Peak Performers: Not Always Good for Business

Are you a peak performer? According to organizational psychology, the five fundamental peak performance proficiencies are:

  • Awareness of self in all domains
  • Control of effort
  • Visualization
  • Cognitive skills
  • Self-programming

These proficiencies are common to all top achievers. However, a top achiever on a team when all other members are not top achievers may be counterproductive. Why? When one team member is working harder (or less hard) than other members, workflow is hindered. In their book, Learning to See, Mike Rother and John Shook illustrate this concept.

In this graphic, you can see that individual process steps, if not optimized to the system, can create an inefficient system. A system’s parts (or team members), if synchronized, enable the system to run smoothly. This means that no one piece of the system is running faster or slower than it should. What this means for service or manufacturing settings is that workflow needs to be balanced among all individuals if the organization is to function efficiently.

There is a prevalence of advice on managing underperforming employees, but an equivalent amount of literature is not available for managing over-performers. Perhaps this is because over-performance is not seen as a problem. But it can be a problem on teams, especially in a manufacturing setting, but it can also affect service.

I am not espousing that everyone should be an underperformer—far from it! But organizations can benefit if they ensure that their systems are free of waste (especially travel and motion waste), so that their employees can be as efficient as possible. By eliminating waste and creating flow, underperformers and over-performers can work together more productively, creating efficient workflow.

Performance psychology teaches us that workers want to succeed in an organization. By extension, these same workers want the organization to succeed. What is not clear is what motivates workers to want this success.

Regardless, organizations need to remember that their front-line workers are often the face (or voice) of the organization’s brand to the customer. Organizations that provide their workers with tools and systems that enable efficiency will help their workers want to continue to succeed. It’s that simple.

The leader’s role in productivity

An organization’s performance is directly linked to its leader’s effectiveness. In fact, extraordinary leaders can make extraordinary employees out of average employees while poor leaders can turn extraordinary employees into poor performers. And it has nothing to do with the organization’s systems, processes, policies, or procedures.

Employees are impacted by their leader’s behavior. In a McKinsey Global Survey published in October 2009, nine critical leadership skills were identified. Inspiring employees ranked number one (Leadership through the crisis and after: McKinsey Global Survey Results, October 2009).

Inspiring employees is crucial if they are to serve customers in the best possible way, all the time. Since they are the organization’s front line to customer service, employees are the organization’s key to success. Empowered employees will perform their best to achieve their organization’s goals. The leader’s role in positively influencing this behavior cannot be overstated.

To sustain inspiration and empowerment, employees need recognition and reward. Both monetary and non-monetary reward can be used. Some employees may need a bonus to settle personal debts, while others may appreciate a more flexible working schedule. Ask your employees how they want to be rewarded and act accordingly.

While difficult to measure, strong leaders can impact the work environment by contributing to improved employee morale through a “snowball effect” of positive outcomes. It takes just one employee to hinder change, but it also takes just one employee to create positive effects. It starts with leaders.

There are five areas that every leader should consider to better influence productivity in their organizations. These areas are:

  1. Defining goals and objectives. Clarity around organizational goals and objectives and how projects fit within them needs to be provided. When employees understand the projects on which they are working, they are better able to identify and close gaps between the projects and the organizational goals.
  2. Assigning ownership. For any work undertaken in the organization, there should only be one owner of the work. When one owner-employee takes responsibility for the project, there is a greater chance of project success. If there are multiple owners or if ownership is not clear, efficiency and productivity suffers.
  3. Managing employee expectations. This includes ensuring employee job satisfaction and providing incentives and rewards. If employees are empowered and receive appropriate support (e.g., training, resources, etc.) to complete their work, their job satisfaction increases. In addition, recognizing and rewarding employees helps increase their self-esteem and further strengthens their resolve to continue working hard on behalf of the organization.
  4. Communicating. This is a two-way experience. Leaders need to be clear in their communications with employees, but they also need to listen to their employees and act on what their employees are telling them. By engaging in open communication, leaders build trust with their teams, further empowering productivity.
  5. Innovating. Without innovation, organizations will not grow. Leaders need to embrace innovation and encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace. Same old, same old has no place in organizations that want to be successful. Creating or inventing/re-inventing new markets, products and services—this is how successful organizations thrive.

Leadership competency models provide boundless traits and behaviors that differentiate between good and great leaders; they are all useful. But when higher levels of productivity are desired, straightforward behaviors—defining goals and objectives, assigning ownership, managing employee expectations, communicating, and innovating—can be achieved by every leader.

A core business goal, productivity is under the direction of leaders. Leaders who are able to motivate and inspire their employees will be the leaders of successful organizations. Those who do not may soon find themselves out of work.

 

Tradition and Productivity

In the acclaimed Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevye, explains his society’s traditions in the song “Tradition.” The song juxtaposes village life to a world that is changing all around them.

In many respects, struggles faced in today’s organizations may be rooted in difficulty in letting go of tradition—an inability to change.

Consider that the world’s most successful organizations have one thing in common: they are able to adapt quickly to change. Aside from the fact that the top 20 companies in the world are all in the field of technology, this in itself is telling—companies that have embraced technology are the companies that continue to lead in both earnings and productivity.

To improve performance and productivity, companies use technology and its related gadgets, but if the technology does not provide useful information to the user and the organization as a whole, its usefulness is limiting. Technological tools must be able to provide information about performance in both directions. Let me give you an example.

Some companies implemented a web-based time sheet manager that includes two measures of productivity on projects—one for the employee and the other for their team. While the system encourages productivity, it only measures performance one-way—the way the organization has determined correct.

In this example, time sheet measures provide what the organization is looking for, but what is missing is employee input. Meeting targets is one thing, but did the employee agree to the targets in the first place? Are the targets realistic? How has meeting the targets impacted employee wellbeing? These and other considerations need to be incorporated within performance measures to not only improve on performance measures, but to improve on the activities that comprise productivity.

The approach described is typical of many organizations. It is, by all accounts, traditional and one-way—company to employee.

Company demands for maximum productivity needs to be coupled with meeting employee demands. This includes understanding the individual and their work as well as understanding what the individual needs to get their work done. In other words, companies need to listen to their employees before developing systems. This is especially true in today’s economy where Generation X and Generation Y have already displaced the Baby Boomers in the workforce.

Successful organizations need to change their systems and processes to meet the needs of the “what’s in it for me” generation (X) as well as the Gen Y kids who are very technology-wise and “immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches.”

The tradition carried into the workplace by Baby Boomers no longer meets the needs of organizations. Insisting on maintaining practices started in the 20th Century is not a tradition that will benefit 21st Century companies. The successful organizations of the 21st Century will want to work with their individual employees to learn how to accomplish more for the benefit of both employees and the organization.