When we hear people talk about struggling to maintain work-life balance, our hearts sink a little. As one executive in a high-performing company we have studied explained, “If work and life are separate things—if work is what keeps you from living—then we’ve got a serious problem.” In our research on what we call Deliberately Developmental Organizations—or “DDOs” for short—we have identified successful organizations that regard this trade-off as a false one. What if we saw work as an essential context for personal growth? And what if employees’ continuous development were assumed to be the critical ingredient for a company’s success?
The companies we call DDOs are, in fact, built around the simple but radical conviction that the organization can prosper only if its culture is designed from the ground up to enable ongoing development for all of its people. That is, a company can’t meet ever-greater business aspirations unless its people are constantly growing through doing their work.
What’s it like to work inside such a company? Imagine showing up to work each day knowing that in addition to working on projects, problems, and products, you are constantly working on yourself. Any meeting may be a context in which you are asked to keep making progress on overcoming your own blindspots—ways you are prone to get in your own way and unwittingly limit your own effectiveness at work.
Whether you are someone who avoids confrontation, hides your inadequacies to avoid being found out, often acts before thinking things through, gets overly aggressive when your ideas are criticized, or are prone to any number of other forms of counterproductive thinking and behavior, you and your colleagues can expect to be working on identifying and overcoming these patterns as part of doing your job well. Together, in meetings, one-on-one sessions, and just during the course of your everyday work, you will also be seeking to get to the root causes of these patterns and continually devising different ways of doing things and seeing what happens as a result.
In a DDO, the root causes almost always are about people’s interior lives—about unwarranted and unexamined assumptions and habitual ways of behaving. And no executive or leader (no matter how senior) is immune from the same analytic process. When it comes to ongoing development, rankdoesn’t have its usual privileges.
In the ordinary organization, every person is doing a second job no one is paying them to perform—covering their weaknesses and inadequacies, managing others’ good impression of them, and preserving a position that would feel more precarious if people didn’t always see them at their best. In a DDO, this is considered the single biggest waste of resources in organizational life.
Imagine if you worked in a place where your inadequacies were presumed not to be shameful but were instead potential assets for continuing growth, where business challenges were new opportunities to test out whether you could take a more effective approach to solving a problem, where no matter how effective you were at your job, you could keep stretching yourself to even greater levels of capability.
Imagine if you worked in a place where the definition of a “good fit” between the person and the job is “she does not yet have all the necessary capabilities to perform the role at a high level, but we will help her to develop them, and when she does she will have outgrown this job, and we will need to find her another.”
An implication of our work for companies that aspire to be high-performing cultures is summed up in this question: Would you continue to consign the development of your people (and, inevitably, onlya fraction of your people) to one-off training programs, executive coaches, high-potential programs, and the like if you could make your organization’s very operations the curriculum and your company the most compelling possible classroom in your sector?
Being part of such an organization is not always easy, but the environment created by a focus on development in the workplace that is universal (across all ranks and functions in the organization) and continuous (and therefore habitual) unleashes some surprising qualities: compassion alongside tough-minded introspection and organizational solidarity that comes from collective work at self-improvement. This creates a different kind of vitality at work: a work and life integrated rather than balanced against each other.
With thanks to our research team members, Matt Miller and Inna Markus, who contributed to this piece and to the forthcoming HBR article, “Making Business Personal” (April 2014).
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