It pays to invest in A players. Consulting firm Bain & Company has estimated that, across all job types, “the best performers are roughly four times as productive as average performers.” Considering that this differential increases to six or more for highly specialized or creative work, it’s not completely shocking that superstars who possess rare and in-demand skills can command million-dollar salaries.
But as valuable as talented people are, their performance is not immutable. This is what organizational behavior expert Boris Groysberg found when he compared the performance of equity analysts who moved across organizations to those who stayed in the same organization. For those top-ranked analysts who changed firms, the probability of being ranked first the following year declined significantly.
Surprisingly, this drop in performance was not as severe in women, who were better than men at building support networks outside the company. They did not lose this network when they changed firms, and thus were better able to maintain performance.
So Groysberg’s research points to a fundamental truth: when it comes to employee performance, success is not just due to experience and raw talent — but also workplace connections.
How Certain Social Dynamics Foster Business Agility
Before Michael Arena became the chief talent officer for GM, he was part of an academic research team for almost a decade and a half. As he tells Deloitte in this Q&A, his team was interested in why some organizations are adaptive and others aren’t (a pressing issue for large organizations facing disruption from agile startups today).
The organizations that were responsive and continually reinvented themselves had a kind of “free trade zone” for ideas. Certain types of social arrangements, the researchers found, are important drivers of business agility.
“When it comes to performance, success is not just due to experience and raw talent — but also workplace connections.”
Clearly, collaborative networks can enhance the performance of individuals and the organization. The underlying social structures that support collaboration can form spontaneously, but it is possible to make them happen by design. Here are two ways to do that:
1. Build Employee Networks With Organizational Network Analysis
Workplace connections are useful in a number of ways. A new person with limited team interaction is likely to struggle to get ramped. Someone in a complex role who has a very narrow network may not be as effective as possible if they don’t have access to the inputs to help them navigate the complexity.
To gain a realistic view of the network development of staff, a growing number of companies are using Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). A proper ONA analysis incorporates data coming from multiple sources, including calendar, email, instant messaging, sociometric badges, and knowledge sharing applications. (Of course, organizations must also be mindful of maintaining data privacy while collecting this data.)
With ONA tools (like Trustphere’s platform) you can consider both network strength (the number of connections people have) as well as network effect in terms of who they interact with. You can also consider how tightly they interact with their immediate team and also more broadly across the organization.
These metrics take on exponentially more value when you can look at relationships within the context of broader information. The best people analytics platforms can consume ONA scores so that you can include them in your analysis of other trends, like employee turnover.
“To gain a realistic view of the network development of staff, a growing number of companies are using Organizational Network Analysis (ONA).”
If you notice that an employee has very few connections and it’s likely to impact her productivity or turn her into a flight risk, you can make changes to ensure she increases the number of connections. Consider assigning her to projects outside of her usual work, engaging her in social work events to increase her informal network, or actively introducing her to key players. (At the other end of the spectrum, you can also use ONA to ensure an employee isn’t suffering from collaboration overload.)
2. Assess the Quality of Connections with Employee Sentiment Analysis
To set up a talented worker for success, you need to look at, not just the frequency of workplace interactions, but their quality through employee sentiment analysis.
Many organizations conduct sentiment analysis through once-a-year employee surveys, but to gain real insight, HR leaders must instigate more regular touch points around whether peers and work networks are net contributors to or detractors from success in the business.
In particular, the survey should be designed to investigate whether team members feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable with one another. This is about more than HR people just trying to be nice: Google researchers have found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are “less likely to leave, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
“To set up a talented worker for success, you need to look at, not just the frequency of workplace interactions, but their quality through employee sentiment analysis.”
Having the opportunity to work without fear of retribution is likely to have more of an impact on certain employees than others. Decades of scientific research spearheaded by pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce has revealed that there are two groups of children: dandelions (those with low-stress reactivity) and orchids (those with high-stress reactivity).
In a laboratory interview testing memory skills, the dandelion children had “competent but average capacities.” Their “ability to remember was completely unaffected by the tenor of the interviewer’s style.” On the other hand, the highly reactive, orchid children had “accurate, encyclopedic memories” when questioned by the nice interviewer, but “couldn’t seem to remember a thing when interacting with the rude, grim interviewer.”
Given that these dandelion/orchid traits can stay with us as adults, this offers the intriguing possibility that certain poor performers (who otherwise have the intelligence and skills to succeed somehow but aren’t) could actually become some of your best performers when placed with emotionally intelligent managers and co-workers.
Growing an Ecosystem Of Talent
As new types of jobs are cropping up faster than businesses can fill them, it’s time to grow the pool of talented, successful workers. Yes, individual skills, intelligence, and experience do count. But star performers are neither born or made — they are continually cultivated with productive workplace relationships.
With an understanding of how team interactions foster productivity, HR leaders can make one plus one equal three. Because after all, a good team is greater than the sum of its parts.
About the author: Ian Cook
Ian is an advocate for the crucial role that people play in helping companies thrive. His career has focused on enabling people, teams and companies to perform at their best. For the last 15 years Ian has been helping leaders elevate their HR strategies and programs through the effective use of people analytics. At Visier, Ian led the development of our market leading solution and is now focused on the overall strategy for the people analytics business.
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