Employee Performance: The Vital Behaviors of Top Performers
By: David Maxfield, author of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success
Does this scenario sound familiar? Your most trusted, well-meaning employees could use a little spit and polish on some of their skills and competencies. Directives to step it up surface in their performance review year after year with little to no improvement to speak of.
As their manager, you know they really want them to improve; the glimmer in their eye suggests they’d do just about anything to make you happy and keep their job. Unfortunately, the buck stops there.
Our research shows the majority of employee performance issues have the desire to improve but lack the know-how.
The Source of Many Employee Performance Issues
In fact, while conducting research for our new book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, we found that 70 percent of employees who were aware that their boss was unhappy with their performance couldn't tell you just what they were doing wrong or how they were going to change.
Luckily, our research also led us to solutions that managers can use to empower employees and enable them to improve their performance, increase productivity and achieve the career success that you both desire.
With the Change Anything approach to improvement, managers can empower their direct reports to take control of their own career path. Doing so will require that employees learn and utilize the tools that will help change their behavior and improve their employee performance – but it can be done.
The Vital Behaviors of Top Performers
Nearly 30 years ago, we began researching top performers to find out exactly what these successful people did that was so different from the mediocre majority. We asked thousands of employees (including managers) to provide the names of the three people in their organizations whose opinions, work habits and abilities they most admired.
Next, we closely observed these top employees. We analyzed the behaviors that they routinely practiced that made them so respected.
Surprisingly, we found that while top performers did many things well, there were a handful of behaviors they did far better and more consistently than their peers. We’ve since observed super-stars in organizations around the world demonstrate these same behaviors again and again, qualifying them, in our opinion, to be the vital behaviors of top performers. What we found is that top performers:
1. Know their stuff. Top performers put regular effort into ensuring they are good at the technical aspects of their jobs. They’re not necessarily generalists, but work hard at honing their specific craft.
2. Focus on the right stuff. In addition to performing their craft well, top performers contribute to tasks that are essential to the organization’s success –the bottom line. Top performers earn direct access to critical tasks that the company values and excel at completing those tasks.
3. Build a reputation for being helpful. Top performers are widely known and respected by others not because of their frequent contact, charm or likability, but because they help others solve their problems. By doing so, they become invaluable resources.
While the behaviors of top performers are straightforward, managing problem employees isn't simply a matter of their adopting these same principles. The next step requires implementation.
Implementing a Change Plan
The mistake humans often make is they put far too many eggs in the” willpower” basket. We say to ourselves, “I’ll just do it!” as if we could bend our entire universe with the force of our will. As managers, we often look at an employee who knows he should change but doesn’t, assuming that they are lazy or unmotivated. That is usually not the case.
It turns out there is an exponentially more successful approach to influencing change then simply gutting it out.
There are six sources of influence that explain why we make the choices we do. These sources target both our motivation and ability on a personal, social and structural level.
Therefore, when employees rely solely on their willpower to create change, they fail to consider the five other sources of influence that determine their actions. For example, perhaps they don’t know how to improve, or they lack the social support; it also may be that the behaviors that are rewarded in the workplace are counter-productive to their end goal.
Managers can help employees to go the extra mile by implementing strategies within the six sources of influence.
1. Flash forward to the future. The best employee motivation is to help employees visit their “default future” — the career they’ll have if they are repeatedly passed up for promotion. Help them visualize the money they’ll lose and opportunities they’ll miss. Specifically, our research shows if a 30-year-old employee earning $60,000 is passed up for a promotion with a 2% raise, they’ll incur a loss of $59,780 over the lifespan of their career.
2. Invest in professional development. New habits always require new skills. Help employees actively develop the skills they’ll need to be viewed as a top performer through training, workshops or books.
3. Hang with the hard-workers. The bad attitudes and habits that keep people back are likely enabled, tolerated or encouraged by others. Encourage struggling employees to associate with hard-working colleagues who share similar career goals.
4. Find a mentor. Changing habits requires help. If you can’t mentor a struggling employee personally, help him or her find a mentor who will encourage their progression and navigate career development opportunities within the organization.
5. Put skin in the game. Reward employees for reaching short-term goals by placing money at risk. For example, tie small bonuses, rewards or incentives to their ability to meet their goals in their next employee performance review.
6. Control the workspace. Make employees’ new habits easier by enlisting the power of their surroundings. If they’d benefit from close association with another team, relocate their office space.
How to Change Anything
Our research has shown that by following a change model that’s informed by good science, the differences in effectiveness are not merely incremental, they are exponential.
Managers can help employees increase their productivity by understanding employee behavior and enabling employees with a multi-faceted improvement plan. When we escape the willpower trap and develop competence in engaging all six sources of influence, we can change behavior and influence others for good.
David Maxfield is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Influencer and more recently, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. He is also the vice president of research at VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. Visit the Change Anything book website.
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