Leaders in 2020 had to address something many of them hadn’t before: momentum. In particular, they had to confront that it had never been more simultaneously scarce and necessary. Zoom has even given us a window into the challenge: those few seconds your employee’s face has appeared on your screen before she realizes she’s visible, the loss of momentum written all over it: “I guess I gotta do this again.”
Most CEOs I work with have never seen talent development slow like they have in 2020. Employees are not only completing fewer tasks, but are developing fewer skills, and if any were climbing the promotional pipeline, that’s stopped, too.
Most CEO’s don’t know how to brighten these faces, create new energy for remote and enervated teams, and start producing results where they’ve slowed. For decades, though, an under-examined subset of leaders has mastered this technique: teachers. Unlike most workplaces, classrooms make it easy to tell which leaders control momentum and are able to reverse downward spirals. For almost 20 years, I’ve studied and worked with teachers best-in-class at this skill, those who’ve not only boosted children’s spirits, but produced extraordinary academic outcomes against major odds. How do these skills relate to CEOs and businesses? Here are two of the moves that I share most with leaders across all fields:
1. Declare that we’re all learning twice as fast, even before we are.
Great teachers brand their classrooms. They post future headlines on day one and declare uncomfortably high expectations. Top-tier teachers will greet their returning classes this month by ensuring they make those expectations seem normal. They will say things like, “Welcome back to the hardest-working math classroom in the state!” Or, “I don’t care how you’ve done in reading so far—all my students always leave a grade above level. So strap on your seatbelts.”
We can apply the same principle to the workforce: when CEOs and leaders bestow on their employees a new identity of high performance, it can lead to an increase in the performance itself.
Why is this effective? A phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect refers to situations in which expectations of performance become self-fulfilling prophecies; for instance, when students do better or worse than others because the teacher treats them as smarter than others. Its existence tells us that, when pushed, we usually discover that our expectations for ourselves are almost always lower than our actual potential. Recall a time you were told a production quota was twice as high as you thought, yet somehow you figured out how to meet it; or the time you accidentally overheard a mentor tell someone how great a writer we were, when you’d thought you were lousy, and you suddenly started putting more effort and thought into your writing.
Start reminding yourself of all those times your team has moved at twice or three-times the usual pace. Now, remind the team that this is who they are. “We are a record-breaking team. Going above and beyond is normal for us. Our biggest challenges always become our biggest triumphs. Welcome to 2021, team. Let’s get to work.”
2. Make increments the new “A.”
But making the last move by itself is insufficient. Or worse: it might get you promises without results. That’s why the teachers beating the odds almost are almost always narrating incremental growth in their students.
While most leaders in 2020 have never seen their employees slow down so much, breakthrough teachers overcome ruts like these daily. Students who don’t succeed in school can’t be “fired” or replaced, so necessity forces teachers to reverse underperformance permanently. Their primary tool? They celebrate not where performance stands, but the rate of its improvement. They reward steep slopes even over high points.
Imagine this: Marcus normally never finishes his projects on deadline, and as a result Sophie considers him a liability on her team. At their media streaming site, she assigns him about 10 edits a week and at least seven always come in late and sloppy. This week, however, Marcus burned some midnight oil and only six projects suffered. It’s a minor improvement. Most of us would miss it, because the work is still substandard overall. But Sophie, she’s special. She’s always looking. Even more special: as soon as she sees him make these moves, she emails him: “Marcus, noticed you’re putting in more effort than usual. That’s going to get our team further this week than last week.”
Why is this a big deal? Marcus is now thinking something like, “When I made even a tiny effort to do something better, it was important. Someone noticed. Maybe it’s worthwhile to do that more?” Or, “Whoa, she’s paying much closer attention to my work than I thought. When I do better, it’s likely not to be a waste of time.” Think back to your teammates’ fallen face on zoom–think she might benefit from something similar?
Think about a skill an employee you struggled with and abandoned–maybe their issue was giving tough feedback, mastering concision in strategy meetings, or even meeting deadlines. You likely started to believe they couldn’t ever improve, or at least that it would be easier to find someone else to take over. But what if, on their second or third time failing at it, instead of saying they’re “still not good at this,” someone said, “Ok, you’re 18% better than yesterday”?
We don’t have to think back on too many compliments we’ve received in our lives to realize that what gets recognized gets repeated. So, it can be transformative when a leader does two easy yet rare things: sees the tiny choice you made to improve, and names it so you know its impact.
Take the time to book 20 minutes in your weekly calendar just to deliberately acknowledge your employee’s incremental growth, rather than their current abilities. And name the choices that got folks there, however small. Scan your office (or zoom gallery) every few minutes while holding in your head the question, “Who’s making a good choice right now, and how can I let them know?” Think about what this might change about how you evaluate performance, how often, or how you give recognition and praise. Start thinking of standing meetings as primarily designed to create and reinforce these incentives.
2020 was challenging, but 2021 can offer us a new rate of change, new momentum.
Just like teachers were navigating new remote classrooms, many CEOs were navigating new work environments. As we go into Q1, paying close attention to performance growth can supercharge our teams and promise many of the outcomes we’ve missed all these months.
Written by Benjamin Marcovitz.