The problem: It’s just not working anymore. The challenges are too broad and too deep. Companies that succeed in navigating through these times are going to be the ones that figure out a way to get all hands on deck. That means effectively engaging, supporting and improving the productivity of that “other 80 percent.” And that, in turn, means focusing on the right mix of levers that will optimally influence the ability, motivation and behaviors of that sizable portion of your workforce.
The Right Levers at the Right Time
What are these levers? The right mix of interventions to optimize workforce performance will certainly include training, knowledge management and self-directed learning. They will involve a strong leadership dimension, including communications planned and executed to be properly motivational. But organizational or institutional processes and structures are as much at the core of individual performance increases as are the more obvious personal components such as coaching and training.
From that structural or institutional point of view, here are five principles to bear in mind.
1. Develop a Strong Team Orientation
The New York Yankees notwithstanding, it’s generally not the team with just the best individuals that wins, but rather the team that plays together the best. As organizations struggle to raise the level of their “other 80 percent,” they need to figure out a way to integrate their star performers with the rest of the workforce. This integration produces several benefits. First, practically speaking, it provides additional leverage for those performing at the highest levels. Second, because the deepest kinds of learning occur during performance, giving your average performers the opportunity to learn in the company of your top performers provides almost daily opportunities for richer learning experiences. Human beings learn best through imitation, and without good models to imitate, you’re missing big opportunities to improve general workforce performance. Third, well-structured teams can inspire their members and raise everyone’s performance by several levels. Teams can support and encourage individual performance at levels that would be unattainable otherwise.
To develop a team orientation is not to argue for egalitarianism in organizational life. Stars are great; what isn’t great is the “star system” that too often comes along with them. You don’t want to encourage a culture where you rely on heroes or heroic action for success. Those kinds of companies are often characterized by highly inconsistent performance, with huge peaks and valleys in productivity and effectiveness. Why? Because in order to be a hero, you need a crisis. The way heroes become heroes is by pulling a project out of the flames, and too often this becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Subconsciously or consciously, your heroes may even cause the very fires that they then get to put out. That’s no way to raise the overall performance of a workforce and a company.
Effective teams, and the effective planning that comes along with them, can provide the structural stability necessary so that you get the best from the stars, while making everyone else (and thus the entire organization) look good too.
2. Alignment of Roles and Performance Objectives
The corollary to the principle “it’s not the individuals, it’s the team” is “it’s not the individuals, it’s the individuals in the right roles.” This principle has both a personal and an organizational dimension. From the individual perspective, a decision-maker’s goal should be putting people into roles for which they are not only competent (or potentially so) but for which they also feel some passion. Yes, it is possible to overstate the “passion point,” but more often than not, the problem is understating or even ignoring it. An executive at one of my clients, a financial services company, said it well: If, in the course of fulfilling an individual’s passion, they also fulfill the organization’s passion, superior performance overall will result.
But this individual perspective is only part of it. The other aspect is that by focusing on roles, a company achieves clarity and alignment of those roles with the overall strategies of the company. If you’re looking for incremental improvements in individual performance of the other 80 percent, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got their roles constructed right. Are the roles consistent? Are they properly aligned? Proper role definitions make sure, first on paper, that you know what must be done to execute strategy effectively. Then, in implementing the plan, you fill the roles with an eye toward who has which capabilities and passions. The result is focus. Your people know exactly which hill you’re asking them to climb.
Think this is obvious? Not in practice. Financial services institutions, for example, can often send mixed messages as they transition their front-line employees from pure customer service roles to upselling/cross-selling roles. It’s only logical to expect that an expanded selling role will prolong the time of an average customer interaction. That, in turn, can have negative implications for customer service levels, as queues and waiting times lengthen. In this situation, different groups of managers can place irreconcilable demands on their people: “Serve the customer quickly.” “Take the time to understand what the customer really needs.” The only solution here is for the company to be clearer—to itself and to its employees—about roles and metrics.
This problem with role definition, and its consequent effect on job performance, is by no means restricted to low- and mid-level positions. I’m reminded of the mid-1980s, when banks moved from doing primarily credit management to becoming retail sales outlets. A great strategy, but unfortunately, most bank presidents had been hired based on their ability to do credit work.
Most major strategy or technology breakthroughs cause misalignments of roles, and unless you understand that and fix it, you will hamper the performance of a significant number of your people. Your top 20 percent of performers can probably live with a degree of ambiguity—indeed, they know how to manipulate that ambiguity for their personal gain and (it is to be hoped) organizational gain. But the other 80 percent need a clear sense of roles and expectations.
3. Set Clearer Performance Goals and Manage Toward Them
The other 80 percent also need a clear sense of goals. Companies that truly optimize the performance of individuals have a systematic way of setting the right “stretch” expectations for them. Most of the time, these are goals that the individuals themselves don’t realize they can meet.
