In an article for T+D titled, A Closer Look: Myths vs. Reality in Training, Pat Galagan presents a number of provocative challenges to popular assumptions about training and learning.  One of these “myths” that grabbed my attention is, “Performance management can be improved by installing the right software to manage performance data or changing the way people are rated.” Galagan writes that recent research suggests that the reality is, “Human nature plays a bigger role in performance management than any process or software.” This observation flies in the face of popular rating and ranking systems and software designed to track course completion and goal attainment.

Galagan references the writing of David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. In an article for the Brain-image-picture-clipart-4NeuroLeadership Institute, Rock and co-authors present the case that the most important factor in improving performance is a person’s belief system. They write:

Research suggests that people’s beliefs about whether intelligence or talent is born or can be developed, dramatically impacts the success or failure of a whole performance management system.

Based on Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford, Rock and his co-authors say that employees can be divided into two groups: those who believe talent is “fixed” and those who believe people can develop their brains and abilities. The problem is that most performance management systems reinforce the belief that talent is fixed and that people can’t change and, therefore, fail to encourage development. These systems are used to monitor achievement of goals, not progress toward goals and not shifting goals, sending the message that the organization only cares about a static set of competencies.

I’ve written previously about the importance of creating a learning culture in organizations. Performance management systems that are based on the talent-is-fixed belief are a barrier to creating a learning culture. If Rock and his co-authors are right, employees are being discouraged from admitting failure and exposing their short-comings. That would be an admission that they don’t already have the talent, which, if talent is fixed, would mean that their future in the organization is limited.

This explains much of the resistance to learning and change that is evident in many organizations today. A fixed-talent mindset, expressed through the culture of the organization and demonstrated in the behavior of its leaders, prevents employees from taking steps to continuously improve themselves, their teams, and the organization as a whole.