Monday Mornings with Madison

How to Increase Work Excellence, Part 2

Word Count: 1,434
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

Organizations everywhere – from the smallest mom-n-pop shops to the largest, multi-national corporations and government entities– want efficient, effective and accomplished workers.  They want every employee to excel at what they do.  In a dog-eat-dog marketplace, employees who bring their A-Game every day and produce the highest-caliber work separate and elevate companies that are thriving and transforming the world from those who are just barely getting by or keeping up.   So, organizations are always highly focused on how to get excellent work from every employee every day.  At most companies, big or small, the approach has been to hire, reward and promote employees who perform best.

However, some companies – desperate to encourage work excellence — went even further by ranking all employees and then terminating the “bottom 10% worst performing employees” each year.  Rank-and-Yank, as it was dubbed, was made popular by Jack Welch, who was CEO of General Electric for 20 years. The methodology was based on a classic bell curve, where the vast majority of people invariably fall somewhere in the middle of the curve. However, a bell curve is a statistical tool that assumes a random sampling, which a company is not.  Besides creating big morale problems, employees were understandably vexed at the sight of “good performers” being pushed out simply because the system dictated that some had to go.   Moreover, without clear performance standards and expectations, the decision on who was in the bottom 10% was left up to individual managers, whose judgments quickly became — or were at the very least perceived as – political, biased, arbitrary and capricious.  Forced ranking came to be viewed as a quick fix for a situation where the managers were just not doing their jobs properly.  Dozens of companies that tried it said that rank-and-yank was actually a management solution for what was actually a management problem.

The real problem was that that type of “burn and churn” mentality implied that work excellence was the sole responsibility of the employee doing the work.  But, scientific studies now reveal that work excellence is actually much more a function of whether the leader is a good teacher than whether the employee is a good worker.

Turning Woo Hoo Work into Teachable Moments

So what should a manager do to get excellent work from employees?  Studies are confirming what the best teachers already know… people have natural talents and abilities that, when recognized, can be harnessed, observed, scrutinized, recreated and replicated, in that order.  Instead of pointing out mistakes or correcting bad behaviors or outcomes, the most effective managers (and teachers) quietly observe while colleagues labor and then say “Yes!  That’s it.  Woo hoo” when they catch an employee doing excellent work.   When someone demonstrates excellence, the manager uses that “Woo hoo work” as a teachable moment by dissecting what was great about it, and encouraging him/her to do it again and again and again.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how it is done.

Step 1 – Manager determines what are the employee’s strengths.

A manager should have a strong understanding of each team member’s strengths, skills and abilities…. and especially what they do best.  But for managers who are not adept at identifying others’ strengths, a diagnostic test can be used to help identify each employee’s innate strengths.

For example, the Clifton StrengthsFinder test was developed by the Gallup organization (which is known for its Gallup polls) and became widely known in 2001 with the publication of the book Now, Discover Your Strengths.  Written by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, who was Chairman of Gallup, the book argued that each person has certain innate strengths.  Those abilities are used by the person often.  Strengths were divided into 34 categories, each of which fell into one of four main areas or domains:  Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking.  To come up with the 34 strengths, the Gallup Organization interviewed more than 1.7 million professionals, across a variety of fields.  The book sold over 2 million copies.  Individuals and teams have since been using the StrengthsFinder test to identify the person’s top five personal strengths based on what is “right” about them, not “wrong” with them.

Step 2 – Manager watches employees work.

Booker T. Washington once said “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.”  For a manager to be able to help spur excellent work in employees, it starts by catching an employee doing a common thing in an uncommon way.  While this does not sound difficult, it is actually the hardest part of getting excellent work from employees.  That’s because a manager has to be around and paying attention to – quietly observing — what an employee is doing most of the time.  The manager has to have a lot of exposure to and interaction with the employee’s performance and work product.  For managers who are busy in meetings, collaborating with other departments, and taking direction from top brass, there is little time to just sit and watch employees “do their thing.”  And it cannot be just an occasional glimpse into the employee’s work.

Step 3 – Recognize what excellence looks like.

While it may seem obvious to the manager, it may not be obvious to the employee when they do something that was “excellent.”  The manager needs to say “Yesss!!  What you did was great.  That is what we need.”  That is a high-priority moment, one that should not be deferred to later if at all possible.  Catching greatness in action is key.  And the manager needs to be specific.  For example, “That was awesome, and these are the two things that really worked for me…  ” and then explain what those things are.  Or the manager can say “Here’s what worked best for me… and here’s why.”  Or “Here are three things that really worked for me in this project.”  Yes, this is praise but it is not “cotton candy praise” focused on just letting the employee feel good.  It is about really digging down to help the employee see the work through the manager’s eyes.  The idea is for the employee to hear what the manager experienced when that Woo hoo moment – that golden moment of excellence – grabbed the manager’s attention.  The manager wants the employee to know “this is how that came across to me” or “this is how I felt” or “this is what it made me think.”  The employee then gets a real glimpse into how his/her work was received and perceived.  This lets the employee know the impact his/her work made.  This is what genuine transparency is really about.

Step 4 – Drill down to understand how the employee got to that level of work.

Once that Woo hoo moment has been firmly identified, the manager needs to take it a little further and ask, “What was your inspiration when you did that?”  Or say, “What was going through your mind when you did that work?”  By discussing the finer points of the work performance or product and the pathway that led to it, the manager is helping the employee solidify the neuro pathways that produced excellence.  Those pathways are usually well developed, because excellence is usually a by-product of the skills and abilities that are most developed within a person… the person’s strengths.  So this step actually helps to nurture those connections and synapses further.  That is why pushing a person “out of their comfort zone” runs contrary to the research on how to get people to do excellent work.  Outside their comfort zone, a person is struggling to establish new neural pathways.  That takes a lot more work.  Working in “the zone” allows a person to fully benefit from all that growth and expertise which is what allows them to excel.  So it turns out that Aristotle had it right thousands of years ago when he said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The job of a manager then is to catch people performing those habits which are their strengths… their areas of excellence and then recognizing it, scrutinizing it, drawing inspiration and insight from it, and then encouraging them to “do that again.”  It seems easy, but it actually runs counter to everything most people do both in and outside the workplace.  Instead of focusing on errors and mistakes and catching people when they make mistakes, managers needs to turn that on its head and look for the Woo hoo moments every day.  It should not be surprising that the more those Woo hoo moments are recognized, the more of them that will blossom.  Try it.

Quote of the Week

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” Vince Lombardi


© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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