Productivity through vulnerability

Businessmen in Meeting --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

The opportunity for employees to make mistakes, learn and grow may be a big, untapped productivity lever. If business leaders aren’t providing the safe space and support for their people’s growth, they might actually be a cause of their business productivity problem?

Think of a boss or client that you really admire, for whom you’d willingly put in the extra hours and intellect to support. How would you describe their style? What do they do that distinguishes them? Why do they unlock your extra effort when others don’t? My guess is that key words you’d used to describe them don’t include commanding, directive or proud.

Your unpaid work

Robert Kegan and his co-authors touch on this theme in their article “Making business personal” [1]. They suggest that most people at work are doing a second job that no-one’s paying them to do – preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, hiding their inadequacies. What’s the problem with that you might ask? Their argument is that it thwarts opportunities for people to see their gaps in capability or mistakes as learning opportunities. If these gaps are addressed by individuals and teams it could unleash substantial improvements in business performance.

Preserving or growing?

Think about it. Would you say you worry more about how you’re perceived by others or about how fast you’re learning? How do people around you answer this question? Based on their study of organisations across industry sectors, Kegan et al surmise that ordinarily, in an effort to protect ourselves, we allow gaps to form – between plans and actions, ourselves and others, who we are at work and home, and what we say at the coffee machine versus in a meeting room. The gaps are most often created by the conversations we’re not having, the synchronicities we’re not achieving and the work we’re avoiding.

What would it feel like to experience yourself in the work environment as incomplete and inadequate but still included, accepted and valued – and recognising the very capable people around you are just the same?

Closing the performance gaps

To close these personal and performance gaps we need to be able to acknowledge them within a safe environment – where it’s possible to show humility and vulnerability and experience support and the rewards of growth from having done so. It would also take ‘experts’, whose identity is typically tied strongly to their knowledge and prowess, to instead appreciate recognition for experience and a learning, sharing disposition. Fundamentally, it requires a shared recognition that humans are a critical part of any ‘system’ weakness, and maybe a much bigger part than is typically acknowledged.

Where the buck stops

While a work environment free from fear and judgement is everyone’s responsibility, but there’s no doubt the tone is set at the top. This includes immediate managers, senior executive and clients. Here’s the rub: if you regard this as a fair argument then the corollary is that the same people are also responsible for much of the poor productivity about which they complain. You certainly don’t need to look far in most organisations to spot a large body of busy people nonetheless operating well inside their comfort zones. And as a senior public servant recently reflected “No-one ever lost their job for keeping their head down and doing very little.” It’s where attitude comes in – as employees, as business leaders, as citizens – do we want to be working with or for people who strive for genuine progress accepting they need the help of others to get there, or with people clinging to safety, a façade of superiority and a skill at blaming others for mediocre results?

Time for productivity

Kegan rightly acknowledges that supporting people to make mistakes, learn and grow takes time. A common reaction to the companies they profiled which exhibited amazing levels of personal vulnerability and transparency is “I can’t believe the time they devote to the people processes. It’s crazy – how could they ever get anything done?” But just as there is good debt and bad debt, so too is their productive time and unproductive time. The effort put into helping people to embrace open, growth-orientated mindsets pays itself back handsomely. Staff become systemically more productive as their skills improve and they get better at identifying and resolving problems together.

So the authors have provided a useful research-based perspective that I think is validated by intuition and practical experience. Is it possible that leaders in public and private enterprise are systemically ignoring one of the greatest productivity enhancing levers we have – providing the safe environments in which people can learn and flourish?

[1] Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming and Matthew Miller (2014) Making business personal, In: Harvard Business Review, April 2014, pp 45-52