In November 2019, the Dutch universities, university medical centers, research institutes, research funders, and the Royal Academy started the movement toward a new form of recognizing and rewarding academics. The core idea was to provide room for everybody’s talent and to create a new balance of recognizing and rewarding our diverse talents. Currently, many academics feel that mostly colleagues with a long list of top publications are valued, although we master various competences in the areas of research, education, impact, and leadership (and patient care in medical centers) which are all key to a productive and healthy working environment. Therefore, the modernization of the recognition and rewards system aims at the diversification and vitalization of career paths, thereby promoting and rewarding excellence in each of those key areas.1 More specifically, the goal is “… switching to a system in which academics can make a mark in one or more key areas (diversification). In this system, the area profile of academics may change in the course of their career (vitalization), and competences acquired outside of the academy are acknowledged as having added value. The inter-connectedness of education and research, typical of the Dutch university system, does require that academics have enough competences in at least these two key areas. Within a team, department or faculty, the different profiles and backgrounds are integrated into a coherent whole.” (VSNU, NFU, KNAW, NOW, and ZonMw 2019).
Integrating this profound initiative at Tilburg University, a quite creative person designed a slogan that is to the point: “(y)our talents”. A simple, but quite a meaningful combination. A short expression capturing an essential element of the nationwide Recognition and Rewards program: achieving a balance between individuals and the collective, and appreciating unique talents that together form a greater outcome than individually. Tilburg University is committed to changing its DNA in terms of how we cherish talent and stimulate the talent management revolution.
Self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci 2000), a major framework that explains human motivation and behavior, is a suitable tool that helps to describe the status quo at Tilburg University. Self-determination theory proposes that people are selfmotivated to engage, grow, and develop, i.e., become self-determined, by fulfilling the following psychosocial needs:
Competence: People need to be able to master tasks and gain the right skill set to perform those tasks. Once people feel that they have the required skills to be successful, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to achieve their goals.
Autonomy: People need to have the freedom to perform tasks that they feel intrinsically motivating (and therefore rewarding) to complete. Control over job design is crucial.
Relatedness: People need to be connected with others and feel a sense of belonging. Support and involvement with each other and each other’s activities are necessary.
Applying the framework to the university setting, one prominent aspect is external regulation. In general, higher education is a highly regulated sector that needs to comply with European- and nationwide rules and demands. While (to some extent) understandable, it puts the sector and its employees at a disadvantage from the start. While external parties have a significant impact on the way we provide education, creating one bureaucratic hurdle after the other, the decreasing budgets for research impose a risk on our knowledge creation and research ambitions. This rigid environment does not seem to fit with the typical free-minded character of academics. However, for the moment, these are conditions mostly outside of our control, so we turn to aspects that we can indeed influence.
Depending on who you ask, you will receive a different answer on our status quo. Yet, looking at the bigger picture, a couple of facts reveal the improvement potential at Tilburg University. When focusing on relatedness, one aspect is creating an inclusive and secure environment to nurture growth and development. But while, for example, the percentage of international staff is growing, the primary language remains Dutch, particularly in leadership positions. This does not imply that we should not respect the fact that we are in the Netherlands, but unconsciously the voice of international colleagues is silenced. Through this language barrier, international colleagues are excluded from central strategy and working groups, and there is consequently lower diversity in decision-making and the views of part of our employees are underrepresented. Approaching work with a more international mindset without asking “Does everybody speak Dutch so we can switch?” is a very small but meaningful effort to create an inclusive environment. We also ask our students to mind potential differences, so why not ourselves? Turning to competence, some employees indicate that they never had an official (performance) feedback meeting. Given that this occasion is one of the most important moments to sit back, reflect on the past year, and plan the upcoming period, this information sounds less than satisfying. A review meeting provides the opportunity to focus on the individual, and the time that each one of us deserves to discuss our potential and growth, and our personal challenges. Why is there so much variance in holding such sessions? Growing a culture where feedback becomes an integral part of our life is key in making the Recognition and Rewards program a success. And this is actually closely related to autonomy as well. Tilburg University has many possibilities to fulfill our basic psychosocial need for autonomy, and creating different career paths and allowing everyone to use their individual talents is remarkably in line with self-determination theory. Giving people the opportunity to use their unique talent and the choice to engage in particular activities in a secure and inclusive environment allows intrinsic motivation to manifest itself and experience joy and satisfaction from the activity. By allowing for more flexibility, people feel more motivated to complete the chosen activity and experience more direct, internal rewards for performing the chosen activity at hand. But giving flexibility can also cause confusion, therefore a reliable source of feedback is necessary to guide employees and sometimes to help them discover their talents in the first place. Fostering intrinsic motivation is essential as it is considered to be a strong predictor of performance, but even more importantly, intrinsic motivation matters more for quality than extrinsic motivation (Cerasoli et al. 2014). Since “the pursuit of high quality is central to our commitment to research and education”, the university benefits from providing an environment where intrinsic motivation and hence self-determination is facilitated, and where people are set up for growth and development. Tilburg has definitely the tools to move us toward the right on the motivation continuum.
