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Take Stock of Progress Over Results

While watching my kid’s swimming lesson, I eavesdropped on some other parents. Here’s what I heard:

Parent 1: I’m so proud of her! When she started, she was terrified of treading water. Now, 4 classes in she’s treading water for 10 seconds. I can’t believe it.

Parent 2: But you know they have to tread water for 30 seconds to pass, right?

Parent 1: Who cares. She improved! She’ll get there.

Parent 2: But what if she doesn’t pass?

Parent 1 changes the subject.

This is a simple display of progress over results. What mattered to Parent 1 was incremental improvement. Parent 2 wanted to make sure the goal and expected result were clear. Both are important when it comes to performance but guess which parent’s approach is more motivating?

You’re right, Parent 1.

Here’s why. Focusing on progress (over the expected result) centers ourselves on forward movement and what we have achieved. It taps our psychological need to feel competent which is required for motivation and achieving our goals.

Conversely, when attention is solely put on what hasn’t been accomplished, it positions our thoughts on deficits. When we spend more time on deficits than accomplishments, we feel less motivated. It is often a contributor for giving up on a goal entirely. The end result feels too big or too far away.

It applies to work environment too. Tony Schwartz writes in Harvard Business Review that performance driven work cultures can “…exacerbate people’s fears by creating a zero-sum game in which people are either succeeding or failing...” These environments will trigger our natural fight or flight response, to defend and protect ourselves which can lead to unproductive behaviors like covering up mistakes, withholding information, and micromanaging. He goes on to say, “building a culture focused on performance may not be the best, healthiest, or most sustainable way to fuel results.”

Counterintuitively, strict performance-based cultures will inhibit performance.

As a leader, where do you put the most emphasis: on progress toward the result or achieving the result? If the latter, you might be missing some opportunities to motivate yourself and your team and perform your best.

Here are three essentials to help you get the most out of creating a practice of focusing on progress over results.

Build Psychological Safety

Teams that ultimately perform their best have an environment that is open to questions, concerns, new ideas, and vulnerability. This means, leaders and teams have a sense of confidence that they won’t be dismissed or rejected for speaking up. This is psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, Harvard University researcher and author, describes it as feeling safe to take interpersonal risks. This looks like asking for help, admitting uncertainty, disagreeing, and reporting errors or mistakes.

What Edmondson’s research has shown is “…team psychological safety affects learning behavior, which in turn affects team performance.” (Edmondson, 1999)

Focusing on progress over results is learning behavior but in order for leaders and teams to demonstrate it, they have to feel confident that it is safe to do so.

If this is concept is new to your team, start learning about it together. Build a foundational knowledge about the concept so that everyone can recognize it. Begin here: The One Thing Your Team Needs to Perform Best

Insert Learning Check-ins Throughout

Often, a discussion of “lessons learned” occurs at the end of projects or initiatives. That’s good but it misses high quality opportunities to learn throughout the project, initiative, event, or personal goal. Establish placeholders to check in on progress regularly. The cadence depends on context. Maybe a monthly check-in or a weekly one is ideal. Daily check-ins might be helpful for an intense but short-term timeline.

There are various approaches to it. Here are a few ideas to help you get started: Team Performance: Routine Debriefs.

Make Space for Negative Emotion

Taking stock of progress over results is not about puppies and unicorns (or, an over focus on positivity). It is also about identifying what’s not working, what went wrong, and how a leader and/or the team feels about that.

High performing teams not only engage in complaining, cursing, and sarcasm, but they find it is one of the contributors to their positive performance. This is an outcome of a psychologically safe work environment.

This is negative talk that is done in a controlled sense (it’s time limited) and it is balanced with positive talk. If the complaining becomes excessive, however, it can be destructive and if you need tips for that, read here.

This is what the quip, “Visit Pity City, just don’t move there” means. Allow a team some time to vent with no expectation to fix or problem solve. Just complain. Then, get back to work. I first read about this strategy almost 20 years ago in Jeannie Duck’s book and the concept of allowing space for negative emotions has been proven to be effective in plenty of teaming research before that and since.

While it’s natural to focus on a goal or the end result, leaders and teams miss out on learning along the way. Moreover, that missed learning is likely compromising their results. Said another way, leaders and teams won’t get the best results by solely focusing on them.

We all can benefit from slowing down and taking more time to learn.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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