Cultivating Exceptional Employees
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling more like a parent, trying to keep unruly children under control, than like the leader of intelligent adults, you’re not alone. It’s a national problem.
Managers nationwide report that undirected, unenthusiastic, poorly performing employees are increasing, and they worry that this growing problem will destroy morale and undermine the efforts of the entire organization. Recent workplace studies suggest that managers are spending over eighty percent of their time trying to keep employees directed and productive, which leaves little time for other important tasks.
Although most companies are at a loss as to why this trend is growing, evidence suggests that, in many cases, the companies themselves, in an effort to prevent employee dissatisfaction and avoid lawsuits, may be inadvertently contributing to the problem.
There are four primary factors that determine employee performance. These are:
(1) Environment or company culture
(2) Employee’s attributes
(4) Employee’s attitude
Each interacts with the others and affects them to a large degree. Ultimately, all four factors must be aligned for optimal performance. How seriously these categories are addressed and managed determines, almost entirely, how effectively an organization and its employees will function. To better understand how these four factors may be affecting your organization, let’s briefly examine each of them.
Environment and Company Culture
Every company has its own particular cultural environment, which functions somewhere within the boundaries of fast-paced or slow-paced, highly structured or flexible, stressful or relaxed, employee-centered or process-centered. Even in the healthiest of cultures, there will be certain types of employees who fit within it better than others and it is extremely useful to know which ones best fit the culture, and how to effectively manage those who don’t fit.
Most often a company’s culture falls somewhere between healthy and mediocre, but there are three types of culture that are decidedly unhealthy. A "No Mistakes" culture, in which everyone is called out on the carpet for any little mistake. This results in a fear-paralyzed workforce that doesn’t dare do anything new or innovative. Companies stagnate and eventually die within this overly strict environment.
A "No Consequence" culture is the opposite extreme. This culture might seem to be a laid-back, easy-going environment on the surface. But what’s really going on in this culture is that managers have decided that problem employees require too much of their time and energy to bother with. They have decided that it’s just easier to ignore them than to deal with them or to find and implement effective ways to manage and motivate them. This is not as uncommon as one might think in organizations where firing an employee is a multi-step process or where tenure or other "entitlements" are in use.
Unfortunately, the longer managers tolerate sub-standard work and negative behaviors in employees, the worse they tend to become. Worse yet, other employees notice that the difficult employees are getting away with all kinds of things and, in time, they too begin adjusting their productivity levels downward to the lowest level tolerated. Before long the majority of employees are simply riding the time-clock, collecting their paychecks, and doing just enough to stay out of serious trouble. Even potentially excellent employees function at less than half of their capacity in such an environment.
Once employees become accustomed to coasting and getting by with it, complacency sets in and turning the tide can be a real challenge, but it certainly can be done. There are ways to stop almost any downward spiraling trend, but any real and lasting change must begin with upper management and filter down from there. It is essential then, for company leaders to understand the reasons behind employee behaviors, and get serious about implementing measures that lend themselves to the development and nurturing of productive, dedicated workers.
The third unhealthy culture is a Firefighter culture. Here, leaders and managers are taking on a lot of tasks that should be delegated, and all those tasks keep them too busy to have the time they need to lead and manage their people effectively. Employees without effective leadership tend to hang back waiting for direction and to make mistakes when they attempt to complete assignments without clear direction. This creates an ever-worsening environment where leaders and managers are constantly overworked and frustrated, and where potentially good employees are prevented from performing at their best.
The only healthy culture is one we call Structured Freedom. In a Structured Freedom culture, leaders have vetted their employees well enough to know that they can do the job they were hired to do, and they give their employees the freedom to do what they are capable of doing within a well-defined structure. Rules of conduct are clearly spelled out and consistently adhered to across the board so employees know what is and is not accepted; what will get them in trouble and what will result in a reward.
