This post is an interview I gave to the blog 3-Star Learning Experiences. User Experience and Learning Experience Design are interweaved, and since I work on UX for EdTech, I have to say a thing or two about it. Specifically, this blog is about user behaviour when the setting is corporate education and the educational objective is “performance improvement”.
What do employees need to be motivated to strive for performance improvement?
Motivation has been popularly broken down into intrinsic and extrinsic, based on neuropsychological observations [1,2]. In the grand scheme of things we can hold these observations as true; on the one hand, the experiments where these observations came from were primarily performed on western white men, so they say more about our lifestyle rather than about the human condition . On the other hand, the demographic situation in the workplace changes quite slowly, and is (unfortunately, but still) adequately reflected on research demographics, so I do not think we can just totally dismiss contemporary research quite yet. That is, we have just recently only started to crack the code, so everything we say should be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, here’s what we know.
Extrinsic motivation works but can only go so far. At some stage you’ll have all the recognition you want from your peers, and your bonuses are going to be enough that you’re happy with what you make, and you’ll want no more, because then you’ll have to increase your management efforts and you don’t want to get into that. People want neither too much money, nor too many options [4,5]. So everything goes well. Is that enough?
Typically not. At the very least, extrinsic motivation is not going to be enough for the employees who matter most. We can kid ourselves with “celebrating how everyone matters blah blah blah” (Insert mental image of flowers, unicorns, and rainbows here. And kittens. Lots of them), but the hard-to-swallow truth is that some people will be more willing to contribute than others. And that’s totally fine. Not everyone needs to be a star. The important thing to follow is that the contributing people need to know why they should improve their performance in the first place, and this implies that their organisation has to give them a sense of vision, purpose, and facilitate participation. Participation allows for the ownership of said vision and purpose. That’s a really strong motivator and, in my opinion, as much as you can get from people. I can think of no better way to make intrinsic motivation work.
My proposition is that we should look into ancient Democracies for ideas. They were doing all these things to a great extent, they did so in practice rather than in theory, and they did not have the ideological baggage we have now. We cannot copy ideas from them, because the world has fundamentally changed since then and also because ancient Democracies were not perfect, so I am totally against romanticising and sanctifying the ancient world. Rather, I am looking for inspiration, because these regimes were highly practical and innovative, as their motivation was to solve practical problems they had at the time, and not ideology ABC or XYZ. We have to take this inspiration and change it and transform it and own it and make it suitable for the 21st Century. Obviously I am not the first person to have come up with this idea .
Whatever the changes we need to make in order to adapt ancient ideas to the present, and however imperfect the ancients were, one cannot underestimate the fact that ancient Democracies kept the motivation of an entire populace high for many hundred years. This was in par with high performance in a broad variety of sectors that were important to them.
What does performance improvement actually mean? We came up with the feedback tool to assess competencies but what would be other ways to ‘measure’ performance improvement?
First of, let’s do justice to feedback so that then we can get to the measuring part. I think it’s confusing to jump straight ahead to the assessing bit and connect our feedback tool with assessment and measuring. At the very least I would be careful with the choice of words in order to make the point that formative self- or peer assessment is significantly different to summative measuring. They’re worlds apart, really.
The feedback tool is primarily aimed at gathering more accurate information (via the SMART path), and is also about increasing the awareness around competencies (the assessment spiral ) and helping with professional development. It’s almost a social networking tool which can help the sense of ownership around the use of competencies in day-to-day activities and what they actually mean to people. People get to actually type in what a competency means to them, in a specific context. They give their own meaning to it. That much you can certainly do with feedback, and it’s an amazing starting point.
How to go from there to measuring, is a more difficult nut to crack and I haven’t seen any convincing answers out there. Maybe some exist, but I haven’t seen them. Personally I think we’re at the stage where we need to find the right questions to ask first, rather than look for answers yet. I am not so sure that rigid models and frameworks by big multi-nationals will help. I know it’s a personal opinion and nothing more, but I think that a (small, unfortunately) number of startups have improved the world more than the rigid top-down psychometrics Big Brother-ish performance reviews. As formative assessment of feedback you can run some quantitative algorithms such as sentiment analysis etc., but again you’ll only surface evidence about a behaviour. This evidence may or may not mean anything, as there is no proof that the evidence is not a false positive or similar.
To me, performance improvement is about impact, including societal impact. There is no set standard of metrics and KPIs to measure that, but some have to exist for each case. Each organisation has to find these metrics and give them meaning. I’ll bring in Castoriadis’s notion that life has no meaning in itself, other than the one we give to it . A brilliant analogy he gives is how a gravity field has no weight itself, but it allows for mass inside it to have weight.