So much for the theory, now back to practice!
The idea of revamping our recognition and rewards system sounds fantastic on paper, but then real life kicks in and usually not in the “all is rainbows and unicorns” format, and it will probably require more work than we have anticipated (isn’t that somehow always the case?). Therefore, employees at all levels need to commit to contributing their part, to moving in the same direction, and to achieving our ambitions in recognizing and rewarding…ourselves!
But let’s start with the Executive Board. While it is quite effortless to include a variety of themes and topics in a strategy, it becomes reality once the budgeting season starts. In order to push this modernization forward in practical terms, the people involved need time. Many employees spent hours in working groups and deliberation tables, gathering ideas, and preparing documents. People create plans for new career paths, propose criteria to assess talent, HR needs to create processes to support the new system, and the list goes on – and this is only for the setup. If Tilburg University wants to make this modernization a success and “stimulate a culture of continuous feedback, reflection, and open dialogue”, it is quite evident that more administrative and managerial time will be needed by central people or departments such as the deans, department heads, or HR. In the interest of wellbeing and stress relief, the university needs to provide budget to hire sufficient people to absorb the additional workload that comes with the implementation and execution of such a holistic program, that is, walk the talk.
Next in line: our deans, department heads, and everyone who leads a unit or a team, or in short, our managers. Managers usually bring a strategy to life, but where to start? Probably at the beginning: talent management already starts at the hiring stage. Employee selection plays an important role in aligning intrinsic motivation with the talents required to achieve the university’s strategy. A study by Campbell (2012) provides empirical evidence on the usefulness of proper control “at the gate”. In his setting, the company underwent a major change in its business strategy, which required a rebalancing of employee talents and a new composition of competences. In essence, this setting can be compared to the reorientation of the university and its talent management approach. Several findings are interesting: employees hired under the “old” strategy perform worse than those hired under the “new” strategy (and are also more likely to leave as the tasks are not aligned anymore with their personal preferences and motivation). In addition, new hires based on recommendations from people who were already hired under the “new” strategy, show superior performance. When applying this to the university, there are a couple of implications. Employees who were hired under the “old system”, that is, a system with an (over-)emphasis on publications, might perceive a misalignment between their personal goals and those of the university. It costs time to implement the idea of considering other activities as equally relevant for the job as academic. But not everybody might want to take the time or agree on the new vision, and therefore, the university and managers need to be aware of a potential increase in turnover due to the desired organizational changes – which is not necessarily undesirable because the university aims to keep and attract people who stand for its values. Attrition is oftentimes seen as negative, but it can be a consequence of dissatisfaction with the job, and people can find a more aligned work profile at another employer. It creates a healthy turnover and puts again more emphasis on recruitment practices, which also concerns the second implication: recommendations can be a relevant source for new hires, but it is important to watch out for who gives the recommendation (i.e., “old” system or “new” system employees). Although not directly tested, who is conducting the job interviews with candidates might also be of relevance. Oftentimes our managers are involved in the hiring process, but usually, these people grew up under the old recognition system where typically the number of publications counts the most. Unconsciously or consciously (with the latter being deliberately harmful), by emphasizing high performance in only one of the key areas, the interviewer might evoke incorrect impressions about the values and talents needed at Tilburg University, thereby eliminating the benefits of employee selection as alignment tool, and providing a false outlook to the potential employee.
Once hired, it is crucial that our people managers understand the relevance of providing feedback and evaluating employees, i.e., take the time (that is provided by the university) to adequately apply the talent management process. And just as in the interview stage, it is essential to provide feedback and evaluate based on the perspective of the “new system”: stop hammering on publications only, but take a look at different types of achievements of the individual. Only by integrating the idea of diverse talents and career paths into the evaluation process, the university will see desired results. This formal application of the performance/ talent management cycle is critical; not only because it is associated with higher trust between a manager and the employee, but it also enhances the perceived quality of feedback and procedural justice (Hartmann and Slapničar 2009). Feedback is essential to stimulate development (Kluger and DeNisi 1996), but so are assessments. Formal assessments create a moment of reflection. Going through assessment criteria supports employees in discovering their talents, but also their blind spots, and deriving necessary development activities.
