Learning Matters More Than Results

Even if you are not a Star Trek fan, you may have heard of the Kobayashi Maru test. The Kobayashi Maru is a computer simulation that every Starfleet cadet faces before they can graduate. In the simulation, the cadet is the captain of a ship. During a routine patrol near enemy territory, the ship receives a distress call from a friendly ship that is stranded across enemy lines. The cadet can attempt to rescue the ship but risk an all-out war or leave the distressed ship’s crew to certain death. If the cadet attempts a rescue mission, the simulation is programmed to ensure that the rescue mission fails and that the cadet’s ship and crew are destroyed. The test is unbeatable (however, there have been a few notable exceptions).

The reason for the test is to determine how the cadet faces a no-win situation. It is a test of character in which the results don’t matter as much as how the cadet made the decisions that led to their actions. Government workers can also face variants of no-win situations in their work in which the system seems to be programmed to ensure failure no matter the employee’s best efforts. Or circumstances and plain luck were not in the employee’s favor. Either way, managers must consider which is more important to reward: the results or the employee’s behavior?

Vadim Liberman writes about the two different types of jobs in the modern workplace. There are algorithmic jobs which are “usually lower down in an enterprise, often involve repetitive work, and feature obvious causation between input and output. Recognizing algorithmic employees for their results makes sense.”

The other type of job is heuristic jobs. Heuristic jobs “demand creativity and experimentation and include tons of variables that complicate drawing clear lines between cause and effect. The line between results and recognition is consequently just as squiggly. So why draw it at all?” People who perform heuristic jobs must feel safe to experiment and to face the occasional failure as they attempt something new and risky. Continuing to reward and punish based on results will teach people to become risk-averse and timid.

I can already anticipate the first objection; if people are not rewarded for results, then they will not try as hard to achieve results. The solution to that issue is to instill a growth mindset in your employees so that they see failure as a learning experience and will work harder next time to achieve a better result. When employees have the mindset that it is their hard work that makes them more successful and smarter about their work, they will be intrinsically motivated to do better. Rewarding behaviors that encourage learning and self-development will better ensure good results in the future because the organization is essentially encouraging the employees to create their own “good luck.”

Another problem with rewarding people solely for the results they produce is that it is a false dichotomy. One is either successful or fails. However, is a success or failure really what they seem? For example, is Google a successful company? Google is successful because it has had many failures that helped it learn and grow its successes. Is the Sydney Opera House a success or failure? It cost much more than originally planned and took much longer to build than anticipated. It was considered a failed project at the time but now is the most iconic building in the world.

In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUAC) world, success and failure are not as fixed as one would believe. The real key to success in the VUAC world is people and organizations that can quickly learn and adapt to rapid change.  Rewarding people for how much they have learned and grown will produce more desired results rather than just rewarding for good results alone.

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