When we go about assisting people to become better leaders, it’s important to understand the dual role of reinforcing process and outcome, and how they work together. It’s not enough to say, “I want us to win win win!” without also rewarding the stuff that helps us get there along the way in the most positive sense. After all, there is nothing wrong with playing the game with integrity.
For those who are parents out there, you may be able to understand the difference between supporting process v. outcome when it comes to helping your child learn and develop. Let’s say your kid is learning to play baseball. Let’s look at two different scenarios when it comes to positive reinforcement:
“You know, it makes me happy and proud to see you when you help your team win the game.” –> reinforcing outcome
“I really like the way you looked around first to make sure that no one was on base, then threw the ball to your teammate when the time was right.” –> reinforcing process
Look at these two statements. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily. Both work hand-in-hand to support your child to learn and grow in a new direction.
But here’s food for thought: what if your child did not win the game? Does that change how you view his or her learning and development? Does it change the way you view the process? Sometimes certain outcomes happen by accident. For example, it’s possible that you child’s team wins (or loses) the game because the team he or she plays simply is not fair competition. Or, perhaps your child’s team gets ranked higher simply because another team did not qualify based on some arbitrary rules set up by an outside entity.
The “prize” in an organization frequently look like bonuses and titles/promotions that people receive for a job well-done. But both you and I know that people have also arrived to these “outcomes” by other means. It is true that people have also just been lucky to be in industries that have huge sums of money to reward any/all leadership. Alternatively, titles and promotions sometimes come into play simply because others were laid off/re-structured, or just politically aligned in some way, and not necessarily because of taking the “right” action in terms of process and effort.
I recently worked with a C-level executive who told me that his work is measured by outcomes. This is not a surprise. Most people who are in senior roles are responsible for specific outcomes- often, specific and measurable outcomes. After all, it’s about accountability and ensuring success of the organization! But have you thought that reinforcing the process might be just as important as reinforcing the outcome? As an executive, do you know in your heart that you did everything you were supposed to, in order to support the best outcome possible? If you didn’t “win” the game, does it mean you would have played it differently?
What we choose to reward and reinforce is an important question for organizations to ponder. Consider that employees and leadership alike work towards how they believe they are being measured. If they feel that the yardstick is simply about getting to the outcome, or the “number,” then that’s what they’ll be working towards. But we don’t always hear about how leadership is more about rewarding behaviors that support the outcome. Consider that both should work together, and both the outcome and the process to get there should also be recognized and rewarded as well:
“I think the way you conducted yourself at that meeting in front of the our COO was really fruitful to help us earn a great reputation as a department.”
“I think the amount of time you spend/level of effort you put into helping your direct reports grow and develop personally and professionally shows me that you are a great leader.”
This is fundamentally a question of how we define “success.” If others- especially those whom we report to or have authority over how we proceed- have different ideas of what success may look like, it may be a big challenge to feel successful, even if we are taking the “right” actions to bring ourselves to what we think is a better place.