To drive a culture of growth, leaders typically center their messaging around execution, encouraging their staff to focus on working hard to perform at their best. While well intended, this message has unintended consequences that keep colleagues, teams and the organization as a whole, at best, failing to achieve excellence and, at worst, spinning in a revolving hamster wheel of stagnation.
To understand this, let’s momentarily step out of our everyday contexts and examine how the most skilled performers in fields where competence is objectively measured — such as in sports, the performing arts or speed typing — become so good at what they do.
We tend to believe that to become good at an activity, we need to spend a lot of time doing that activity, but studies show that’s not how improvement works. In a tennis tournament, if a player misses drop shots, she might avoid that move during a match and use other strokes instead. Her focus is on winning — and that’s what we see in action. What we don’t see is what the player does after the match. She’ll go to her coach and ask to work on the area of highest growth opportunity: the drop shot. This is a very different activity from what she does during showtime.
The time spent working to improve — what I call the Learning Zone — equips world-class performers to execute masterfully in their Performance Zone.
Venus and Serena Williams didn’t compete in tennis tournaments for several years before turning professional. Instead, they entirely focused on their Learning Zone. Among serious chess players, those who spend the most time playing chess games and tournaments are not the ones who reach the top of the ranks. Many of us spend countless hours typing on our computer keyboards, not becoming half as fast as professional typists who deliberately build their skills.
Workplaces are filled with professionals stuck in chronic performance, working very hard to execute as best as they know how. But fixating solely on performing can hurt our performance — that’s what I call the performance paradox.
Overcoming the “performance paradox”
There are three foundational strategies leaders must adopt to promote a culture that overcomes the performance paradox and fosters continuous improvement and innovation:
- Set the stage: Teach your staff about the distinction between the Learning Zone and the Performance Zone. Improvement doesn’t come solely from working hard. To improve, we must be deliberate about improvement. We must go beyond the known, tap expertise, ask questions, listen, experiment, examine mistakes and solicit feedback. Since many people see these behaviors as signs of weakness or incompetence, leaders must develop a shared understanding that these strategies are what the best performers use to become even better.
- Establish systems and habits: For most of us, the most significant opportunity for shifting our patterns — unlike in sports or the arts — is not devoting large blocks of time to the Learning Zone but embedding learning in how we get things done. We have too much to do in too little time, so we have to approach our work with two goals: performance and learning. As the originators of experiential learning recognized, we don’t learn simply by doing but can learn while doing. We need to adopt strategies, develop habits and implement systems that make everyday learning — while getting things done — the easy default.
LinkedIn’s top 100 leaders devote a section of their weekly meetings to sharing what they learned the prior week. At Clear Choice Dental Implants, salespeople review videos of interactions with patients — with their consent — to examine their performance and identify what to adjust. New York Life encourages its agents to join study groups, and those who engage in these groups achieve significantly higher sales — a phenomenon consistently seen across industries.
- Model learning: Often, leaders talk about the importance of learning yet engage in their learning in private when others aren’t watching. This brands them not as learners but as know-it-alls — behavior that others emulate. Instead, we must make our process of learning visible and explicit. Successful leaders cultivate an environment where engaging in learning behaviors confers high social status and is necessary to progress in the organization. We can do this while also projecting confidence that the organization has what it takes to succeed — in fact, learning behaviors are part of what equips us to adapt to, leverage and drive change.
An emerging shift
For decades, organizations have gradually shifted from top-down, hierarchical leadership models to more distributed cognition and decision-making. More brains doing more thinking and deciding — those closer to work and customers — leads to better decisions and greater agility. Along with this seismic shift, we must also shift our leadership models away from solely performing to learning while doing. Companies of all sizes, including some of the largest and most successful global enterprises — Microsoft, LinkedIn, Siemens — are embarking on this shift.
Putting in place systems and habits to learn daily is the way to overcome the performance paradox so that our collective cognitive power and capabilities continuously grow even more robust.
Eduardo Briceno guides many of the world’s leading companies in developing cultures of learning and high performance. His TED and TEDx talks have been viewed more than nine million times. His book, The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action, is strongly endorsed by Carol Dweck and other renowned authors and was selected as a “Must-Read” by the Next Big Idea Club, curated by Susan Cain, Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant and Dan Pink.
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