University Leaders: Your Most Important Learners are Not Always Your Students

Something bemusing happens in the Higher Education workplace arena. For a sector so focused on the development and performance of others, the HE staff themselves can be forgotten.
Your most important learners are not always your students

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Why Learning and Performance is Crucial for Higher Education Staff

Something bemusing happens in the Higher Education workplace arena. For a sector so focused on the development and performance of others, the HE staff themselves can be forgotten. Yet, understanding the learning and performance needs of these vital individuals underpins the success of the Higher Education organisation. For institutions that should inherently understand the science of learning and its effect on motivation, engagement and performance, higher education organisations are not always putting the necessary amount of focus on learning for their employees.

The Annual Performance Review

At this point, your mind is probably focused on the annual performance review. If you’re lucky a review may happen more often. It’s a snapshot in time and ticks the feedback box. Every member of HE staff will be familiar with the process.

But there are two issues here. Firstly, a performance review, as a standalone exercise, is woefully inadequate for actually measuring performance, let alone understanding it. Secondly, it leaves learning out in the cold. And without learning, performance will never change for the better. You would not expect an undergraduate to perform better in an exam if they never had any learning or any feedback on that learning.

In Higher Education, we also tend to focus primarily on extrinsic motivators. Employees are scored and this results in things such as pay or bonuses. The problem is that external motivation doesn’t really work too well for human beings. In fact, we are far more engaged when we develop our own internal motivation. Much of what makes someone good at their job, and on course for progression, cannot be developed simply because we dangle the carrot in front of them whilst giving them a nudge with a stick from behind. The individual actually needs to care

Feedback, Knowledge and Motivation

Therefore, feedback needs to be timelier. In the same way you recognise the importance of this for students, it needs to be understood for staff too. Feedback can be used as a springboard to self-development through appropriate learning opportunities. It’s much akin to the formative assessments used for improving a student’s work. It’s not just about the snapshot in time, but about how to improve in the future.

We need to change feedback from a process of evaluation into one of learning. This applies as much for the senior academic staff as it does for someone on an admin team. It should be acceptable, and valued, to have room for improvement. HE staff should be able to recognise their needs for improvement and be supported in meeting them. This will build the best and most motivated staff body which will improve service delivery. What’s more, those valuable staff members will feel intrinsically motivated, far more likely to stay, and keen to work towards delivering towards higher standards in the future.

We Need to Give Room for HE Staff to Learn

In an environment of league tables and results, of course Higher Education institutions focus on performance. It’s easier to have simple performance metrics which you can analyse neatly over time.

However, if the focus is only on performance, the staff body’s performance won’t actually be sustained over time. It will stagnate or drop. Whereas, if we make performance a more integral part of daily life of our organisations, and link it so closely to learning that the pair could be brothers, then we’re on the way to much greater success.

We need to allow our HE staff to be the risk-taking, error-making learners that students are. We need to create a culture where failure is seen as a stepping stone to success, where an individual’s need for learning is simply accepted. Employees in that type of culture will perform better – not only leading into a tick box annual appraisal, but throughout the year.

Learning for Higher Education staff needs to be as prioritised as it is for the students they serve. Through learning, performance will improve and actually be meaningful. The two aspects need to always be considered together.

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