Working hard involves two crucial aspects: the effort to perform and the effort to improve. Unfortunately, we often concentrate solely on the first part, getting caught up in never-ending to-do lists. This is what the author refers to as the “performance zone.”
However, when we broaden our perspective to encompass efforts to enhance ourselves, entering what he labels the “learning zone,” we can accomplish tasks in a manner that boosts our overall effectiveness. This not only leads to superior results but also adds more interest, enjoyment, and fulfillment to our endeavors.
From a young age, we’re taught that working hard is essential. However, what we often overlook is that hard work takes on two equally crucial forms: the effort to perform and the effort to improve.
Typically, our understanding of these two types of effort is unclear, and this leads us to get trapped in an endless cycle of performance-related tasks. We continuously strive to complete tasks to the best of our abilities while attempting to minimize errors. This cycle is what I refer to as the “performance zone.” Although it might give the illusion of productivity, it often results in stagnation. When we focus solely on execution, we tend to respond to challenges by putting in more hours, hiring more people, and sometimes even taking shortcuts. However, these efforts aren’t sufficient to keep up with the rapid pace of change, and we still feel like we’re falling behind.
When we shift our perspective to incorporate efforts to improve, we enter what I call the “learning zone.” In this zone, we can complete tasks in ways that enhance our overall effectiveness. Not only does this lead to better results, but it also makes our journeys more engaging, enjoyable, and rewarding.
To help managers guide their teams in transitioning from the performance zone to embracing the learning zone, here are five strategies that enable effective work while promoting change and growth.
1. Set the stage for the learning zone.
In our daily work and lives, many of us tend to remain fixated on the “performance zone,” where our sole focus is on getting tasks done as perfectly as possible. While this approach might be suitable when we’re beginners, it can lead to stagnation or even decline once we become proficient.
For instance, a meta-analysis conducted by Harvard Medical School found that, on average, as general physicians accumulate more years of experience, their patient outcomes tend to worsen. This decline is often attributed to their exclusive focus on providing medical care: seeing patients, making diagnoses, and prescribing treatments to the best of their knowledge. However, those doctors who continue to engage in active learning—constantly seeking out and expanding their knowledge and skills, and examining their mistakes—continue to improve over time.
For most of us, dedicating significant portions of our daily schedules to learning or mastering a specific skill may not be feasible. The most practical way to accelerate our development is by performing our tasks in ways that simultaneously lead to improvement. This involves operating in both the performance zone and the learning zone concurrently, a concept I refer to as “learning while doing.”
To help transition your team from persistent performance mode to a learning-while-doing approach, managers can take the following steps:
1. Revisit the guiding language you use, such as core values, key behaviors, and team norms. Ensure that your messaging emphasizes continuous change and improvement as a fundamental objective and guides individuals on how to achieve it.
2. Clarify when it’s appropriate to stay within the performance zone and when and how to engage in the learning zone. For example, during tight deadlines for high-stakes projects, it may be necessary to remain in the performance zone. Conversely, to encourage regular involvement in the learning zone, consider establishing systems for conducting experiments or scheduling cross-divisional conversations to help people gain a better understanding of the organization and explore opportunities for enhanced collaboration.
3. Establish a consensus on why, when, and how to seek feedback from customers, peers, supervisors, direct reports, and others. Listening to feedback provides valuable insights into the team’s strengths and suggests areas that may benefit from change.
4. Arrange periodic discussions to evaluate how your team collaborates and to exchange ideas on what can be done differently. Remember that without change, there can be no improvement.
2. Embed learning opportunities in daily tools and processes.
Creating and following regular routines is crucial for achieving high performance within a team. This is why we employ standardized procedures, templates, checklists, structured weekly meetings, daily standup sessions, strategic planning processes, dashboards, and quarterly reviews. These systems are essential, but they shouldn’t exclusively focus on task completion. You can design processes that encourage team members to frequently engage in the learning zone, even in your absence.
To establish routines that promote continuous improvement:
1. Design meeting agendas to include sections that encourage participants to share questions, challenges, mistakes, ideas, insights, or feedback.
2. Ensure that checklists include steps for reflecting on what went well, what didn’t, and what could be done differently in the future.
3. Teach individuals that when a standard procedure or template leads to a mistake, they should inquire how the process or tool can be adjusted to prevent repeating the error.
4. Make it standard practice for projects to include mid-action and/or after-action reviews, where the team evaluates progress and learns from the experience.