Structured Freem is a Values-based form of management, which uses a set of principles to guide the decisions and directives of every employee, coupled with a people-centric approach, and it has proven to be highly effective in all kinds of organizations. For company values to be meaningful and effective, they must consider the needs of the people as well as the needs of the company and must be presented as strict guidelines. Once established, every single employee must be held to those standards. If one employee is allowed to get by with violating a standard, the standard no longer holds any power and, once a standard has lost its power, it’s just a matter of time until it is no longer regarded as a standard. Worse still, if one standard can be undone, certain employees will then begin testing the others and, before you know it, managers are spending all their time dealing with problem employees and trying to enforce rules that are now powerless and no longer meaningful.
While no two people are exactly alike, all people fall into particular classifications that are useful in defining them and their abilities. The classifications generally used in the workplace, such as gender, age, education level, and work experience, are far less important than the less regularly used classifications of personality type, natural traits and abilities, behavioral style, values, emotional maturity and character.
Many companies never bother with the latter classifications at all, believing that they are "soft skills" which are incidental to getting the job done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Volumes of research data, such as the broad study done by U.C. San Diego professor, Dr. Judith Bardwick, clearly proves that character and personality influence behaviors and outcomes on the job more than knowledge and skills. Dr. Bardwick stated, "It is much easier for an individual to learn new skills and information than it is to change one’s personality and character; to make a timid person bold, for example."
Healthy character, one of the two components named as primary to employee success, is not possible without sufficiently developed emotional maturity, or as author Daniel Goleman coined it, emotional intelligence. In fact, emotional intelligence is cited in study after study as the number one predictor of outstanding performance in the workplace, and of overall goal achievement.
I have been training and consulting since 1984 and I have seen more instances of well educated, experienced employees who are also highly problematical due to emotional immaturity than I can count. Time and again I have found that the degree to which an employee is properly placed according to his or her natural abilities, and the degree to which he or she is emotionally mature is directly proportional to his or her overall effectiveness. Yet, few organizations address these two essential elements.
Of the two, emotional immaturity is cited as the number one cause of failure to perform well on the job. Emotionally immature employees can wreak havoc at any level, but the higher up the organization immaturity is allowed to flow, the greater the problems become. Emotionally immature employees are the sources of petty politics, time-wasting, gossip, loafing, slacking off, and a host of other completely counter-productive behaviors. It is estimated that these behaviors cost organizations more than forty billion dollars annually.
After emotional immaturity, the next greatest cause of failure to perform is trying to make employees perform well at something for which they have no natural abilities or inclinations. It’s like trying to teach a fish to fly. While you can’t teach fish to fly, you can force them to swim upstream until they are worn out and finally just give up. Managers waste endless hours and millions of dollars essentially trying to do just that. Potentially good employees in the wrong positions are, essentially, "swimming upstream" all the time. They are forced to work hard to do their jobs and, in time, even the most dedicated will burn out. If you add emotional immaturity to that equation, you’ve got real problems and even people who are relatively mature under normal circumstances, often become immature under stress and continually swimming upstream creates stress for everyone in time.
When emotionally mature employees are placed in jobs that complement their natural strengths, they seem tireless. They can breeze through the same work as the poorly placed employee in a fraction of the time and enjoy it. They are more positive and upbeat and, according to two recent studies, can be as much as a thousand times more productive than poorly placed, emotionally immature employees in certain instances. (Computer programmers, the stars and superstars: J. Martin, Rapid Application Development: New York: Macmillan, 1990 and C. Jones, Programming Productivity: New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986)
Poor job fit occurs when employees are hired and placed without any consideration of their natural attributes, which is an expensive mistake. There is no way an individual can effectively alter natural abilities enough to excel at the wrong kind of work. A natural athlete, for example, with very little technical acumen is never going to be a whiz at computer programming. He may be able to learn the basics and perform the tasks to some level of competence, but he will never shine at it. Conversely, an individual with natural technical intelligence, but minimal athletic abilities, will never be a star athlete. As in the first example, he may be able to learn enough skills to compete as an athlete, but he too will never be a star. Reverse the roles of these two, however, and each of them will quickly shine in the area of his natural talent.
