I learned a lot about leadership by showing horses as a youth. During competitions, the judge would stand in the center of the show area to adjudicate our performance. Riders would then lineup side by side in front of the judge to see how they did. As the judge announced the winners, they would ride forward to receive their award.
For many years, my name was never called, so I stayed in the center of the arena and left without a ribbon for my hard work. Sometimes I even had to listen to the judges outline what the winners had done well and where the rest of us had fallen short.
I was telling this story the other day, and someone asked me how the experience of not winning affected my self-esteem. They assumed that it was demotivating, but in reality it had the opposite effect. I did not spend long hours grooming my horse, cleaning the stalls, and practicing my horsemanship skills simply to beat others – I was showing horses because I wanted to be good at it and spend time around others who could help me improve.
I took pride in my efforts and progress. It took some years, but I did collect a few trophies and ribbons. One award I am particularly proud of was for my ongoing development – it was a plaque that read “Most Improved.”
As leaders, we need to be clear about our mission, communicate it often, and get “competitive” about making it a reality together.
The lessons I learned in the show arena have carried over to my current leadership role. Those experiences have helped me see how we as leaders can build workplace cultures that are constantly adapting and improving. What follows are six ways you can be intentional about creating a culture of improvement that have evolved from my years in the show arena:
1. Reframe competition.
The word competition is most often understood in terms of a rivalry against others. However, the word’s Latin origin means to “’strive in common, strive after something in company with or together.’” I think shifting how we see competition begins when we ask the question: What are we striving for together? As leaders, we need to be clear about our mission, communicate it often, and get “competitive” about making it a reality together. We are not working to outdo each other; instead, we are working together to collectively improve.
2. Build on strengths.
Each one of our team members has unique knowledge, abilities, and aptitudes. As leaders, it is crucial that we allow our employees to make the best use of their skills. If we want to support a culture of improvement, we need to allow our employees the autonomy to fully utilize their strengths. A large part of building a culture of improvement is giving people positions and tasks that they have the interest and ability to succeed with. To do this, we need to find out the strengths of the people we work with and use them to guide our decisions.
3. Set high standards.
When we have high standards and articulate them to our employees, we set the stage for success and inspire people to see what is possible – both individually and as an organization. When our standards are high, people naturally adjust their actions to meet these expectations. In other words, high standards (just like low expectations) tend to be self-fulfilling. Creating a culture of improvement begins when we communicate that a high level of performance and an exceptional quality of work are the standard for everyone in the organization, regardless of their role.
4. Speak openly about mistakes.
When we have a culture of improvement, we are more apt to try new things and create innovative processes. Experimentation is necessary for improvement, and a culture of improvement anticipates mistakes along the way. Being transparent about the things we try – and the things that fail – will help reduce the fear of failure for our employees. In turn, this will encourage employees to experiment, make mistakes, and ultimately find new and better ways to succeed.
When we have a culture of improvement, we are more apt to try new things and create innovative processes.
5. Provide honest feedback.
The quickest way to get better at something and improve is through feedback. We want to help our employees know what the standard of excellence is, so be clear about when they fall short and when they meet the mark, and then always let them know the next steps so they can continually improve. Providing honest feedback isn’t merely pointing out mistakes or building people’s self-esteem – it’s a matter of creating a culture where ongoing feedback and progress are the norm.
6. Ask employees what they need.
This is a very simple and often overlooked way to build a culture of improvement, but it can have a huge positive impact. Don’t wait for employees to reach out and don’t assume you know what they need to feel supported and safe. Instead, ask them what supports or resources they need and do your best to provide them. Also make sure your employees feel comfortable letting you know what resources or supports would help them. We want our employees to know that they can ask for help or admit that they are finding a task overwhelming, and that we will do our best to support them and find a way forward.
There is no standing still and coasting as an organization. We are either moving forward and progressing by creating a culture of improvement or regressing through apathy. Workplaces that normalize the six ideas above will create a culture that will ultimately contribute to their success as an organization.
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