Design for Cultures of Progressive Learning, not of Fear

How Legacy Performance Systems Manage Impression — not Outcomes

Kathryn Maloney M.A. ABS

An appreciator of contrast and the beautiful spaces between, Kathryn leads at the fulcrum of system complexity and applied behavioral science design, for progressive results. She has been weaving systems change vision and initiatives into strategy, priorities, and operating from outcomes as a consulting advisor and organisation designer to leaders, founders, and teams for 25 years. From her wheelhouse, she taps into how you communicate, relate, operate, work, lead, and group think; infuses presence, power, and self-awareness onto broad, prioritised organisation strategy; and designs tangible change to elevate your system's potential and expand its human value.

more about Kathryn
, New York City

The Long Walk Home to Progressive

120 years (or 13,000 depending on how you count) of Newtonian, industrial, output-based, part-versus-whole, and mental model bias leave most of us with the deep work of undoing, unwinding, and unlearning. To more confidently step in to being a true progressive learner and leader, you must decide to confront the legacy programs.

Standing in active (versus performance-based) learning means becoming more and more comfortable to experience and confront your knowing in real-time, in the company of others. Feeling into that space, while trusting yourself in the exploration.

That space is you touching and learning to reside in your innate intelligence all the while others act as mere reflectors to it. They provide you contrast on your journey and in your work of self-belonging. You becoming iteratively more expansive versions of you.

The contrast holds open myriad possibilities for new awareness to surface from within. The contrast is not there to define, nor dictate.

That interior space is your guidance system situated for ever increasing waking up, for broader and deeper access. It is the mechanism for your intuitive registry coming online. Your heart — and the breadth of your creativity — releasing themselves from captivity.

  • Undoing the centuries where automated thinking, performative being, and delegated doing has been systemically normed (metaphorically and literally) means new system grafting, alongside new code.
  • Unlearning means designing into the power of your higher intelligences.
  • Unwinding means understanding anew how to find and feel safe, rather than fearful, as your mind and heart learn to listen to and be guided by the authority within.

Learning progressively means you begin to witness and differentiate (eg. a power lever) between external systems endeavoring to automate versus expand your thinking, being, feeling, and your innateness. This is a leadership art form of its own. Learning progressively also means denying (eg. another power lever) rather than permitting external systems to co-opt your inner knowing system.

Finding fluidity in these distinctions is strategy.

Fundamentals and Dynamics

Leadership is a fundamental and evolutionary imperative. Without consciously choosing to step in to yours, the vacuum creates itself, inviting occupation that is not you. In the automations of performative industrial (organisational, religious, cultural, governmental) systems, you have been taught (consciously or unconsciously) that leadership is a role granted to you from above. They (whomever they may be) grant you power (when/if they believe you are deserving.) Because somewhere in the crafted narrative, it is they who govern and wield the power. A narrative, in its purest form, that is entirely false.

Sure, we all play roles. Brand Manager. Tight End. First String. Lead Guitarist. Grandma. Product Lead. Actor. CEO. Executive Assistant. In our roles, we each have accountability and responsibility to particular areas of focus, outcome delivery, and shared strategy.

Rarely is any role we play an island operating exclusively by and for itself, without implications and potential for the whole. In all the systems that contain roles we play, we endeavor to build system structures that enable functioning and operating with first principles of agency, synergy, and adaptability.

Within the system structures we build and participate, inclusive of the many roles everyone plays, we intend on

  • more prosperous,

  • less wasteful,

  • more friction-free.

And, when disciplined in the build to find that hook and flow, perhaps even

  • transcendent results.


To build organisational futures fit for (re)generative stability, innovation, expansion, collectives, and wellbeing, we must internalize that nobody grants you your innate leadership abilities and capabilities.

Your knowing.

Your curiosity.

Your creative force.

Your elegant choices.

Your words and language.

Your governance and desire to grow, stretch, learn, and become.

Your decisioning.

Your belonging.

