A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting to a group of manufacturing, warehouse & safety leaders on behalf of the Manufacturer’s Alliance. The core theme of the meeting was people — finding, training & keeping them — and the conflict between getting the work of today handled and knowing you should be developing people for future.
After the meeting, our discussions continued to occupy my mind; even as I wandered the grocery store aisles that afternoon, my brain searched for more dots to connect. (For Post #1 – click here.) This is post number two — another compilation of the dots & lines as inspired by this great group. (I thank you!)
Reinforcement is a key part of the process of development — and is commonly cited as the most difficult. As an example, one of the participants shared that praise has been difficult for him to give. After 30 years, he was an expert welder. And though a novice welder’s work may have been satisfactory & up to documented quality standards, the work was not as good as he expected of himself. When he saw the flaws in the work, it felt funny (even wrong) to praise someone for it. He did find ways to praise and offer constructive feedback at the same time — and he said that has worked well for him.
But his story got me thinking: maybe the person with 30 years experience isn’t the right person to be training the newest person. I think there’s a lesson in this for on-boarding and how we approach training people — both new people, and those who have been with us awhile.
When I first started my consulting practice, I joined a network of independent consultants. One of the benefits of joining was the development conferences. We’d gather for 3-4 days and learn from each other. I noticed that the more seasoned consultants, those with 20 years or more in the network, tended to hang together. I assumed it was because they’d become friends after all those years in the network, but there was something else, too. When they gathered, their body language was closed off to joiners. When new people missed the signs and tried to engage with them, the elders were polite, but firm in their rejection. Now that I’ve been in the network for 15 years, I get it.
As you gain time & experience, you change. How you think about the work and your approach to solving problems changes. What was new is now routine. You move on to bigger challenges, and you want to hang with people who are facing similar challenges. And as willing as you might be to help new people, you know that you can’t give them experience by sharing your experience. There are steps — like rites of passage — to finding your way. And, like this expert welder, watching people fumble with something that is now simple & obvious to you — as much as you might empathize, there is also a way you need to distance yourself and focus on your own growth.
During the pandemic, I binge watched Grey’s Anatomy (my step-daugher loves the show and I had never watched it, so I thought I’d give it a try). At teaching hospitals, like Grey-Sloan from the show, they use a very structured system for training & development. Being able to develop new doctors is considered a crucial part of a physician’s training — to the point that it makes them a better doctor. But it is not the department head, with years of experience, that takes on the new residents. Second-year Residents, having just complete their first year of residency, are assigned a group of first-year Residents to mentor. And when you complete your residency training & become an Attending, you continue to teach & mentor. A foundation to this system is the concept of medicine as a “practice”, along with the “see one, do one, teach one” concept.
Most organizations are not designed for practice; they are designed for performance. Look good, be an expert, minimize mistakes, show what you know and can do well. Organizations measure performance and reward results. Traditional training relies on a “see one, do one” process, with the “teach one” part reserved for seasoned experts. By then, it’s easy to forget what being new to the task & the job is like. (And experts often have acquired a habit or two that do not match the standard work).
Imagine what it could be like if everyone was open to learning from everyone else; where feedback was always given & accepted in the spirit of generosity & continuous improvement in the context of the greater good, including feedback about the feedback.
For supervisors & managers at every level, a this kind of change is a big deal because we’d have to regard & value “expertise” differently. The expert who can solve any production problem is still of high value. But the expert who is open to learning from others (even those who aren’t as expert as they are), and who is willing to teach & coach others selflessly — they are inherently more valuable to the organization. It’s a shift in focus from creating individual experts to fostering collective ability. And while technical knowledge would still be as important as ever, we need to also help our people become better learners, teachers, and coaches and everything that comes with that — like developing emotional intelligence & self-leadership skills.
A shift like this has implications for leadership, strategy, structure, reward systems — even process. It puts training & development center stage, rather than something to do when we have time. Traditional training & development would still have a role, to be sure. The challenge is placing more emphasis on leveraging the teachable moments that arise daily. It means transformation from the corner office to the shop floor.
Which brings me back to the story from the beginning and the act of reinforcement.
The “no news is good news” approach to performance development is pervasive. I wonder if it has anything to do with the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything” line we all learned as kids that makes us think all reinforcement has to be positive. And I think maybe our attachment to a high standard for what is “praise-worthy” comes from years of being graded on schoolwork. Maybe you had a parent or grandparent that often criticized as a way to remind you of your own humanity — or to keep you from getting a “big head.” I’ve met leaders who have been conditioned to believe that people who need praise are needy or high maintenance.
Whatever your belief, as a leader, everything you do, everything you don’t do, everything you say, and everything you don’t say — it all matters. It sets a tone, and communicates who you are & how you think. If you struggle with reinforcement, positive or negative, it’s on you to do the work of understanding why. With new self-awareness, you can make new choices. (It’s your brain; you can reprogram it.) You can decide, like the supervisor from the story, to praise effort & improvement, along with perfect performance. You can also develop new abilities to reinforce and reconstruct at the same time so your people can improve their choices, too.
- We have to get better at teaching everything that is important to the success of our businesses, from character development & teamwork to product knowledge & technical knowledge. And we need to do it as part of the normal course of business.
- Creating a ‘development culture’ — where everyone has something to teach and something to learn — takes time. It is a comprehensive effort that touches leadership, strategy, structure, process and performance measurement systems, and changes how we view & value the expert.
For more, read: An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organzation by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, et al. Harvard Business Review Publishing. 2016.
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