5. Implement systems like daily standup meetings to remind individuals and teams of the aspects they are striving to improve and how to achieve this.
3. Model being a learner.
Leadership often involves setting an example for your team, but one aspect that is sometimes overlooked is demonstrating the role of a continual learner. At the start of my keynote presentations, I often ask the audience how they want to be perceived by their colleagues. They typically mention qualities like trustworthiness, collaboration, accountability, empathy, knowledge, competence, responsibility, and supportiveness. However, one rarely hears someone express a desire to be seen as a learner or a work in progress—someone who is continuously developing themselves.
To establish a culture of learning, it’s crucial to consciously project an image of being a learner. Many leaders do engage in ongoing self-improvement by reading books, listening to podcasts, seeking advice from trusted mentors, experimenting, and reflecting. But often, these activities are carried out privately, away from their teams.
We should openly discuss the importance of learning and demonstrate it through our actions. This not only encourages others to embrace the role of learners but also promotes collaborative learning, which is even more powerful for personal and collective growth.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Do your team members know which skill you are personally working to improve?
2. Do you regularly seek feedback from a variety of people, at least a few times each week?
3. Do you acknowledge when you don’t know something, or do you present yourself as someone who always has the right answer? Requesting input from others reinforces the idea that everyone has room to expand their understanding.
4. When you encounter a challenge, face difficulties, or make a mistake, do you openly share these experiences with others, express your reflections, and ask for their input?
You might have concerns that displaying these behaviors could erode confidence in you or your organization. However, it’s precisely these behaviors that pave the way for success, particularly in our complex and rapidly changing world. By modeling them, you empower your team to feel more assured about learning and better prepared to thrive.
4. Regularly reinforce messages about learning.
To truly embed a culture of continuous learning within your team, it’s important to provide regular reminders and reinforcement. Behavioral change takes time, and people benefit from consistent guidance, especially in the early stages of adopting new practices.
Here are some strategies to help you reinforce the importance of learning:
1. Reinforce the Concept of Feedback: Continuously remind your teams that feedback is not criticism but valuable information that high performers use to improve further. Encourage team members to reflect on their mistakes and share the valuable lessons they’ve learned from them. Acknowledge and commend these essential learning behaviors.
2. Highlight Core Values and Norms: Regularly revisit and emphasize your organization’s core values and norms. When you observe team members demonstrating the desired behaviors, acknowledge and celebrate their actions. If someone falls short of these expectations, especially if it’s you, take the opportunity to address what caused the gap and discuss how to make improvements.
3. Clarify the Performance and Learning Zones: It’s crucial to provide clear guidance on when and how to operate in each zone. For instance, if your team is preparing for an important client meeting, should they approach it solely as a performance-driven task, or is there room to experiment with different approaches during the meeting? Both approaches are acceptable, but it’s essential to make your assumptions explicit. This clarity ensures everyone is on the same page and allows you to seize opportunities to reinforce the new mindset and behaviors.
5. Schedule regular discussions about what to try differently — and how to get better at getting better.
To overcome the performance paradox and foster a culture of continuous learning within your team, consider scheduling regular discussions focused on trying new approaches and improving the process of getting better.
Here are some steps to follow:
1. Periodic Review of Routines and Systems: Regularly revisit your team’s routines and systems for both learning and performance. If your team is operating the same way today as it did in the past, it may not have improved. The world evolves, and your team must adapt. For example, you might discover that too much time is spent in meetings, and some information could be communicated more efficiently through other means. Alternatively, email communication might need adjustments to prevent misunderstandings or information overload. These discussions should involve team members taking turns to share their work methods and strategies for change, promoting systems thinking and cross-functional collaboration.
2. Promote a Culture of Learning: These conversations should lead to enhanced performance, but more importantly, they reinforce a culture of learning. Everyone on the team should be encouraged to approach their daily work with a learning mindset, looking for ways to do things differently and more effectively.
Read more on: Is Your Team Overworking But Underperforming?
The underinvestment in our own development often stems from a lack of awareness about the two forms of effort and a bias toward the present over the future. Contrary to the belief that learning detracts from performance, research across various domains shows that the highest performers are those who regularly engage in the learning zone. It’s not about spending more time; it’s about how we approach our daily tasks and how we balance learning with doing. When we explore new ideas, embrace change, ask questions, experiment, learn from mistakes, and seek feedback, we discover smarter ways of working and achieving greater impact.