Or not…? The idea of Recognition and Rewards is to cherish and support someone’s talent, and not dwell on poor performance. Yet, the universities also agree that academics need to have sufficient competence in, at least, the key areas of education and research, which complies with our purpose of creating and disseminating knowledge. So back to dwelling on poor performance, at least a bit, unfortunately. This is not the most popular task among managers, but good managers understand how to create an open dialogue, and they understand the importance of honesty for the development of employees, and the university is ready to coach managers in fulfilling their role.
But before being able to identify talents or determining improvement activities, the more pressing questions first: What should be assessed? How should it be assessed? Who should assess it? What career paths can be created with what criteria? These questions represent probably the largest challenge but also the most important one because the answers to those questions will be used to guide employees in their (diverse) careers and, hopefully, to success. And while the Recognition and Rewards program tries to steer away from quantifiable indicators, according to a goal-setting theory, people are naturally inclined to work harder for specific goals (Locke and Latham 2002). This implies that “Do your best!” will probably not do it. For example, let’s consider impact: Instead of trying to create impact with your research, give one company workshop or contribute to two podcasts. That sounds already more specific and provides more guidance to employees as to what is rewarded. It is simply more complicated to capture quality in tangible indicators; putting a number on it is only of secondary importance. A decent amount of research needs to go into the determination of criteria that properly reflect Tilburg University’s key areas of education, research, social impact, leadership, and team spirit. Only by regularly applying the assessment process, managers are able to understand whether all necessary talent is covered at their unit level. And again, not everyone needs to be equally productive across all key areas (besides research and education at some decent level). Not everyone needs to become the next dean or needs to be interviewed on TV, but at the unit level, the composition has to be right to cover the key areas of education, research, social impact, leadership, and team spirit.
As you have probably inferred simply from the length of the text relating to managers, a big chunk of the responsibility to modernize our recognition and rewards system lies on the shoulders of our managers. And this is where Human Resources comes into play. HR, as a central organ of the university, is in a superior position to uniformly integrate the recognition and rewards strategy throughout the university, faculties, and departments. Talent management is a circular process with sufficient opportunity for HR to steer the university and its employees in the right direction:
For example, when thinking about diversification of career paths, investments in the development of assessment procedures and criteria will be necessary to help managers with the renewed talent management approach because as described above, the idea to diversify career paths does not imply “you can do whatever you want”. There needs to be some guidance under which circumstances employees can change their career paths. In general, supporting processes need to be redesigned in a way to assist managers and fulfill their role as people managers effectively and efficiently under the new recognition and rewards system. In addition, sufficient training possibilities on how to be a good manager and not just a manager needs to be created because as we know, people do not necessarily leave organizations, but their manager (who might have not internalized and hence reflect the values of the organization).
Back to all employees. Tilburg University is in the position to offer a unique chance to embrace all its employees, and where all people can be treated equally. No one person, or talent, is better than the other, and all are necessary to keep this organization running. This also implies leaving some egos behind. For example, a deeply passionate researcher might not be fond of teaching-oriented employees receiving promotions to the professor level because this has been the mindset many academics were raised to adopt. A more fruitful perspective is to acknowledge that a pro in teaching contributes to Tilburg’s mission to disseminate knowledge and its reputation as a top university. Why should this not be rewarded? And the passionate teacher is probably eager to take over some of the teaching responsibilities of the passionate researcher, so it appears that ultimately both are better off and can spend more of their time on the activities they enjoy the most and are intrinsically motivated to pursue. This is only one of many examples where we need to question our own mindset and reconsider our behavior such that we as individual contribute to the success of the new strategy.
By allowing everybody to use their talents, and equally recognize and reward those talents, Tilburg University is on its best way to become an employer that is able to attract and retain world-class academics. Let’s get it started!
Campbell, Dennis. 2012. “Employee selection as a control system.” Journal of Accounting Research 50, no. 4: 931-966.
Cerasoli, Christopher P., and Michael T. Ford. 2014. “Intrinsic motivation, performance, and the mediating role of mastery goal orientation: A test of self-determination theory.” Journal of Psychology 148, no. 3: 267-286.
Cook, David A., and Anthony R. Artino Jr. 2016. “Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories.” Medical Education 50, no. 10: 997-1014.
Hartmann, Frank, and Sergeja Slapničar. 2009. “How formal performance evaluation affects trust between superior and subordinate managers.” Accounting, Organizations and Society 34, no. 6-7: 722-737.
Kluger, Avraham N., and Angelo DeNisi. 1996. “The effects of feedback interventions on performance: a historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.” Psychological Bulletin 119, no. 2: 254-284.
Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. 2002. “Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey.” American Psychologist 57, no. 9: 705.
Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. 2000. “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist 55, no. 1: 68-78.
VSNU, NFU, KNAW, NWO and ZonMw. 2019. “Room for everyone’s talent: towards a new balance in the recognition and rewards of academics,”: 5.