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WORKSPAN
FEATURE |

How We Grow

Cultivating a Mindset of Continuous Development

In today’s global business environment, markets are rapidly changing, competition is growing, employee engagement is low and employee retention is a challenge. In addition, with the advent of the cognitive age, the line between employees and technology is blurred. Organizations are in a constant state of change and evolution. At the same time, the war for talent continues to increase. As of June, the U.S. job market has been growing for 92 consecutive months, placing it among the longest periods of postwar expansion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings jumped closer to 6.7 million in June, indicative of employers being unable to find the talent they need. Workers have more opportunities than ever to leave companies for a better fit.

There is a new awakening. Organizations are realizing that the old management style of command and control is becoming obsolete. There is a shift in focus from governance and administration to delivering a human employee experience, resulting in stronger employee and company performance.

To improve performance and agility and effectively compete, employees need to grow and evolve as the organization changes. The traditional method of driving employee growth has been the yearly performance management process. However, there is growing research that this process is ineffective and does not improve performance or employee skill growth. According to data gathered by leading human capital research organizations, 86% of companies are unhappy with the lack of results (Rock, Davis and Jones, People & Strategy, Volume 36, Issue 2, 2013).

Forward-thinking organizations understand that to grow profitably, they need to figure out how to grow employee performance. What follows are eight pillars that organizations should embrace to achieve continuous performance development.

1. Build a Culture of Appreciation Through Recognition

Today, organizations need to win the hearts and minds of employees and provide positive experiences in which employees feel inspired to do their best work. A positive employee experience is best defined as an impactful and powerful — and ultimately human — experience in which employees become motivated and feel they can bring their whole selves to work. It allows business leaders to make significant progress regarding top of mind issues like retention, culture and employee happiness — all while improving the bottom line.

There is a shift in focus from governance and administration to delivering a human employee experience.

Employees are no longer motivated strictly by money. They want to work for organizations where they feel appreciated and recognized and understand how they are making a difference. Harvard Business School published a study on the connection between praise and productivity. Participants visited the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and were asked to solve a problem. According to Jooa Julia Lee, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan “Approximately half of the participants were told to ask friends and family members to send them an email just prior to their participation that described a time when the participant was at his or her best.”

The result: More than half of those who received positive emails solved the problem, versus only 19% who didn’t receive emails. The study also noted that participants who received praise found themselves significantly less stressed.

This is just one study. There are several additional industry studies and statistics demonstrating the proven links between social recognition and quantifiable business metrics. According to the WorkHuman Analytics and Research Institute at Globoforce, recognition programs make 92% of employees feel appreciated.

In cultures where employees feel appreciated, you can feel it when you speak to them. They are engaged. They are passionate. They are connected to the organization. When an employee feels appreciated, he or she works harder, has higher trust and is happier at work. All of this leads to higher productivity, reduced turnover and increased agility to evolve and change.

This is the first pillar of the new thinking around performance development. Start with a culture of recognition to build trust and enable employees to bring their best self to work, driving productivity, growth and retention. Build a culture in which people are recognized for doing not only outstanding work, but for celebrating small wins as well. As individuals start to get on board with culture changes, recognize those change ambassadors.

2. Create a Safe Environment for Candid and Frequent Communication

A psychologically safe climate means that teams and individuals listen to one another, learn from their mistakes and have a high level of engagement in an atmosphere of constructive conflict management. This culture can be created through recognition and appreciation by creating a human environment with high levels of trust, connection and authenticity. When individuals feel safe, they are more comfortable growing, learning and making mistakes to improve performance on an ongoing basis.

In safe environments leaders also set an example by talking to their employees and teams about their mistakes and subsequent lessons learned. Employees are comfortable giving their honest feedback to both their peers and their leadership in environments in which leaders model feedback and learning. For example, if a product is failing in the market, then the chief product officer takes full ownership of the issue, discusses why this has happened with his team, and asks for input on improvements that can be made.

