Perfect practice

Saturday, 01 June 2013
Nigel Race discusses how individual performance can be improved and some of the ways individual professional development can link to organisational success

Considering all the research on learning, motivation and performance at work, it is remarkable that some poor practices, which you might feel should have been consigned to the dustbin of the last century – or the one before that – are still prevalent in the modern workplace.

The principles to follow in supporting staff so they can achieve their best in the interests of the organisation can be distilled from research into organisational psychology, but their application to the workplace tends to be haphazard. It takes effort to apply the principles, and if the line manager – and they are the key in this performance system – has not bought into them there is no surety that staff will be motivated to do their best. Managers who have been promoted beyond their competence, or who are not disposed to work with others and care for their development, are unlikely to enact the core principles. Dysfunctional managers are another issue.

The core principles

A couple of the best validated theories in organisational psychology offer useful leads on the core principles. The work on job enrichment carried out by Hackman and Oldham1 in the 1970s was well tested and identified some key elements in supporting individuals’ need for growth in their jobs, leading to job satisfaction and higher performance. The work staff do should have variety and the tasks they carry out must have significance; there is a need for ownership by the individual and they need to understand the link to organisational benefit; an element of autonomy is important and individuals need to be given, and to take, responsibility for their work; and, critically, the individual needs to receive regular and skilful feedback so they understand the impact of their work. The current trend to encourage coaching skills among managers reflects these principles.

Many will be aware of SMART objectives, but perhaps fewer will be aware of their origin. More than any other theory in organisation psychology, goal-setting theory (Locke and Latham) 2 has been tested and found to be effective in encouraging high performance. Well-set goals or objectives give the individual direction, and encourage them to persist through difficulties and maintain high levels of effort. But again, regular, quality feedback from the manager, well delivered, is essential.

A failure to employ these practices – a lack of objective-setting, no feedback, no professional development, lack of recognition for the importance of work done and so on – can result in ‘learned helplessness’, where the individual essentially gives up and simply does what is safe.

When these ideas were being developed they relied on observed behaviour and personal disclosure. But new brain-scanning technologies have enabled scientists to see links between brain activity and behaviour. New findings from the field of neuroscience are starting to confirm existing practice and make new discoveries.

The role of science

In his new book, Brain Rules,3 John Medina lays out a manifesto for improved performance in classrooms and workplaces based on evidence from neuroscience. Some of the suggestions are new, but many are familiar; it is just that we now know that they work, and how, because they are backed up by scientific evidence.

However, the manifesto challenges the existing orthodoxy for many organisations and, despite the evidence, is unlikely to be accepted by the dyed-in-the-wool control-and-command management systems that run so many organisations.

The performance of organisations could be improved significantly if findings on sleep (NASA astronauts improved performance by 34 per cent after a 20-minute nap in the afternoon), exercise (improves cognitive performance and can improve mental disorders) and stress (managers who intimidate their staff and induce chronic and persistent levels of stress reduce their staff ’s memory function, immune systems, ability to sleep and so on) were addressed in the workplace.

But to really improve individual performance at work and to ensure the link to organisational performance you need to bring together different components: encouraging the confidence and self-belief of individuals, training support, coaching by managers, removal of barriers to the application of new learning to the workplace, and so on.

STEP’s employer training scheme

STEP will be launching an employer training scheme later in 2013 to recognise organisations that already employ good training, learning and development practices, and to encourage those that are on the path to that goal. STEP’s aim is to develop closer relationships with organisations employing and training STEP members and students, to support the success of all.

You won’t find standards on sleep and exercise in the STEP employer training scheme, but you will have an evidence-based map of key components required to improve individual learning and development in your organisation. 

  • 1J R Hackman, G Oldham and R Janson, ‘A new strategy for job enrichment’, California Management Review, Vol 17, No 4, Summer 1975, pp57–71 and J R Hackman and G Oldham, ‘Development of the job diagnostic survey’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 60, No 2, April 1975, pp159–170
  • 2Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, ‘New Directions in Goal- Setting Theory’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5) (2006), pp265–268
  • 3Seattle, Pear Press, 2008
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Nigel Race

Nigel Race is Director of Professional Development at STEP.

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