Last week, something happened that made me realize why I used to hate rating my professional staff so much.

I also realized why I now believe my resistance to my firm’s rating system (which was similar to almost every other accounting or law firm at the time) helped my staff outperform.

I’m coming at this from a completely different perspective now than when I ran my group.

Like many other practice group leaders in professional services firms at the time, I’d had extensive training in my area of professional expertise, but no special training on how to manage and motivate a group of people.

I now get to revisit what happened with a bit of retrospective fascination.

A while after I left my firm and my tax practice, I became certified as a life coach. Ever since my training, I’ve become obsessed with noticing how the way we think impacts the actions we take and the results we achieve.

I mostly ran my group in compliance with my firm’s guidelines and policies. But there were a few areas where I rebelled as much as possible within the rules.

I instinctively understood that the way the firm was offering as the best way to motivate our people and create growth would, in fact do the opposite. I didn’t know why, but I trusted my gut.

Not surprisingly, in retrospect, it’s clear that in some cases, I got it wrong and in other cases, the firm did. It’s my opinion that the firm got it wrong in the area of ratings.

To come at this from the perspective of a life coach, let’s try a thought experiment.

How we experience the feeling of being judged

Can you think of a time where you believed you were being judged?

How did it feel?

I was recently in a situation where I interpreted another person’s comments as being judgmental.

Here’s what happened to me:

  • I felt defensive and resentful.
  • I ran counterarguments and explanations through my head.
  • I wondered if she was right.
  • I thought about all the ways I was doing it wrong.
  • I felt anxious and incapable.
  • I doubted my ideas.
  • I clammed up.
  • I was reluctant to suggest other ideas.
  • My brain felt thick and foggy.
  • I made excuses to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

Here’s what I was not doing:

  • I wasn’t focussing on what she was saying.
  • I became closed to her ideas.
  • I wasn’t imagining new solutions.
  • I wasn’t engaged in a dialogue.
  • I wasn’t coming up with new suggestions.
  • I wasn’t brainstorming.
  • I wasn’t communicating.
  • I wasn’t thinking of ways to do it better.

In summary, I shut myself down, stopped thinking actively, stopped coming up with new ideas, stopped communicating, stopped risking putting myself out there, focussed on myself and what I knew already, and dreamed about escaping.

The creative zone

Afterwards, I thought about how my experience felt the exact opposite of how it feels when I’m in top creative form.

Here’s how I typically experience being in creative flow:

  • I’m open and expansive.
  • I’m engaged and interested in all ideas – my own and other people’s.
  • I’m ready to try new things, fail and learn.
  • My brain feels clear and receptive.
  • I’m enjoying change and not knowing the outcome.
  • I’m ready to explore.
  • I’m trusting the outcome.
  • I’m interested and curious.
  • I’m believing in the goodness of what I’ll create.
  • I feel energized and inspired.

Notice a difference?

How staff ratings affect motivation

The common philosophy at the time, at my firm and similar firms, was that we needed to reward our top-rated people. Resources were scarce. We believed we could only succeed if we were able to retain our top people.

Our solution was to rate all our people, identify the best performers by comparing them favourably to other people, and reward our top people with top ratings and associated higher pay.

The corollary was that we had to rate most of our people as average. And pay them less than our top performers.

And the result of that was that most of our people felt judged. They felt judged because there’s not a single professional at a major firm (at least none I ever met) who wants to believe she’s “just average”.

So if you go back to the feelings I described about how I felt when I was feeling judged last week, you might imagine that’s how a lot of other people also feel when they’re being judged. Or they might feel something similar. (I don’t think I’m off the mark here; my coaching clients often report feeling and doing similar things when they feel judged.)

And if that’s how my employees felt, they weren’t likely to be showing up with new, creative ways of going to market, servicing our clients, or developing new markets.

I was unknowledgeable at the time about the relationship between thoughts, feelings and results, but I could directly observe the reactions of my staff to their ratings.

And what I saw was that average ratings often transformed bright, enterprising people into resentful, unmotivated and uncreative professionals. And that is NOT what my group needed to outperform.

We needed all our people to be innovative, inspired and motivated. We all needed to be our creative best.

So here was my challenge. How could I help my people feel open, expansive, engaged and interested in new ideas; ready to try new things, fail and learn; feel clear and receptive; enjoy change and embrace not knowing the outcome; be ready to explore; be interested and curious; believe in their capacity to create something new and amazing; and feel energized and inspired?

I didn’t have perfect answers and I needed to work within my firm’s parameters.

But what I was able to do was to say to each person, “Hey, you got rated a 3 (average). But that’s amazing. Because that means you’re actually meeting expectations. Which is a really high bar in the professional services world. So you’re at the highest level. AND, by the way, I noticed there’s this amazing thing you do really well. I’d love to see more of that. I believe you could make it even more amazing. Maybe you could become a leader in that area. I’d like to learn more about that. What can you show me? Do you think you could make it even better? How do you think you could do that?” And so on.

And so my group showed up. They came up with amazing new ideas. They found clients in new and different ways. They explored new ways of servicing them. And our profits outpaced most other industry groups.

Your Challenge

I’m not in the professional services world anymore.

I’m a life coach and I work with individuals.

But here’s what I can observe. Even sitting on the outside. I know that innovation is more urgently needed than at any other time in human history. I know that in order to innovate, the most important skill is creativity. And I know that for people to be creative, they need a creative mindset.

Judgment does not encourage a creative mindset.

So, to the business leaders of today, my challenge is to think about how you’ll pave the way for creativity at your firm.

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