Here’s an interesting example of this phenomenon from a different field. Early in my career, I did a great deal of clinical training and research. For one project, we took a simple game—in this case, dropping a wooden ring over the top of a milk bottle—and set out to see how different types of people approached the task. We told them that they could devise their own game and make up their own rules—they could set the milk bottle anywhere in the room and toss the ring from anywhere in the room. The healthiest subjects in the research created a realistic but challenging game by standing several feet away to toss the ring. Here was the curious thing, though. We also had a group participating in the study that consisted of recovering alcoholics. Their approach was different. They constructed the game so that you stood right over the milk bottle and dropped the ring on it. That is, their sense of what they could accomplish personally had been so damaged that they set the smallest of goals.
Average to low-average performers tend to set goals that are either too easy or too hard, and in either case are misaligned with the goals of the organization. In light of this, they require a different level of management. Given the right set of supportive environments and appropriate mentoring, many of these workers can achieve goals and performance beyond their own expectations. In doing so over a period of years, they are capable of enormous growth as workers and as human beings. And as they grow, so does the organization.
4. Manage Turnover Properly
As most of you know, employee turnover can be a good thing—if it’s properly planned and managed. If you look at organizations that have had consistently high business or financial performance, almost all of them have experienced some sort of planned or managed turnover. This means they have taken conscious steps to routinely upgrade their workforces.
There are two parts to this. One is using turnover as a reason to try to shuffle people and roles, often to match under-performing employees with roles that might be more appropriate to them. Most of us have had the experience of watching someone blossom from an average to a superior performer simply by finally being matched to the right job. How many times do companies let go of someone with potential, not because of the individual’s shortcomings, but because of the organization’s or leadership’s lack of insight about that person’s true skills?
The other part of turnover management is systematically planning to move performers out of the organization who are in the bottom 10 percent or so. This is not a heartless program, but (if the move is done with dignity) something that is good for both the individuals and the organization. If reasonable efforts have been made to find the right role for a person in the organization, but performance is still not strong, it is likely that the fit just isn’t feasible. Every employee termination comes with emotional pain, but this short-term pain can be understood as having long-term benefits for all.
5. Focus on the Training Structures That Will Change Behaviors
My last point begins to take us from structure to tactics. But as organizations embrace some of the structural initiatives I’ve spoken of to increase the productivity of the other 80 percent, they also need to understand some of the new training tactics that are especially geared toward that group. One of the most important trends in this regard over the past 10 years or so has been the rise of what is called “performance simulation”: the use of advanced technological e-learning techniques that place a learner in a simulated job situation. This enables them to enhance their actual job performance in an environment where they can fail and learn and try again, without negative consequences to the organization.
If the other 80 percent are truly to succeed, and truly to help the organization, they must experience firsthand the behavior models that are most likely to lead to those results. Certain selling behaviors, for example, are more likely to be successful. I’ve already mentioned the importance of imitating the right behaviors. The problem, though, is that in most cases, one cannot leverage enough of the top 20 percent of the workforce to help the other 80 percent reach higher levels. But you can leverage those best practices and embed them in simulation training to demonstrate and then reinforce the behaviors you believe are most likely to lead to success.
An excellent example here is when British Telecommunications (BT) needed to train a large, extended sales force to sell Internet-related services. At the time, most of that workforce couldn’t even adequately explain what the Internet was, much less sell related products and services. The answer for the company was a performance simulation solution—a Web-based platform that takes sales reps through a number of simulated conversations with potential customers, and which then enables reps to familiarize themselves with new products and how they should be sold. Results from the simulation show dramatic improvements in both sales productivity and customer satisfaction: BT realized a 102 percent increase in sales conversions, and a 16-point increase in customer satisfaction ratings. Time to proficiency for the workforce was significantly reduced. Overall training time also decreased, freeing up more than 11,000 hours of agent productivity time. As BT found, performance simulation represents an immersive experience that leads to the behaviors you need to move the other 80 percent to more productive levels.
One of my favorite sayings is, “A rising tide raises all boats.” Organization decision-makers need to find a way to raise the performance tide for all their workers, not just the stars. Creating an organizational high tide means thinking holistically and systematically about the structures and processes that have a wider impact. The tide may not come rushing in all at once, but you don’t necessarily need that. The whole point is that incremental increases can have a huge impact, if in fact they make the entire workforce perform better.
Tom Kraack is a partner with Accenture’s Learning Outsourcing business. He has been at the forefront of the learning industry, including leading the seminal global engagements in large-scale learning outsourcing. Tom has a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Minnesota. He is a frequent speaker and author on workforce transformation, human capital strategy and technology-enablement.