It’s no easy task to give meaning with regard to what impact means for an organisation, and that’s where the effort within the organisation should go; no technology is going to solve this, ever. Of course technology can help individual bits and pieces, like capturing feedback etc. Of course it’s worth working on these technologies and figuring them out—just don’t expect they will solve the world.
Do you think a ‘system change’ or a ‘process change’ is (part of) what they need?
If so, how?
Bingo! I think that a big system change is necessary in general. Also in the field of meaning and not just processes. A dangerous shift in thought processes has taken place lately and it is worth explaining before looking into how all this applies to the workplace.
While organisations have started valuing design thinking and participation lately, a big deal of relativism and of what I call “pop post-modernism” has also crept into them, almost cancelling the positive effects of participative design.
The philosophy of the 20th Ce. was modernist: we were trying to find certainties about the human condition. What we knew, we were certain about; that was literally the philosophy of the 20th Ce., meaning that it was the way that established philosophers were thinking, and also the way of thinking of the masses and the workplace. People were so certain about their ideas that they would give their life—or kill—for them. Experts in knowledge, like educators and scientists, became the new priest-like figures.
A criticism that arose around this way of modernist thinking was that it allowed, if not facilitated, ideologies like Stalinism, Fascism, and Nazism. Thus, as a reaction to these ideologies, post-modernism was born. As people have often done, they went from one extreme to the other: extreme modernism somehow justified extreme post-modernism and we ended up with a situation where we threw away the baby with the bath water. Previously we were certain about everything; now we’re supposed to—a la Jon Snow—know nothing. We were valuing opinions on authority alone; now all opinions are (supposed to be: see below) treated as equal, even the non-sensical ones. It’s as if humanity refuses to realise that two wrongs don’t make one right, and tries to fix old wrongs by new ones.
Universities’ Humanities departments bear the main responsibility for this ridiculousness. Pop-star philosophers like Foucault, Chomsky, or Zizek were the spearheads of this pop post-modernism. They brought thinking way back to a dark age where everything is an equally valid opinion, and facts on the ground and hard data do not matter: practising what they preached, they generalised situations beyond proportions or left other ideas with no explanation whatsoever, since their unjustified opinion could be as valid as any (see an example at ).
Thus, we are at a stage that many of our journalists, educators, and policy makers have had this type of education in College, with a number of effects. Firstly, these ideas have too often led to outright censorship. Each and every idea that is based on fact or data is a priori dismissed as a hegemonic construct of Western technocratic capitalism that will invariably and inevitably lead to oppression . Ironically, in dismissing these ideas without allowing any further discussion the post-modernists are doing everything they claim to be against: they oppress everyone they disagree with, based on unexamined ideas taken straight from some academic authority figures.
Secondly, this relativism makes it almost impossible to act on really anything. Since all opinions are equally valid, vague notions of “the hegemonic”, “the system”, and “the processes” take over the course of History and personal responsibility is thrown out of the window. Humans are not responsible for their actions anymore, but only bearers of an identity, which is either oppressed or an oppressor . Thus, change is up to “the system”, “the organisation”, “the corporation”, without it being first and foremost about any individual changing either their behaviours or their cognitive frameworks.
Now try to bring this into the workplace and have a design session, e.g. with a brainstorming half and an idea selection half, with post-modernists. You will generate a great variety of ideas indeed, but when you get to the idea selection? Tough luck. There are no certainties whatsoever to guide you, and if anyone proposes one it will immediately be dismissed as outright evil. You end up getting the participation and the ownership bit, but not the vision or purpose. Which is why you lately see so many people having no other ideas than how to replicate their mothers  or put a chip in a thing and call it “smart” . This is not innovation. It’s post-modernism.
Another equally distracting goal is to be lean for the sake of it. By doing what’s easier first, you can just as well forget your purpose and vision and produce something just because you can. While lean can work when there’s a clear vision, it’s not a substitute for some good, old, liberal, open-minded modernism.
We shouldn’t be forgetting that many modernists were also critics of extremist modernist ideologies, so we don’t need post-modernism for that. Philosophers like Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadis, were modernists who critiqued authoritarianism, including how authoritarianism in the workplace can eliminate motivation and can be, ultimately, inhuman [13,14,15]. Also, extremisms like jihadism etc. still exist and thrive on post-modern ideologies of cultural relativism, ipso facto the argument that blames old extremisms on modernism alone does not hold.
