Extraordinary results with ordinary employees

8 April 2008

It is entirely possible to develop a culture where employees contribute more than we can reasonably expect.

BI researchers Svein S. Andersen and Øyvind Sæther show us how.

Performance culture

How can it be that the Norwegian national football team can beat major football nations such as Brazil, Argentina and England? On paper, the Norwegian team is definitely inferior man-for-man in terms of skill and ability.

“Could it be that the Norwegian football team at their best have found a way to perform together which enables them to make the most of each individual’s ability?” ask Professor Svein S. Andersen and Senior Lecturer Øyvind Sæther of the Department of Leadership and Organisation at the Norwegian School of Management BI.

Pulling together produces results

We can also see similar examples in both industry and the public sector. It is not necessarily the teams that are best on paper that achieve the best results. The “best” players can risk focussing solely on individual excellence and endless discussions about different solutions. On the other hand, other, supposedly weaker, teams can perform tasks faster and with better results than their supposedly far superior competitors. “If pulling together is to produce results, people must be aware that they are part of a team,” say Andersen and Sæther. Although it may sound trivial, there are plenty of examples of parts of an organisation living their own lives without the feeling of belonging to a larger community. “Although it is clear to everyone that it is impossible to succeed alone, there are examples of solo players who have forgotten this simple point,” claim the BI researchers.

Development of a common culture

In their research, Svein S. Andersen and Øyvind Sæther are interested in what it takes to achieve extraordinary results with ordinary employees. They have studied performance development and the mobilisation of expertise in both the sports arena and the industrial arena.

They are now presenting a new model for the development of a performance culture that is based on the two main dimensions of harmonious interaction and consensus. The researchers have identified five key factors for achieving harmonious interaction:

  1. We will win together. Firstly, employees must have both the desire and the ability to interact harmoniously. They must want to learn from each other and make each other good, and they realise that there is a mutual dependency between them. 
  2. A knowledge of each other. Employees have a knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It is vital to know who can be used to do what. 
  3. Respect for professional knowledge.
  4. Respect for personal boundaries.
  5. Ability to trust each other.

In addition to being able to interact well together, employees must also have a consensus in their contribution.

“A consensus amongst employees helps to give the work process direction,” claim Andersen and Sæther, and point to four key factors for consensus:

  1. Understand value creation. It is important to have a common understanding of what we are doing, the values that are being created and how (often referred to as vision and business concept).
  2. Understand and accept the company’s strategy.
  3. Understanding of own role in connection with the strategy and plan.
  4. Trust in the management.

A formula for extraordinary performances

Harmonious interaction and consensus are essential prerequisites for developing a performance-oriented culture, but they are not enough in themselves.

Based on their studies, the BI researchers have identified a further two prerequisites for success in creating extraordinary results.

“The employees must have high ambitions and be oriented towards innovation and value creation in relation to customers and the outside world,” claim Andersen and Sæther. In addition, management at all levels must adopt an involving attitude with respect to the employees, and contribute to the active and philosophical development of the culture.

A performance culture is not necessarily a land of idyllic happiness and harmony. It is more a question of strict demands and tensions, but the conflicts are usually resolved to the benefit of the organisation.

The rewards are nevertheless considerable

“A performance culture vitalises and motivates employees. It gives direction, and gets employees to perform to a level beyond what can be reasonably expected and demanded,” concludes the research team.

The signal for cultural change

The work to develop harmonious interaction and consensus must be anchored in the employees, who must be given responsibility. Here, industry has much to learn from sport, say the organisation researchers. In sport, it is the practitioners who play the main role in the evaluation processes. The evaluation is based on systematic experiences from training and competitions. On the basis of this, the ability and desire to interact harmoniously, an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and supportive mutual trust and respect are developed. The evaluation covers both the team as a whole and the contribution of the individual. Adjusted goals and roles are anchored both in the group and in the individual.

“Constructive feedback is an important prerequisite for competence development, but it seems to be a particularly weak aspect of Norwegian industry.”

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