Can companies link a high level of business success to the personal growth of every employee?  In the August issue of Harvard Business Review in an article titled, “Making Business Personal”, Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, and Matthew Miller ask this question and provide evidence that the answer can be “yes”.

The problem, as they define it, is misdirected energy. They write:

To an extent that we ourselves are only beginning to appreciate, most people at work, even in high-performing organizations, divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today.

I agree with this analysis. People waste much time and energy on “looking good”. Whether high level executive or front-line employee, they want to be considered smart, competent, and infallible to their bosses, to the organization, and to their customers. This is a tremendous burden for any human being to carry. None of us can be nor need be right and successful all the time and in everything we do.

A few successful companies appear to be overcoming this problem. The authors label these businesses Failure and success “deliberately developmental organizations”. Two examples of DDOs are Bridgewater Associates and Decurion Corporation. These organizations have created cultures in which it is okay to be vulnerable and to grow from that experience. The authors describe the organizations in this way:

These companies operate on the foundational assumptions that adults can grow; that not only is attention to the bottom line and the personal growth of all employees desirable, but the two are interdependent; that both profitability and individual development rely on structures that are built into every aspect of how the company operates; and that people grow through the proper combination of challenge and support, which includes recognizing and transcending their blind spots, limitations, and internal resistance to change. For this approach to succeed, employees (Decurion prefers to call them members) must be willing to reveal their inadequacies at work—not just their business-as-usual, got-it-all-together selves—and the organization must create a trustworthy and reliable community to make such exposure safe. …progress for their employees means becoming not only more capable and conventionally successful but also more flexible, creative, and resilient in the face of the challenges—for both personal and organizational growth—that these companies deliberately set before them.

The challenge facing any organization that wants to become “deliberately developmental” is considerable. Significant work will have to be undertaken by everyone in the organization to create this kind of culture. Susan Palmer describes this challenge:

Creating a deliberately developmental organization is difficult, very time-consuming and demands significant and public growth on the part of the leader(s) of the effort. The kind of vulnerability required to champion this idea, and to demonstrate continuous learning to others as you go, takes profound courage and is not for everyone.

Even more fundamentally, I believe, this kind of organization cannot be created unless leaders believe that employees can learn and change. This attitude of leaders is not a given. Carol Dweck has concluded from her research that people have either a fixed mind-set or a growth mind-set. Unfortunately, many leaders of organizations have a fixed mind-set. This has to change before these companies can become “deliberately developmental organizations”.