How do you create excellence? Many organizations assume: if we broadcast the metrics and hold people accountable, performance will improve. This assumption is wrong. Too often, the system’s leadership designs to improve performance wind up eroding trust and morale, the very things required for high performance.
Let’s look at how two high stakes organizations pursue excellence: Public education and NASA. As you read, think about the parallels to your own organization.
Any teacher will tell you: the pressure to improve test scores is tremendous. It comes from the top and cascades into the classroom.
In top-performing schools with strong resources, students are more likely to have stable home lives, so there’s a track record of success to draw from. High stakes testing doesn’t create excellence, but it doesn’t erode it either. Young people raised to believe they have agency over their lives, and who experience the world as a place where adults and communities keep their promises, come to high stakes test situations with some resilience. In underperforming schools, where students have fewer resources and less stability, high stakes testing feels more like an inspection rather than anything even remotely designed to help students. The students and teachers already know they’re not doing well; focusing on scores doesn’t build trust or confidence, it’s another exercise in public humiliation.
It often gets to the point where students (and teachers) don’t view administrators as partners in their success; instead they’re inspection police. Trust evaporates, and without trust people are less likely to try new things, innovate, or take risks.
Compare that with NASA. Much like education, NASA is a high stakes endeavor, filled with smart people who care deeply about the outcome. But with NASA, it’s about the mission, not just the metrics. Thanks to movies, we’re all familiar with the now famous scenes of the teams agonizing over the flight trajectory, trying to get astronauts home safely with limited resources. There’s a shared belief in the bigger purpose. The team trusts, we’re all in this together. They double-check each other; they don’t inspect each other. It’s a critical nuance that comes from the top.
Without trust and shared belief in the purpose, leaders can become compliance cops. NASA creates excellence because the leaders are intentional about cascading the meaning of the mission.
Leaders who lead with metrics often (unintentionally) erode trust and creativity. When a team believes the boss only cares about inspecting, they draw inward; they’re unwilling to be vulnerable. Energy that could be spent on innovation is spent on self- protection.
Contrast that with leaders who build shared belief in a larger purpose, which creates the trust required for collaboration and innovation.
The first step for creating a culture of trust is shifting the language. When Kennedy told America, we’re going to put a man on the moon, he established the True North and why it matters. As you think about your own organization, are you cascading the meaning or the metrics?
When it comes to public schools, the True North is not test scores; the larger purpose of education is to create resilient, confident, capable people who can work together to create a better world. It’s a mission even more important than NASA, without it, we’re doomed.
If you want to create excellence, create trust by building belief in your shared purpose, then spend as time cascading the meaning as you do the metrics.