Why We Must Share Our Best Moves In The Dance Of Work

There’s a strong case to be made that, as leaders, we incentivize the wrong things.

Anyone who watches the US show Dancing With the Stars, or its UK equivalent Strictly Come Dancing, will see from the faces of the professional dancers just how much pleasure – and, indeed, job satisfaction – they derive from the success of their non-professional partners.

When each, glittering celebrity rookie makes that pivotal transformation from sports pundit, TV presenter or soap star to someone who can actually dance with credible poise before a rapturous studio audience, no one is more delighted than their professional partner.

Now, doesn’t this tell us a great deal about how we incentivize and reward people in organizations?

Many organizations would give the dancing partners different, individually earned marks so they could be linked to individually driven appraisal systems and even individual bonuses. But this focus on solo performances means we lose so many opportunities to gain huge satisfaction from our investment in others.

One particularly vocal critic of the prevailing norms around incentivization is Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

In his landmark book Givers and Takers, Grant divided employees into givers, who put the interests of others ahead of their own and help people out, and takers, who are working exclusively to fulfil their own ends.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos early this year, Grant pointed out: “We have a wealth of evidence [to suggest] that givers are better leaders than takers.

“Takers tend to be overconfident. They swing for the fences, and they end up often taking unnecessary risks – and they have more of a fluctuating, volatile performance if you track what happens to their companies [and] total shareholder returns.”

On an even more concerning note, he warned: “Takers … are excited to see people fail – because they think that means they get to succeed.”

Givers, Grant said, are great leaders because they focus on lifting other people up and are constantly developing the people below them. But despite their best efforts, they often miss out on leadership opportunities because they don’t do the level of self-promotion that’s required to “get on the radar.”

Another problem that givers face, he stressed, is that their bosses become worse judges of character the higher they ascend up the organizational ladder, because staff put more effort into trying to flatter them.

From my vantage point, what all this amounts to is a kind of ingrained myopia, whereby leaders are oblivious to everyday acts of benevolence that assist colleagues’ productivity, or more concerted – but lower-key – efforts to help staff become more confident, or master tasks that take longer to learn than others.

Many leaders and managers have grown so intent on rewarding people for hitting individualistic targets that they have become almost completely detached from even looking for evidence of other types of achievements.

But it’s clear that we would do far better as employers if we focused on the extent to which our staff help those around them, how much learning they impart and how much of their experience they share, so their success is unified with that enjoyed by others. That’s why my organization strongly advocates a coaching culture.

We are all rookies who go on to be agile professionals – and we all have some valuable moves to pass on. So keep dancing!

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Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management where she shapes an innovative research programme to inform, inspi

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