Rex Huppke | If you help the people working for you become better versions of themselves, they’re going to be better workers.
Here’s an admission: When I started this column, I had no clue what I was doing.
(I’ll pause while you make your “You still don’t, dummy!” jokes.)
I had no background in business reporting and knew next to nothing about the workplace, aside from the fact that I had worked in one.
But I learned as I went, spoke with many smart people and, over time, became America’s most-beloved (and humble) workplace advice columnist.
My company took a risk — dropping me into a job that didn’t specifically match my qualifications. And it made me a better person.
That approach, helping people develop by giving them opportunities to fail and valuing what they might learn in the process, is at the heart of a new book called “An Everyone Culture,” written by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, faculty members at Harvard University.
About a third of the way into the book, this concept jumped out at me: “ … It is one thing to be relentless about continuously improving the processes by which work gets done; it is quite another to be relentless about continuously improving the people who do the work.”
Kind of a novel idea, right?
If you help the people working for you become better versions of themselves, they’re going to be better workers. So put them in an environment where mistakes and failures are viewed as opportunities to learn and grow, where identifying your weaknesses is encouraged, and supporting and critiquing each other is a critical part of the mission.
In the book, companies that embrace this approach are called Deliberately Developmental Organizations, or DDOs: “Their big bet on a deliberately developmental culture is rooted in the unshakable belief that business can be an ideal context for people’s growth, evolution, and flourishing — and that such personal development may be the secret weapon for business success in the future.”
In an interview, Kegan, a professor of adult learning and professional development in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, explained DDO thinking like this:
“What do we feel constitutes a good match between a person and a job role? The typical answer is, ‘We should be finding somebody we think has the capabilities to do the job.’ That seems perfectly rational. But when you think about it, that essentially means you’re not looking at a person who has the potential to develop, you’re looking at a person who has a collection of skills. In a DDO, if you can actually largely perform the job the minute we give it to you or pretty quickly after we give it to you, that’s an error. That’s a bad match. In a DDO you want a person who has the ability to learn and grow when the job is really over their heads. We expect them to go into it and initially fail and need support to develop the capacities that will enable them to do the job. So the job, initially, may be a miserable experience. The job should be like a tow rope — you hold on initially for dear life and then eventually it will pull you up the mountain into a better version of yourself.”
This is unquestionably a bold approach, one that requires a longer view of success and the patience to accept stumbles. But what I like most about it is that it blows up the generic concept that once adults reach a certain age, they’re pretty much done developing as people.
Kegan pointed to difficult life experiences people go through, usually not by choice, that wind up making them better people. Having to struggle, having to endure pain or discomfort and then come out OK on the other side teaches you about yourself and better prepares you for the next time a struggle comes along.
“DDOs aren’t waiting around for those things to happen, they’re intentionally building them into their cultures,” Kegan said.
The book offers this formula: pain + reflection = progress.
And it talks about people in DDO companies who “talk about times of being in pain but in the same breath talk about deep and genuine care, and a valuable sense of community in the same experiences that cause them pain.”
(Pain in this case is not physical pain, of course, just discomfort with a difficult situation or psychological pain from feeling out of your depth.)
This approach will certainly not work for everyone or every company. In fact, Kegan noted that DDOs have a high rate of turnover in the first year.
But I think any person and any company can learn from the thinking behind the DDO concept. We talk a lot about development in the workplace, but we rarely investigate what that really means, or consider whether part of what we should be developing is ourselves, not just our skills.
“The notion is to bend the world’s attention five degrees in this direction,” Kegan said. “Many organizations will say it’s useful to have these examples, even if they are at the extreme. Maybe it’s a continuum and people ask, ‘How can I move in that direction?’”
So if you’re a boss or manager, ask yourself:
—Are you helping employees identify personal challenges and giving them work that might help them grow?
—Are you putting your workers in roles that will stretch their abilities and give them challenges to overcome?
—Do you have a support network in place that helps people overcome their limitations?
—Are you creating a culture where people are comfortable acknowledging their own weaknesses and figuring out ways to develop that improve on those weaknesses?
These aren’t easy tasks, but focusing even a little on developing the people around you will logically lead to a stronger workforce.
Just don’t ask them to write a workplace advice column. That’s my job.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com.