The same rule applies in the workplace. It is not uncommon to see people who have very little propensity for details occupying jobs such as bookkeeping, filing, data entry, editing and other positions that require a lot of attention to detail. Though they work very hard at getting it right, lots of costly mistakes occur. Finding introverted technical or systems-oriented people with few people skills in customer service positions is fairly common too. Many customers are lost at the hands of these individuals, who likely mean well, but who really don’t enjoy dealing with people (and it shows).
Another major contributor to employee problems is poor communication and understanding between managers and their employees. Managers tend to be direct and to the point types, and that’s how they communicate. However, the majority of people are indirect communicators who process information differently, and who need more discussion or explanation than most managers are willing to give. Indirect communicators rarely ask for more information though. They tend to take what is given and use it as clues to lead them to a conclusion. The result is that directives that are often carried out wrong or poorly, not because the employee didn’t care and not necessarily because he or she was incapable of producing outstanding results. More than likely the poor outcome occurred because the employee didn’t fully understand what was expected and didn’t ask for or receive clarification.
Managers are frequently frustrated by the results they get from employees and assume it’s because the employees can’t follow orders. Usually, however, it’s because managers start at "Z" (the outcome they want) and work forward. Employees, with different temperaments, start with "A" (the first step of a process) and work forward. So while the manager is talking about "Z", the employee is at "A" trying to figure out what on earth the manager is trying to convey. The solution is often as simple as learning how each type of person communicates and communicating to them according to their understanding.
Communications, day-to-day interactions, outcomes, and productivity all improve markedly when managers and their employees understand one another’s personalities, and learn to build on one another’s strengths and compensate for one another’s limitations. Most people want desperately to get along with others and to do their best. They simply need the means for doing it. Before this can occur, organizations must take the time and invest the money to ensure that every employee, including managers, recognize the differences that exist among personalities in order to learn how to best work together. It is also extremely important to discover each employee’s natural abilities and place them where their talents are best utilized. That, of course, is the domain of management.
Statistics compiled by The Small Business Administration states that nine out of ten businesses that fail do so because of poor management. One incompetent manager (who is usually too absorbed with protecting his position and covering his incompetence to actually lead anyone) can quickly destroy the morale of an entire department and, from a senior management position, of the entire organization. Where morale is lacking, so too is respect, dedication, ingenuity, forethought, productivity and just about everything else necessary to organizational success.
Great leaders are great because they are competent, not just at managing systems, but at understanding and developing their people. They have excellent people skills, which they apply wisely in order to get the most from every employee. True leadership is the ability to persuade others to do things your way and like it. To get that result, one must know what will persuade each individual and what will make doing the job enjoyable for that individual.
Without good people skills, the role of management will always be a challenge. I have asked hundreds of managers to name the source of their greatest challenges and ninety-nine percent of them name employees. The challenge can become far easier and even enjoyable when approached from a position of human awareness, as more and more organizations are beginning to discover.
One client, concerned about an employee he had promoted to management eight months earlier, confided to me that this individual, who had been an excellent employee for seventeen years, had suddenly become angry and tyrannical as a manager. He couldn’t understand it. He had tried everything he knew to lead this employee back to her former positive self, but without success. A profile of this employee revealed that, while she enjoyed working with people, she was very uncomfortable in a leadership role. She wanted desperately to please her manager however, so she was giving the new position all she had in spite of the extreme stress it was creating for her. The negative behaviors were a manifestation of her high-stress levels and her mounting frustration as she saw that she was incompetent in this new position and couldn’t manage to will herself to do better.
My client didn’t want to lose this valued employee so, upon my recommendation, he gave her the option of moving back to her old position without taking a pay cut, provided she assist whoever replaced her as manager. The employee happily accepted the offer. She soon returned to her old, kind, reliable, productive self and, three years later, is still a valued employee. Had my client not learned to work with this employee’s nature and needs, and had he not provided an avenue for her to move back toward them, he would have lost a valuable employee.
