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Output is not necessarily outcome
By Robert W. Wendover
Robert W. Wendover, director of The Center for Generational Studies.
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Robert W. Wendover, director of The Center for Generational Studies.

During a recent conversation, a university faculty member told me of a student who approached her about a grade. It seems the young lady had added up the points she had received in the course and discovered that she had earned a "B" rather than the "A" she desired. When the professor acknowledged that it was the grade she was about to receive, the young lady protested. "I've worked so hard!" she said. "I deserve an "A." The professor explained to her that quantity of work is not connected to quality of work, hence the grade. Of course, that led to an accusation of "that's not fair!"

Have we, as a society, trained the emerging generation to think that the harder one works the better the grade, the more you earn, the greater success you experience? Probably not. The disconnect between output and outcome has been around for a long time. Twenty years ago, the leading edge of Generation X was telling its Boomer co-workers that they were going to work smarter, not harder. But in an all-consuming environment where everything has to be better, cheaper, faster, it is easy to understand how Millennials and their younger brethren might conclude that simply putting the time in is the way to the best outcome. On top of this, we have intimated through grade inflation that anything less than an "A" is a sign of mediocrity or even failure. As a faculty member, I have come face to face with students who tell me that they expect and "A" because they always receive an "A."

This approach, of course, has migrated into the workforce in the form of performance appraisals where one assumes that he or she will automatically receive the best evaluations. Sadly, too many supervisors comply to avoid conflict. A number of individuals accused former GE CEO, Jack Welch, of being mercurial because of his expectations that the bottom 10 percent of performers be weeded out of the organization every year. But while there is always some truth in accusations such as these, many organizations are a far distance from defining clear outcomes and enforcing those expectations in a way that reflect the integrity of a well-managed firm with employees focused on clear outcomes.

So how do with deal with those who believe that output equals outcome? We need to remember two simple strategies:

Number one, remind them that output is different than outcome and show them examples. In an academic setting, it might be the 25 page paper full of unfocused information versus the well-written 10 page paper. In a business setting, it might the work habits of the person who works 60 hours a week versus the person who works 40 hours and achieves the same result. Have people compare and contrast the difference in approaches and they'll get the message.

Number two, provide regular and meaningful feedback. In an academic setting, this means lots of notes and comments on submissions rather than a simple number or letter grade. I have always prided myself on arguing with, persuading, and challenging students as I grade their submissions. A comment like, "How could you have taken this page and reduced it to a paragraph?" challenges them to write concisely and consider the central point of their argument. Spending five hours writing a paper that could have been written in two with better up front organization is an example of output versus outcome.

In a business setting, that outcome might be smaller budgets, tighter writing, more concise metrics and other ways to measure results. The emerging generation will not learn the difference between output and outcome unless we teach it and enforce it. What can you do today to take a step in that direction with your team?

About the Author

Robert W. Wendover is the director of The Center for Generational Studies. Contact him at