Accept that as true. Ground in that. We must then also accept as true and ground in that nobody is an island unto themselves without far and great implications for the whole. Lastly, we must accept that whole system features, processes, and ways are only as good as the use by the collective of individuals and their systemic intent.

Performance Management, as a System Design

Most sentient humans feel the tug and expectation to belong

Technology startups have preyed upon, profited, and perverted this idea in force for the last 25 years.

To be clear, tech didn’t start the phenomenon. They merely replicated and stood up performance management in a new forum. In these contexts, programs, and ways, people dance within the dialectic of belonging externally, even over belonging internally. Performing to to enable acceptance, inclusion, and belonging. Managing impressions.

Performance management systems build themselves upon and default to methodologies of control. Design-wise, they are inherently transactional. Scarcely generative. Robotic. Seldom deeply human. Subversively coaxing. Rarely relaxing to the reptile within. 

  • The system design, frequently organised around a deeply flawed communication construction of projection, takes inherent insecurities (because very few are skilled in giving feedback) and casts those insecurities outward as discerning feedback. Feedback that one is then assumed and expected to appreciate hearing and receiving. 
  • Performance management systems are always tethered to money, meaning you principally trigger basic human safety and survival needs in your design. 
  • By this very nature, that principle design feature intentionally (or ignorantly) elicits and incites survival fear.
  • Fear naturally erupts spirals of communication, culture, and power rumblings. 
  • Combined, these examples and their fear baselines, self-reinforce a system operating design coded to automate the being, thinking, and doing of the system participants.
  • They hook into distorted programming demands around inclusion, tribalism and belonging, alongside patterning obedience and order.

Performance management designs for a mean regression of culture. Carving deep culture norms and standards, grooves that become system currency to remain safe

Or, so it might appear.

Fear, Dread, and Wound Triggering

Your performance management system evokes fear and dread. 

You can be assured of this. 

It invites shame, surfaces core wounds, and creates organisational waste.

To consciously design safe(r) systems, you want to come to grips with how your performance management permeates fear, erodes trust, encourages disassociation, and destroys safety. 

Of course if you intend the fear baseline, carry on. 

The Loop of Impression Management

No system can wave the flag of inclusivity, diversity, and safety while continuing to run with traditional performance management processes — 360° and clever feedback Apps included.


Because they are all built on the same mental models. A consciousness and design intent around a program to behave into, to impress, perform to, and to follow along.

Exhibit 1

Behaving to belong works like this.

Impression Management
Table Attribution

Table pulled from Amy Edmondson's work.

Systems designed for performance to, of, and by people, rather than against tangible and strategic outcomes, by teams, against an impressively clear vision and strategy, immediately set themselves up for the trap of impression management, systemically. It spreads, in the negative space, like an unwelcome virus.

When your default settings are calibrated to impress rather than to deliver as an operating model and mean culture frequency, you are leading and functioning in the loop.

Steering Abundantly, Not Norming Regressively

Interrupting the deep grooves of programmed and performative ways requires you to design a different build.

When you choose to flip the fear script, you learn to actively design systems that run performance code on progressive, shared outcome-based goals and maniacally clear, co-created objectives.

You factor team alignment, the work needing doing by the roles in place to get the work done, and enable dimensional (not linear, performative, nor vanity-driven) results and measurement.

  • You halt placing value on useless projection.
  • You actively interrupt all hero syndrome and scaring people into aligning with your baseline (rather than your intentional) culture mean.
  • You build to gauge and review generatively on local outcomes measured, contribution as a part of and to the whole of your clear and explicit strategy.
  • You design measurement on the kaleidoscope of metrics that matter to your organisation, in this moment. For example,
    • How successfully can they build and apply strategy to their sphere of influence and to deliver more local results?
    • How much nonsense happens in the planning and running of meetings?
    • How happy are people because they have agency to flow their work and find joy in outcome delivery day-to-day?
    • How effective and open are people able to be within the operating structures you have built?
    • How well are the financial and organisational targets met and exceeded?
    • What are the reasons for good and less good outcomes?
    • If you were to run discovery on how honest people feel they can be, what do you predict they would say? Why?
    • How quickly do you confront and communicate about dips and drops in meeting tangible outcomes against actual work, actual strategy in the week-to-week, month-to-month?