This critical or radical modernism is, in my view, the system change we need. Again, let’s re-visit ancient Democracies for a moment. Let’s take ourselves back to a design session in ancient Athens. The general assemblies decided that Athens should expand its sea trade; experts innovated by improving the design of Phoenician ships into the faster and more convenient trireme. There was no design-by-committee scenario where the general assembly in Athens designed a ship, or the Parthenon. This is routinely misunderstood and people casually throw around the word democracy to mean design-by-committee, which is not what it is. I don’t know if they had the right roles in their system, but I think it’s good to understand that democracy is not an everything-goes situation, but needs clearly defined roles. I guess in modern systems we may need some fluid roles, but again that’s something that should be designed and defined as part of a system change and not just hope it emerges.
Overall, I strongly believe these type of system changes will increase intrinsic motivation significantly.
Do you believe that each individual has the potential to continue to change and/or improve? Why not?
To this I would answer yes and no. By that I mean that I believe that anyone has the potential to improve a bit, most of the time, in the sense that our system seems to push people quantitatively but not qualitatively. There should be space for doing better, not necessarily more. But again, to what extent is potential important?
I think that you nailed it when you asked about motivation. Because I don’t see most people willing to realise their potential, so in a way it doesn’t even matter if they have it or not in the first place. Maybe the system change we talked about will bring it on; till then I wouldn’t hold my breath. People may want to leave their potential unrealised because they’re demotivated, indifferent, or even just stupid. I think that Cipolla’s “Laws of Stupidity”  have been underestimated as one of the major driving forces in human History. Surely HR departments do not consider it as a counter-criterion in their hiring processes, as we have all found out the hard way.
Having said that, I think that while not each and every individual will or should improve, many (most? I don’t know) can, and the opportunity for them should be there. It’s not obvious how that happens now—“do a Professional Development course” does not do it for me. I expect us to do better than that, not more! Apprenticeships/mentoring are inherently more expensive than courses, but we need to move this way, and the economy has to find a way to facilitate this move. However, even this will not work if the aforementioned values and policies around vision, purpose, and participation are not in place.
- R. Ryan, E. Deci, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_IntExtDefs.pdf
- W. Lee et al., “Neural differences between intrinsic reasons for doing versus extrinsic reasons for doing: an fMRI study”, Neurosci Res. 2012 May; 73(1): 68–72 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3614004/
- L. Lee, “Research: Too Many Choices Can Derail Success”, Stanford Business, Nov 26 2013 https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/research-too-many-choices-can-derail-success
- A. Blackman, “Can Money Buy You Happiness?”,The Wall Street Journal, Nov 10 2014 http://www.wsj.com/articles/can-money-buy-happiness-heres-what-science-has-to-say-1415569538
- F. Dosse, “Castoriadis: Democracy’s Advocate”, OECD Insights, Oct 5 2014 http://oecdinsights.org/2014/10/05/castoriadis-democracys-advocate/
- A. Costa et al., “Assessment in the Learning Organisation”, ASCD, 1995
- A prominent example includes Foucault’s observations on mental institutions. While these institutions where indeed functioning by excluding and extremely oppressing the Other, the generalisation of this schema to society at large should be questioned. It is a ridiculously bold and completely unjustified statement—although an extremely popular one, nowadays—to say that societies never Self-institute themselves through their own Self, and that they always institute themselves by excluding the Other. Ask why, and you are an oppressor, just because. Post-modernism is magic. Not in a good way.
- N. Cohen, “You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom”, Fourth Estate, Aug 1 2013 http://nickcohen.net/category/you-cant-read-this-book/
- B. Bawer, “The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind”, Broadside Books, Sept 4 2012 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15819278-the-victims-revolution
- B. Carson, “Silicon Valley Startups are Obsessed with Developing Tech to Replace their Moms”, Business Insider UK, May 10 2015 http://uk.businessinsider.com/san-francisco-tech-startups-replacing-mom-2015-5?op=1
- “We put a Chip in It!”, Tumblr, Accessed Dec 14 2015 http://weputachipinit.tumblr.com/
- H. Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, Schocken Books, 1951 and H. Arendt, “The Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 1958 http://monoskop.org/Arendt#Books
- C. Castoriadis, “The Imaginary Institution of Society”, MIT Press, 1987 https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/imaginary-institution-society
- M. Merleau-Ponty, “The Phenomenology of Perception”, Routledge, 2005 https://archive.org/details/phenomenologyofp00merl
- C. Cipolla, “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”, Whole Earth Review, Spring 1987 http://www.extremistvector.com/content/stupid.html