• | 9:00 am

Why it’s time to stop saying ‘best practices’

Workhuman’s chief people experience officer maintains that “best” implies there’s only one solution or set of solutions to a problem, and that those solutions should remain unchallenged.

Why it’s time to stop saying ‘best practices’
[Source photo: VladimirFLoyd/Getty Images]

How often do you use the term “best practices?”It’s one of those terms we commonly hear around the office, alongside jargon like “synergy,” “level set,” or the infamous “circle back.”

But the term proliferates far outside the corporate world, appearing everywhere from high school lesson plans to therapists’ offices. For those of us who attended college, our professors may have taught us the best practices for pursuing a career in our desired fields.

Like most jargon, the phrase is fairly innocuous on the surface—it’s a succinct way to say “the manner of doing things that has proven outcomes.” But it doesn’t reflect the hybrid, ever-changing nature of today’s working world, and I believe it’s time we retire it for good.

Language is crucial to leadership. A single word or phrase can change the tone of an entire statement, and thus, the message employees take away from it. Those takeaways then develop into attitudes, which influence company culture and productivity.

Therein lies the issue with the term best practices. “Best” doesn’t leave room for flexibility and conversation. “Best” implies there’s only one solution or set of solutions to a problem, and that those solutions should remain unchallenged. And when you aren’t ready to challenge the status quo, you aren’t going to make any progress.

Instead, I prefer the term “promising practices.” The word promising is an invitation. It doesn’t say, “We’re going to come up with what we think is the right solution, then never change it,” but, “Let’s work together to find the most promising solution for right now.”

When describing this difference, I like to illustrate it using the origin of the word itself. Promise descends from the Latin prōmissum, which includes the same root as the word “mission.” In the workplace, a promise is a mission, and missions should be decided by the whole of the organization, through open conversation and connection.

According to Salesforce, 86% of employees and executives believe a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication is the cause of workplace failures. By adopting an ethos of promising practices—encouraging leaders to build with their employees, rather than simply instructing them on what they think is best—leaders can create the culture of collaboration and accountability needed to foster success.


The idea of a set of best practices often extends beyond the internal rules and policies used by an organization. Companies that want to be industry leaders must, to some extent, share their methods and insights with the greater world, whether that’s through case studies or customer testimonials.

However, no single organization can set the best practices for an entire sector, niche, or business function. This is another reason the concept of best practices fails in execution, especially in people-focused functions, like HR and DEI. One company’s best could be another company’s worst.

Meanwhile, promising practices empowers companies to lead with a mindset of humility and growth. Leaders can say, “This practice is hopeful. It brought good results for us, and we think it can bring good results for you, too.” Then, other organizations can take that baseline method and make it work for them.

This happens at the internal level, as well. What works for one department may not work for another. Certain demographics, such as new employees, or employees of different ages and experience levels, may have vastly different outcomes with the same policy or practice. For example, a software program used by longtime employees may present a steep learning curve for new hires; in this case, leaders should consult with employees across the organization to determine what’s causing these difficulties, how teams can mitigate them, and if it’s time to search for a new program.

Taking a holistic approach and incorporating the employee voice is what leads to more effective problem-solving, and therefore, the development of promising practices that work better for everyone.


Active listening is core to the concept of promising practices, especially when it comes to the human experience at work. If we’re going to develop policies that create a more positive, inclusive workplace, we have to ensure that employees are seen, valued, and heard. That requires soliciting feedback continuously, and through multiple streams of communication. Interpret feedback with empathy, then have focus group conversations to elaborate on that feedback. By moving away from the rigidity of the immovable “best” practice, leaders can enable more inclusive decision-making and affect real, meaningful change.

The concept of promising practices also creates more room for internal policy to incorporate the values of the workforce. According to Workhuman’s newest Human Workplace Index survey, most employees agree that their company has a set of values that guide its purpose and that those values are reflected in their everyday experiences—but like the workplace itself, values are fluid and malleable, changing to accommodate a growing understanding of what people need. Leaders and employees alike deserve permission to show up with all the experiences and the richness of their differences, because recognizing those differences will make organizational values—and thus, organizational policy—more inclusive and amenable to change. People should feel invited to the conversation. They shouldn’t feel barred by the word “best.”


When looking for promise, look at the numbers. Employees produce loads of valuable data through everyday interactions. The ways they communicate with one another, use technology and office space, and share feedback can all lead to organization-shaping revelations about culture and policy. Sometimes, these data points speak when workers themselves may be hesitant to, or when they are missing the language or permission to communicate exactly what they’re experiencing to leadership.

People data can give leaders an early indication of what aspects of company culture need improvements and what practices are working well. For example, one of Workhuman’s clients, a regional healthcare provider, was able to pull insights from their recognition program that helped them better understand how their recognition practices impacted performance and patient satisfaction.

These insights, found on our social analytics platform Workhuman iQ, showed frequently recognized teams saw increased patient satisfaction scores. Knowing this, leadership could then monitor their recognition program and the promising practices they suggested to employees, flagging when teams went too long without receiving recognition and ensuring that employees were properly rewarded to the benefit of their team and patients alike.

Insights like these can help organizations iterate and find what their promising practices are—even if they look different from other companies in the industry, or even from team to team.


Naturally, the true test of whether a practice is promising is the impact it has on the workforce. The processes of active listening and data collection don’t stop after a change is made, or a policy is implemented; it takes cycles of iteration and revision to understand what truly makes something promising. The challenge that comes next is reinforcing that practice. How do you perpetuate it throughout an organization? How do you structurally embed a new value within the overall culture?

The answer is to celebrate it. When employees uphold positive values in the workplace, they deserve to be recognized. Publicly praising these moments will reinforce their importance, encouraging others to take part. More than that, when people receive recognition, they’re more likely to feel like they belong. As my company found in a joint study with Gallup, employees who strongly agree that they receive the right amount of recognition for the work they do are four times more likely to perceive their workplace as inclusive.

Recognition offers employees a chance to take pride in themselves—and that’s exactly what powers the thesis of promising practices. Find what works and take pride in it, while leaving the door open for change. When we free ourselves from the idea that there is only one “best” for everyone, we can create more inclusive cultures that harness our employees’ full potential.

  Be in the Know. Subscribe to our Newsletters.



More Top Stories: