We tend to assume that most groups are ‘normally distributed’, whether we’re talking about intelligence, height, or a range of other characteristics. In fact, many attributes trend in that direction - most people are average height, about 5’4” for women and 5’9” for men, with a fairly equal number of shorter and taller peers to either side (the shortest living person happens to be about 2’0” and the tallest 8’3”).
The notion that human characteristics follow a ‘bell curve’ has led to the assumption that employee performance follows the same pattern, with the positive impact of high-performers mirrored by the negative impact of their equally unsuccessful colleagues (the so-called ‘C-Players’). Unfortunately, it has also led many managers to overfocus on problems, underestimate the significance of their best employees, and otherwise miss the opportunity to foster a Role Model culture.
Employee Performance is not ‘Normal’
Despite these assumptions, a number of recent studies have shown that employee performance does not actually conform to this ‘normal’ curve, but instead follows more of a Power-Law or Pareto distribution - with most of us performing at a certain level (hopefully meeting our responsibilities) and a few far exceeding expectations.
The key takeaway being that ‘C-Players’ are often not as much of a problem as conventional wisdom would suggest, and that their negative impact is eclipsed by the work of our best, Role Model employees. It’s a wonder why we spend so much time worrying about some employees’ shortcomings, and so little focusing on others’ strengths and talents.
For example, in The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance, (a study that includes 633,263 participants across a range of professions) Ernest O’Boyle Jr. and Herman Aguinis found that performance actually follows a Power-Law distribution, with the best being up to 5.4x times more productive than their median peers.
In other words, work performance is much more skewed and uneven than height, and Role Models have a much greater positive impact than a normal curve would suggest - to put it in perspective, if height followed the same pattern, the people on the far right of our normal curve would be more than 30 feet tall!
You can see this in a wide range of fields - and probably first-hand in your own organization. Teams aren’t often comprised of capable employees, flanked by an equal number of low and high performers. Rather, most of us work with a large group of competent peers, and a number of ‘Wayne Gretzkys’ or ‘Michael Jordans’ who are exceptionally good at what they do.
I’ll Never be that Tall
The big question, of course, is whether we can ever hope to achieve the same level of performance as the elite employees in these studies, especially if you believe that a significant part of their success is due to inborn capabilities.
The answer is a resounding - not quite, but it’s certainly worth trying.
Although top performers in many fields have natural gifts that enable them to achieve this elite status, our experience working with Role Model employees suggests that they are successful mainly because they do the right things, consistently, considering the position and environment - and, in most cases, there’s no reason to think that the rest of us can’t develop and practice these same behaviours.
For example, in one of our recent studies of Role Model Medical and Health Services Managers (Unit Managers, Nursing Managers), results suggested that peers could emulate Role Models by practicing the following, all of which are reasonable and achievable:
Improving verbal communication skills. Speaking clearly, concisely, and directly. Tailoring messages to the audience. Ensuring that others understand and agree.
Expressing care and compassion for staff, patients, and their families. Following-up. Encouraging them to communicate problems, even if not related to work. Listening to them and empathizing.
Being visible and accessible, and fostering an “open door” policy. Interacting regularly with patients, families, staff and physicians. Attending events.
Supporting change and innovation. Coming up with ideas to improve unit performance and efficiency, and patient care. Encouraging others to do so as well. At the same time, focusing on ideas that are practical and realistic. Practicing quality and process improvement.
Seeking out opportunities to collaborate with patients, families, staff, physicians, and other teams. Checking in with them regularly. Treating them like partners and trying to find solutions that meet everyone’s needs.
Of course, many of these behaviours and achievements do come more naturally to some people than others. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t commit to doing the same things and, by doing so, improve our performance (and that of our department or organization) by a significant degree. Put another way, although their teammates wouldn’t have been JUST as exceptional as Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan, learning from them and emulating their approach would certainly have improved their performance and led to a much more effective group of players.
The Impact of Focusing on Role Model Behaviour
One of the interesting things about having this new research is that we can create scenarios to explore the impact of focusing on Role Models. These examples are simplified and aren’t meant to perfectly predict performance, of course, as there are many factors that contribute to a team’s success - but they can help illustrate how targeting high-performer behaviours can be so effective. We’ll also make assumptions based on utility analysis studies by leading researchers such as Schmidt and Hunter.
For example, let’s say that your average organization has 10 Sales Representatives and that 6 of them are competent performers - generating $200K each in sales. And let’s assume that 3 employees are Role Models who, as described in utility research, generate between $255K and $887.5K each in sales (as a group, the team generates about $2.8M each year). By the way, you can substitute any type of performance metric that applies to your organization, or even more qualitative factors that might be more applicable to leaders - the point is to demonstrate how much of an impact this approach can have.
If you had recruited based on a Role Model template, it’s reasonable to think that you could have hired a few more people who share these high-performer characteristics. If so, the team would have generated $3.8M in sales - a 26% improvement.
We can also use this research to explore the impact of developing competent employees, with a focus on helping them improve and practice the same Role Model behaviours. In this case, let’s assume that a targeted development program could help these employees ‘bridge the gap’ between themselves and top-performers, and generate an additional $55K each. This is likely achievable, as 33% of your workforce already perform at or well above this level - we simply need to understand their typical approach, in order to create a ‘road map’ to help others do these same things, consistently.
Your team would now be generating $3.2M in sales, equivalent to a 13% bump in productivity for the group and organization. That’s a significant improvement, especially considering that we’re being relatively conservative in our assumptions - depending on the effectiveness of your training programs, employees may produce a much higher ‘return’ on their efforts (closer to that of your top performers).
Clearly, there’s merit in modifying our approach to talent management, using a deeper understanding of ‘Role Model’ characteristics to guide talent management decisions. This could include more targeted screening methods and interview questions when hiring, or training and support programs that focus specifically on helping employees practice the same type of behaviours as their high-performing peers.
We hope this article was useful and insightful, and highlights the benefits of a taking a ‘Role Model’ perspective. We’ve included a few tips in this section on how to develop such a template, which you can use to improve your talent management practices. These are based on our own work exploring high-performer behaviours and attributes, but we welcome any other suggestions.
How to Develop a ‘Role Model’ Template
Establish key performance metrics. Before you identify behaviours, you’ll need to outline the most critical goals and responsibilities for people in the target role, and establish related performance metrics. For example, a sales representative may be responsible for building market share, increasing revenue from current customers, and maintaining client satisfaction.
When creating these metrics, it often helps to start with questions such as: Why does the position exist and what value does it provide to the organization and its stakeholders? What are the critical situations and problems that employees encounter, and what decisions must be made? What outcomes are expected?
Identify Role Models. Once you establish critical performance metrics, you can evaluate current employees to identify those who consistently exceed expectations. There are many ways to do this, from objective quantitative results (e.g., number of new customers) to more qualitative data derived from manager appraisals and larger-scale multi-rater feedback. Your goal should be to identify the employees who ‘score’ at the 85th percentile or above - the top 15 percent.
Explore Role Model Behaviour. Finally, you need to figure out what top-performers are doing to reach such high levels of success. Multi-rater or 360° feedback is a great tool for this, especially if you’ve asked raters to describe key strengths and achievements in an open-ended section. We’ve found these particularly helpful for highlighting the most important and impactful Role Model behaviours. You can also conduct interviews with high-performers, colleagues, and managers. Look for themes - the behaviours that people are mentioning clearly and often.
We’ve found behavioural questionnaires (and debrief sessions) useful as well, which ask Role Models to answer questions about their tendencies in a more structured, objective way than would be the case with open-ended feedback. The right type of instrument will allow you to compare them to a large group of peers in a similar role, and identify the things they do differently. This can also be a strong complement to other feedback tools and provide additional insights. For example, although creativity was a key theme in open-ended feedback from our study of Healthcare Managers, a behavioural styles questionnaire and debrief revealed that Role Models were not actually ‘blue sky innovators’ but focus on practical, continuous improvement.
How You Can Help
Thank you again for reading this article. If interested, here are a few ways you can help with these projects and research:
Let us know if you would like to assess yourself or your team, and compare the results to top-performers in the position. There’s no cost for taking part in a Role Model research project.
We welcome discussion about this topic. Do you agree with these findings? Is there anything we should consider for future updates, that others might find helpful?
Do you know of any research on the qualities that predict success in specific jobs? We’d love to hear about these types of studies.
If you found this post interesting, please feel free to share it with colleagues!