According to a leading academic in the field, Amy Edmondson of Harvard, “organizational research has identified psychological safety as a critical factor in understanding phenomena such as voice, teamwork, team learning and organizational learning.”

Creating a safe environment of trust can be fostered through:

  • Ensuring managers and employees are communicating with each other on a frequent basis, at least every 2 weeks.
  • Having leaders acknowledge mistakes and the learnings from mistakes to the organization in forums such as town halls.
  • Giving employees a line of sight as to how the work they are doing ties to corporate goals.
  • Encouraging peer-to-peer recognition, which then creates connections and positivity throughout the organization.

3. Facilitate a Continuous Dialogue Through Crowdsourced Feedback

When employees can bring their authentic selves to work and are comfortable growing and developing, learning through feedback becomes something to embrace. In general, constructive feedback is something that thwarts productivity and increases disengagement. Biologically, our brains go into fight, flee or freeze mode when feedback is given. When this happens, absolutely no learning occurs.

However, in a safe environment where employees feel appreciated and have strong emotional connections with their peers, feedback is no longer threatening but rather an opportunity for learning and growth. Frequent check-ins through crowdsourced feedback help employees feel more valued within an organization, driving their motivation and productivity levels. Crowdsourced feedback also facilitates a continuous dialogue, which reduces the risk of misunderstanding or delayed communication between employees and managers. Strong emotional connections enable people to ask others for feedback that will help them grow without worrying that they look weak.

Coaching from the crowd can be facilitated through:

  • Leading by example and requesting feedback from people above and below them. This sets an example that it is safe to gather feedback.
  • Empowering direct reports to give feedback on how their check-ins could be improved.
  • Reflecting on how teams could do things more effectively as a group during major project milestones, fostering team-based feedback.

4. Unleash the Power of Community and Teams

We’ve all heard the phrase, “I am here to work, not to make friends.” The reality is, social connection at work is critical for employees to grow and learn; it’s an essential piece of our shared humanity. Relationships at work can positively or negatively impact stress, productivity and happiness.

Abraham Maslow, Ph.D., a pioneering social psychologist, ranks belonging as third in his hierarchy of needs for human satisfaction and fulfillment. This need for belonging exists in all aspects of one’s life, including work. When a person does not feel like they belong at work, they are disengaged, unhappy, and do not bring their best self to work. To grow, improve and connect within the organization, employees need to feel this tribalism and emotional connection. Employees need to know they can have authentic discussions, even disagreements, and not be kicked out of the tribe.

The process of connection and trust is built through appreciation and recognition. Once this connection of trust is established, then feedback across the spectrum, including constructive feedback, becomes a comfortable process. The interchange of feedback and appreciation builds this sense of community, strong relationships and connections in the organization. Ongoing performance development can only occur when there is a sense of community and connectedness.

Connectedness throughout the organization can be encouraged by:

  • Celebrating not only work-related events but life events as well. For example, weddings or the birth of a baby. This helps others in the organization see not only the work side of their peers, but the personal side as well.
  • Supporting community events where people can get to know each other outside of the work environment.
  • Investing in team-based recognition and feedback. When the team accomplishes a milestone, celebrate the team. This also is a good time for reflection and feedback. Building team-based communities creates connections, builds trust and enhances productivity.

5. Be a Coach, Not a Task Delegator

To improve the development of employees on a continuous basis, the role of the manager must change. It needs to move beyond command and control to one of collaborator and coach. In fact, according to recent research, the single-most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is the ability to coach employees versus manage employees.

The relationship between the employee and the manager also is critical for building a sense of connection to the organization’s broader goals.

When employees are coached, they can grow, build their skills, and have an emotional connection to the organization. Coaching consists of the following elements:

  • Understanding the values important to each employee and being able to connect that person’s work to the organizational mission objectives and values.
  • Providing feedback to enable employees to grow on an ongoing basis.
  • Allowing employees to fail and learn from those mistakes.
  • Giving employees a voice in their development and the work they do.
  • Moving the nature of check-ins beyond status to an environment of learning, growth and collaboration. The manager must ask probing questions to not only motivate the employee, but also to leverage his or her skills and provide growth input.