I have had numerous managers tell me in hindsight, once they have learned about human nature and how it impacts behaviors and interactions, that they too have lost valuable employees by promoting them to positions for which they were unsuited or by unknowingly mismanaging them. They also frequently marvel at how profoundly the combination of company culture, individual attributes, and management can impact an employee’s performance and attitude.
In 1993 I was called into a large organization which, two years earlier, had implemented a program designed to unify employees and management. The problem was that, instead of improving morale and productivity as intended, things had steadily gotten worse. Employees were sullen and cranky, and petty wars were raging everywhere. The first thing I did was question employees in confidential interviews and really listen to what they had to say.
Essentially, what they told me was that they had been collectively wounded by the uncaring attitudes and lack of concern that had existed at all levels of management for years. Many of them had voiced their concerns about this and management’s answer had been this "joke of a program". Nothing, these employees stated, had changed except that they (the employees) were now supposed to pretend that everything was all better because the company had spent several million dollars on this program, which the managers were quick to point out while telling employees they should be grateful.
But they weren’t grateful. They were furious! And their furor is what was driving their attitudes and behaviors on the job. The employees well knew that their performance was lacking and productivity had decreased. They knew their behaviors had worsened. They didn’t care. They wanted to be seen, heard, and acknowledged, in a genuine way and they had no intentions of making any improvements until that occurred. Unfortunately, for this company and its employees, top management was too immature and self-absorbed to hear what the employees were shouting loud and clear, and they refused to make the suggested changes. Instead, they decided to continue with the "Rah, Rah, Let’s get fired up!" approach.
Surface change is not my style. I consider it a terrible waste of resources, so I opted not to continue working with the company along those lines.
Not surprisingly, the brightest, most employable people continued to leave the company in a steady stream to work elsewhere. The job turnover rate in this organization remained extremely high and productivity appallingly low until the company got bought out by venture capitalists and eventually went the way of the other dinosaurs. The only thing that kept this company alive as long as it remained was the fact that it was a utility company that held a monopoly in the area it served. In such a marketplace the high cost of poor management was simply passed along to customers.
I wrote about this experience years ago and proposed at the time that the because a vicious cycle had developed, only the healthy intervention of shareholders or top management could stop it. Neither of those events occurred and the company no longer exists.
The cycle at this company likely began, as it often does, with a company culture that was too process-oriented. Then employees, feeling overlooked and unappreciated, began complaining to their managers who themselves felt powerless to change the culture and so responded with what appeared to be indifference. This caused the employees to develop an indifference toward the company and its goals, which led managers to feel taken advantage of and to tighten controls. This further alienated the employees, and the cycle just kept getting more vicious.
Looking at this scenario, it’s easy to see how all four factors continually impact one another. Anytime you see a general malaise and wide-spread poor attitudes among employees, you can bet this is pretty much what’s happening. But attitude alone can set off a similar outcome on a smaller scale. When, for instance, one department is dysfunctional, it might be because the manager of that department is dysfunctional or it might be that there is a problem employee with a bad attitude keeping everyone else stirred up and off-balance. Like one bad apple, one bad attitude can spoil the whole bunch given enough time and latitude.
Because the causes of employee problems can be broad and varied and each factor plays on the others, the exact cause may at first be hard to see. But, whatever the cause, the good news is, it’s curable. But it must be cured at its source, and the source is always people. New systems, re-engineering, quality circles, team-building exercises, incentives, raises, and all the other things that are commonly tried will be temporary fixes at best, unless the source of the problem is addressed and healed. Healing comes from understanding. Understanding brings cooperation and cooperation fosters good working relationships. Good working relationships produce results, better results improve productivity, and greater productivity increases profits. The path to real and lasting productivity and profits is that of cultivating exceptional employees. Invest in it. You’ll discover it’s the path of many great returns.
Article by Sherry Buffington, Ph.D.
Sherry Buffington, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of the Dallas based training, consulting and coaching firm, Star Performance Systems, which specializes in helping individuals succeed and organizations increase their productivity and profits by maximizing the potential of their people.