In organisations steering within a more abundant framework, you no longer run performance code on personalities, projection, fear, avoidance, and extrinsic motivations.

  • Performing to is externally motivated, patterned to the fear to belong, feel needed, earn love, and form (often unhealthy) attachments. Ultimately, based on individualism and coded for eventual indifference.

  • Performing with and tethered to a mean culture norm of progressive learning, becoming, creating, and experiencing against clear outcome-based strategy roots from internal motivation and coherent intent. It designs itself on mutual accountability via individual contribution and collective learning.

When enabled and allowed, a system design principle for measuring system performance must be based on an abundant (bountiful, plentiful, ample), not regressive, code. A code ultimately written on shared, strategic, and systemic outcomes. Code embodying an evolutionary understanding of inexorability.

Progressive Learning + Coalition Leading

A system design of performance management is intrinsically counter to ideation, experimentation, creativity, and innovation.

It defaults you to the homeostasis of impression management, rather than a culture of progressive learning, resulting in comfort (meaning static, immoveable), indifference (apathy and dispassion), or the mean baseline of fear and anxiety.

Exhibit 2

Progressive Learning Cultures : Coalitions of Belonging
Table Attribution

Original Theeo table, created out of work published by (1) Ron Short and (2) Amy Edmondson

Ways Out, Principally

  1. Creative force is strategy. Strategy is creative force. Learn to rigorously operate deftly using them.
    • Build outcome-based strategy operating models to maintain learning zones and to debunk old, outdated performative code.
    • Lock into your conscious awareness the idea that outputs are performative, transactional, and linear.
    • Outcomes, on the other hand, are collective, adaptive, and shared.
    • Progressive learning via creativity, sharing, and spirals of adaptation primes the field for real-time innovation.
  2. Value curiosity, discernment, and maniacal clarity seeking.
    • The one who asks stellar questions, frames good thinking, and withholds advocating their position until they gather the data and form intelligent insights excels at belonging within first, externally second.
    • Curiosity is a power lever.
    • Remind yourself that inquiry is fodder that trains and enables the brain to see ahead, around the periphery, and in the rearview at the same time.
    • Curious cultures build innovative places, spaces, and products.
  3. Invite fallibility early and often to embrace not punish and ignore discovery. 
    • Failure is innovation. (It also might be life saving.)
    • You kid yourself and the culture regresses quickly to a “safety” and “comfort” mean when you speak out both sides of the performance and innovation mouth.
    • Speed is not a strong performance metric when it stands alone. It is merely a vanity metric.
    • Break things? Let’s move on from this, finally.
  4. Measure delivery outcomes within and against the explicit vision and outcome-based strategy framework you fractally build.
    • Motivation and inspiration come with tangibility, directed and applied effort.
    • Motivation and inspiration dissolve with impression management constructs.
    • Hearts feel true belonging when experiencing purpose, sharing, and driving amongst coalitions and amidst higher purposes.
  5. Knock off the individual performance theater game.
    • The culture toxins are not worth the squeeze.
    • When a person is not a right fit, any performance instrument or performance game playing will not create a right fit.
    • Build better communication flows and skills.
    • Capacitate strong players to actualise their emotional competence amidst good system designs.
    • Systemically play on a high level communication field.
    • Construct a far better system of clear roles and clearer accountabilities within an evident strategy framework.
    • Tighten and make strategically purposeful all of your cadences.
    • Design modern rather than outdated structures.

Stop tweaking the edges. 

Start leading change on the antiquated programming. 

Become complicit in reimagining and coding an evolved superstructure.

You’ve got this. x
Editing Credits

Thank you to my friend and colleague Tim Casasola for his soft hand and thoughtful suggestions on this piece.

by Kathryn Maloney M.A. ABS
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