Getting the Best Out of People

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Why don’t we get the best out of people?

It’s simple, really.  Most “modern” corporations kill human capability the way we strip-mine and deplete the earth of natural resources.

Think about it.  We hire bright, ambitious, enthusiastic young people fresh out of the hope and idealism of school.  We stick them in cubicles under fluorescent lights away from windows so they can’t tell whether it’s day or night, sunny or rainy.  We tell them to dress a certain way, show up at a certain time, eat at a certain time, and stay late enough to make a good impression.  We encourage them to not express emotion, talk with the right jargon and tone, write with a particular style and embrace certain values and principles and mission statements.  And we force them to comply with standardized procedures, criticize their shortcomings when they fail to do so, and threaten their security if they get too far out of line.

It sounds a bit like the way cults program people, doesn’t it?  In fact, it’s not too far from the truth.  Cults program people to be silent, loyal, endure pain (to be “strong”), to do the jobs they’ve been assigned and to subscribe to the spiritual values of the group.

I’m not saying that corporations are cults . . . not really . . . I’m saying that the traditional structures of managerial control are designed for compliance and to produce performance within a steady, predictable, average range.

And that’s not good enough anymore.

While it’s cliché, the world is changing too fast, too dynamically, too organically, too symbiotically.  The old linear, command and control, carrot and stick model may work when you want compliance to routine tasks.  If, on the other hand, you want innovation, creativity and high performance, this doesn’t work.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson argues that we don’t get the best out of people because we educate them to become good workers, rather than to be creative thinkers.  Sir Ken led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.

Students with restless minds and bodies — far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity — are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says.

We can apply the same thinking to the way we manage people in organization life.  Take performance appraisal, for example.  The primary HR methodology pushed on organizations over the last 40 years is a standardized, “fast food” model.  It’s built around standard ratings as well as standard competencies or goals or some other check list for evaluation.  It’s meant to be batch processed once or twice per year and rolled up to higher executive, finance or HR authorities for approval.  The expectation is that our staff will fit a normalized distribution curve and that we won’t have too many people that exceed expectations.  This way the compensation distribution will fit the budget.

What’s the point of that approach?  Certainly not developing people.

To create an environment where people can reach their highest potential, you need the “Zagat or Michelin” approach where development, motivation, and engagement are “customized to local circumstances.”  In other words, talent is incredibly diverse even within the same department or function.  People have different aptitudes, passions and motivation.  To help them apply their unique gifts to their jobs, we have to tailor our approach and create the conditions where they will begin to thrive.

Instead of separating people from their natural talents so they can fit a standardized mode, we have to help them identify and connect those talents to the ways they can contribute.  Developing human potential is not a mechanical process.  It’s an organic process that requires customizing to your circumstances and personalizing our approach to managing to people we are managing.

We can’t do that simply by installing a new technology, rating methodology or competency model.  We do this by developing the ability of organization leaders to listen and identify the talents of employees, and to help them apply their gifts in unique and remarkable ways.

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