence is an outcome that varies in part based on the attributes of the person doing the work. So excellence cannot be defined and transferred because it fluctuates from person to person, task to task, job to job and company to company. What makes one person excellent at their job is likely different than what makes another person excellent at the same job at the same company. Like a fingerprint, what a person excels at and why is highly individualized and unique to the person. So one person’s excellence at a specific job cannot be truly replicated by someone else even if that person was teaching the other how to do that job.
Case in point. Consider tennis champions Serena Williams and Stefi Graff. Both excel at the same sport and yet each plays quite differently. Serena Williams is a 23-time Grand Slam champion. Her mastery of tennis makes her one of the best ever. As tennis coach Dan Thorp explained, “Serena Williams is one of the quickest players in the women’s game. Her rapid movement, speed of thought and quick reactions allow her to dictate the play no matter what the situation. She hits all her shots with great power. Power is the combination of strength and speed and it’s vital to get the balance right. Too much strength work can slow you down, but Serena has the balance spot on. One of the most impressive things about Serena’s athletic ability is that for all her strength and power she’s still very flexible. This helps her hit the ball hard by increasing her range of movement. It also helps when her opponents put her under pressure.” Clearly, her excellence is distinctly connected to who she is.
Then there is Steffi Graff, who became a professional tennis player at the age of 13 and won 22 Grand Slams in a glittering career. Like Serena, Graf won 22 Grand Slams, but Graf also claimed the “Golden Slam” in 1988 – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic gold (in Seoul). According to a sports opinion post, Graf’s style of play was excellent but very different than Williams. “Her quick feet around the court meant that she could run around most balls to deliver that lethal forehand, either down the line or crosscourt. While she didn’t often pull out a top-spin backhand, she used her mesmerizing slow slice to great effect. Graf’s serve was one of her prime weapons as well, and her agility across the court and power from the baseline was too much to handle for her opponents.
Both women rank among the world’s top female tennis players. But while both are excellent players, each excelled in her own unique way. Indeed, even at the highest level of mastery, excellence varies greatly. So, it stands to reason, that given the variations in excellence, there is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to how to help people improve their performance to achieve their own unique excellence.
Mistaken Management Belief 2: People don’t know their weaknesses so they must be told. People need “feedback” in order to improve at their job.
There is a myth in business management that people are not aware of their weaknesses and therefore must be told about them. In other words, they must be given constructive criticism to make them aware of the mistakes and shortcomings in their work. The problem is that pointing out mistakes, flaws, foibles, and missteps does not help people improve their work.
According to an article by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in Harvard Business Review titled The Feedback Fallacy, “The first problem with feedback is that humans are unreliable raters of other humans. Over the past 40 years, psychometricians have shown in study after study that people don’t have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as “business acumen” or “assertiveness”, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it.” Basically, a host of biases and personal flaws keep managers from being able to objectively provide real feedback. This is true of all managers. All feedback is deeply slanted by the manager’s own limitations, understanding and personal views. In fact, they conclude that “the research shows that feedback is more distortion than truth.”
Additionally, that kind of “critical feedback” is not only useless and unreliable, it also serves only to undermine, create insecurity and cause apprehension. Indeed, there is actual scientific evidence of this. On a CT scan, studies have shown that pointing out a person’s weaknesses actually tears down synaptic connections in the brain and activates the area of the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the brain that has the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. Criticism basically pushes the brain into survival mode, perceiving it as an attack or threat. It causes brain activity to narrow with all the other parts of the brain shutting down. Activity in the cognitive, emotional and perception areas cease causing impairment. So focusing on people’s shortcomings don’t prompt them to excel. It prompts them to regress… not exactly the reaction that companies want from their employees.
Mistaken Management Belief 3: People must be directed on how to do their jobs properly in order to excel
While any employee does absolutely need clear instructions on how to do some aspects of a job, those are usually tasks that are step-by-step driven or specific to a workplace. Those should be taught and shared. But, most of the time, employees already have the knowledge necessary to minimally perform their jobs. They know the basics already. So the kind of feedback that most managers provide is not about explaining factual information. Instead, what they commonly do is to provide “feedback” – their own subjective, personal take — on how the job should be done or done better. That often becomes a type of micromanagement. The problem is that research shows that a manager telling an employee how to do a task better does not actually lead the person to excel or thrive. It just undermines that employee’s ability to excel or thrive.
So what does promote excellence? The research shows that there are some definite techniques that help people improve their work and achieve excellence. Stay tuned next week as we look at the right way to help employees excel and really boost business excellence!
Quote of the Week
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
 January 23, 2015, Jim Milliot, The Hottest and Coldest book Categories of 2014, Publishers Weekly, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/65387-the-hot-and-cold-categories-of-2014.html
 January 30, 2017, Ashfak Mohamed, Who’s Better – Steffi or Serena?, https://www.iol.co.za/sport/opinion/whos-better-steffi-or-serena-7560725
 March-April, 2019, Marcus Buckingham, Head of the ADP Research Institute, and Ashley Goodal, Senior Vice President, Cisco Systems, “The Feedback Fallacy”, Harvard Business Review.
© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.