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Developing Government Employees: Valuing Learning Over Outcomes

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
September 1, 2023

You may have heard of the Kobayashi Maru Test, even if you are not a Star Trek fan. The Kobayashi Maru is a computer simulation every Starfleet cadet faces before graduating. 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 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 tries 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).

Similarly, government employees often grapple with challenging situations where systems appear rigged against success despite their best efforts. Should managers value the outcome or the process? How should they reward their employees’ efforts?

The Two Types of Jobs in the Government Workplace

Government workers can also face variants of no-win situations in which the system seems programmed to ensure failure regardless of the employee’s best efforts. Despite the employee’s great work, circumstances and bad luck defeat the employee. Either way, managers must consider what to reward more critically: the results or the employee’s behavior.

Vadim Liberman, editor of ERE.net and a workplace renegade, writes about the two different types of jobs in the modern workplace. Algorithmic jobs 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 a heuristic job. 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 experimenting and face 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.

Cultivating the Growth Mindset

I can anticipate the first objection; if people are not rewarded for results, they will not try as hard to achieve results. The solution to that issue is to instill a growth mindset in your employees, so they see failure as a learning experience and will work harder next time to achieve a better result.

A growth mindset, a term popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck, refers to the belief that dedication and hard work can develop abilities and intelligence. It contrasts with a fixed mindset, which holds that abilities are innate and unchangeable. Those with a growth mindset tend to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and see effort as a path to improvement. They understand that talent alone isn’t enough for success. Adopting a growth mindset fosters a passion for learning, making individuals more resilient, adaptable and open to new experiences. Conversely, a fixed mindset can stifle growth, limiting potential and discouraging effort in the face of difficulty.

When employees have the growth mindset that their hard work makes them more successful and innovative, they will be intrinsically motivated to do better. Rewarding behaviors that encourage learning and self-development will better ensure good results because the organization essentially supports the employees to create their own “good luck.”

Re-defining Success

Result-centric evaluations often offer a binary perspective: success or failure. However, such a view can be misleading. Consider Google, which owes its triumphs to numerous lessons from past failures. Or take the Sydney Opera House—initially tagged a debacle due to cost overruns and delays, it’s now a global architectural marvel. These examples highlight the need for a nuanced understanding of success, especially in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Thriving in a VUCA Environment

In a VUCA realm, conventional metrics of success are often ill-suited. Instead, agility, adaptability and resilience should be the barometers. Organizations must prioritize clear, immediate goals in line with their long-term vision. There should be an emphasis on adaptable strategies, promoting a culture of perpetual learning where setbacks are springboards for growth. Feedback loops are essential, incorporating lessons from both successes and failures into a forward strategy. In this ever-shifting landscape, the organization’s ability to pivot and imbibe new learnings accurately measures success.

Helping Government Employees Grow in a VUCA World

As the world hurtles towards increasing unpredictability, governments and organizations must value adaptability and continuous learning over static results. By fostering a growth mindset and appreciating the journey as much as the destination, institutions can better navigate challenges, ensuring that, like the Starfleet cadets facing the Kobayashi Maru, they can display character, resilience and innovation even in no-win situations.

Author: Dr. Bill Brantley is the President and Chief Learning Officer for BAS2A – an instructional design consultancy for state and local governments. He also teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/billbrantley/.

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