The relationship between the employee and the manager also is critical for building a sense of connection to the organization’s broader goals. Organizations looking to continually grow employees must ensure managers are not only meeting with employees regularly, but also making sure employees understand how their work ties to the broader goals.

When the nature of the relationship between a manager and employee changes to one of coach (mentor) and player (protégé), communication is focused on learning and growth, and ongoing performance development becomes automatic.

The key to creating cultures in which managers are more coaches than task delegators includes:

  • Training (and demonstrating to) managers how open-ended questions help facilitate collaboration. Provide managers with a few key open-ended questions to ask during check-ins.
  • Building mentor programs for managers where they can learn how to lead from other managers.
  • Show employees how they can drive communication with their manager. Provide employees with key questions they can ask their managers to enable managers to coach versus direct.

6. Embrace a Personal Growth Mindset

How can we enable employees to do their best work and grow? What behavior changes are needed from employees and managers to support this development? Which coaching questions should managers ask during checkins with their team?

Each organization needs to evaluate its culture, employees and human capital strategy to determine the right philosophy that will drive continuous performance development. One example of a driving philosophy is Carol Dweck’s growth mindset paradigm, which she covers in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Once a philosophy is chosen, it needs to permeate many aspects of the organization, including leadership development, organizational values, employee development and goals.

7. Learn and Develop Through Ongoing Reflection

There is growing research that the ability to learn from feedback and experience is more effective when coupled with reflection. In fact, this makes individuals more productive and builds on their confidence to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy). Reflection allows the employee to move beyond fight-or-flight mode into a more rational mode to learn and truly understand the feedback they received.

It is critical to decide what to change first, measure, gather feedback and adjust as needed.

Here are some good reflection questions that can be used as part of check-ins to drive employee growth:

  • What do I know for sure?
  • What possibilities for action are available?
  • Who can help with this?
  • How does this situation look from the other person’s perspective?

8. Let Employees Drive Their Development

Remember the days when learning meant going to a weeklong training? Then you would get back to your routine and only apply a sliver of the learning. This is the old paradigm of learning and growth. Today, employees want in-the-moment learning. Employees at all levels expect dynamic, self-directed, continuous learning opportunities from their employers, according to Deloitte. Millennials and other young employees have grown up in this self-directed learning environment and they expect it as part of their working lives and careers — and they will move elsewhere if employers fail to provide it.

The key for ongoing performance development is to enable this learning in the moment, as the need arises. This can take the form of learning and guidance embedded in the products employees use. It also can take the form of in-the-moment feedback, requested by the employee to the people with whom they actually work. When an employee requests feedback on a specific project, behavior or activity, he or she is in the driver’s seat of their learning and ongoing performance development.

Managing Change

The key to each of these best practices is to embed them in the culture. This requires change management to facilitate this culture growth. For example:

  • Ongoing communication from leadership about the changes. Support from the top is critical.
  • Leaders must lead by example up and down the organization.
  • Celebrate small wins as the culture starts to evolve.
  • Build change ambassadors in each organization to support the changes.
  • Support training, micro-learning and leadership development.
  • Form focus groups to gather input from employees before and during the change.
  • Leverage data to understand which groups are embracing the changes, and which tools are effective or need to evolve.

Changing culture takes time. It does not happen overnight. It is critical to decide what to change first, measure, gather feedback and adjust as needed.

Igniting Passion and Purpose

There is a new awakening in how we grow employees and our organizations. For employees to grow, they need to feel safe, empowered and coached by their leaders. They need a culture in which their passions and purpose are ignited — where they wake up every day excited to come to work and are connected to both the organization and its mission, as well as their peers and leaders. Those organizations that embrace this human culture will have the competitive edge in employee retention, engagement and organizational agility.

Renée Smith

Derek Irvine is executive vice president of strategy and consulting services for Globoforce. Connect with him on LinkedIn.