General Research — 16 October 2018

Business people gathering in a meeting room. Source: Forbes

What separates the high performers from the rest? And what can employers do to improve performance in individuals and teams? These are two fascinating questions that not only occupy the minds of HR professionals and business leaders but increasingly neuro-scientists, workplace experts and health, and wellbeing professionals as well. Wouldn’t we all love to have our team full of Elon Musks or Marc Benioffs?

In every organization there are a handful of colleagues that just stand out. Even though most organizations don’t measure performance objective – who can blame them, as this is incredibly difficult – team leaders and managers know, which of the staff members are delivering high-quality output consistently. You have these individuals in schools, in academia, in healthcare, in business, and in non-profits too. You surely must know who they are on your team.

These individuals show to the organization, management, and colleagues a new standard of getting the job done. They take the sales numbers to a level that hasn’t been done yet, they improve classroom scores, they solve customer problems in new and innovative ways, and cause a considerable headache to management: if she can do it, how can I create an environment, in which others will follow suit?

Hence, the High-Performance Culture is born. The dream to pull certain levers and push certain buttons in the organization, that will foster collective behavior, modeled after that of high-performers, to maximize the chances of a higher percentage of employees delivering better results more consistently. So in a sense, defining the behaviors that we have studied in high-performers and trying to create a conducive environment (management, technology, and workplace) that will pull the rest of the workforce towards those standards.

But what if this has a price too high to pay?

Focusing on pulling the employees upwards towards high performance can however have negative consequences too , if we don’t consider the other side of the coin, why is the majority of them not putting in more energy, more of an effort, in firstly learning and understanding what is expected of them, and then recreating those behaviours that would improve individual and team performance. I would like to issue a warning here: there is a high chance we will just end up stressing employees more than what we will achieve in the end – and instead, I would plead to foster engagement, and yes, high performance, by focusing on improving the overall employee experience. What does this mean for you in practice?

A lot has been written about employee experience, but there are always newer and more nuanced findings out there, to help us fine-tune the employee experience mix at our workplaces. One such recently published study is the excellent Leesman report, “The Workplace Experience Revolution”. I had the chance to participate at their Brussels launch event, and have learned a lot from the thousands of data they have gathered over the years, and compiled in a comprehensive publication. It is definitely worth reading the entire report, but what I would like to highlight here is the finding, that there is a lot more within the professional control of HR managers, Workplace professionals, Facilities managers than they believe. Here are just a few:

  • What are the irritants in the workplace? What are the perhaps small things that accumulate over a working day, which generates moments of unnecessary stress for employees? Could it be the slow printer, the bad coffee, the lines in the cantine, the heat from the windows… If we don’t continuously detect these areas that over the course of a day erode people’s energy and experience, other areas of motivation and culture will fail. The goal here is to provide a frictionless day at work – as much as possible.
  • Are we too focused on performance, and much less on recovery? Many workplaces are now getting the work-areas right, with hubs for collaboration, individual spaces for deep-work, soundproofed phone bubbles, but are we monitoring how people use them? If you have invested in a nap-room, sleeping pods, ping-pong table, are people using them? One of the key findings of organizational psychology in recent years has been the notion, that employers need to be much more vigilant in ensuring that there are opportunities for employees to recover, take mini-breaks throughout the workday – and it is the role of HR and people managers to ensure that they actually do. You can have a wonderful recovery place or forest for walks by the office, but if micro-managing team-leaders or over-zealous line-managers don’t support employees taking these breaks – they won’t be used.
  • Have you considered employee emotions in all this? There are certain areas of work, which are more emotionally charged than others. Some aspects really elicit a strong emotional reaction from employees, and the quest here is to find out which are those, and then understand if the emotions are positive or negative. Do people take pride in their work and their workplace? Are they happy bringing clients and family members to show off their office or workplace? Do they benefit from social support among colleagues and management, also in times of stress and challenges – both at work and in their personal lives?

The Office of National Statistics in the UK (ONS) highlighted two interesting and worrying trends in their 2017 report on sickness absences. On the one hand, overall sickness absence days have fallen – which indicates a higher rate of presenteeism. Employees being at work while sick. Secondly, the number of sickness absences due to psychological and mental health reasons has increased, almost surpassing those due to physical ailments. In essence, our workplaces could be a lot nicer to employees.

So here it is: Employees are overworked, stressed and also afraid of the consequences this would have on their employment relationship. And these are some worrying signs that also bare considerable costs to employers. Because these employees are for sure not performing to their best abilities. So instead of purely focusing on the high-end of performance, employers would gain a lot more energy, performance, and engagement back on the mid and long term, by examining what is eroding the engagement and experience of this other, much larger group of employees. Now it’s your turn to take a long, hard look at the experience you are offering as an employer, and I am sure there will be a lot of low-hanging fruits that can be fixed as of tomorrow.

I am a certified change manager, consultant and author. I co-founded the WorkLife HUB research and consultancy company and host its weekly podcast.

This piece by Agnes Uhereczky was originally published on ‘Forbes’, 27 September, 2018.

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