Don’t Target Top or Bottom Performers: Move the Middle
When looking to improve business performance through better employee productivity, managers tend to focus on either leaders or laggards. The logic goes this way: if managers can “fix” those under-performers and/or manage to get even more from the top 15% percentile, they should be doing much better. But this approach doesn’t work, and a cold, hard look at the numbers as well as research brought by the Harvard Business Review, proves the opposite. If you want to move your performance results, move the middle, not the top or bottom performers.
Looking at the numbers
Here is an example. You manage 100 employees. 15%, the bottom performers, are each producing 10 productivity units a month (they can be sales, customer service issue resolution, backend processing items in the financial or insurance sector, etc). Your middle performers, 65% of the workforce, produce 20 productivity units a month. Your top performers (20% of the workforce) produce 35 productivity units a month. Now let’s do the numbers:
- Bottom performers produce 150 productivity units/month
- Middle performers produce 1,300 productivity units/month
- Top Performers produce 700 productivity units/month
Looking at these numbers again:
- Your 15% bottom performers produce 7% of your performance
- Your 60% middle performers produce 60% of your performance; and
- your 20% top performers produce 33% of your performance.
Where is the best place to focus? Managers’ intutition points them to the bottom (“if only I can get them to 15 units a month”) or to top performers (“they are doing so well. can I get them to perform even better?”). But truth is that getting the middle to acquire the attributes of top performers is the best use of time and effort.
Marrying capabilities and motivation
To turn mid-level performers in to top-level performers, two things need to be addressed – capabilities and motivation.
An employee needs to acquire new capabilities and to receive guidance as to how he can be better at what he does. But, giving an employee better training without addressing his potential motivation issues, can have an adverse, almost cannibalistic effect on the organization. After being trained and having acquired new-found capabilities, many employees seek better terms and leave for competing companies, together with the capabilities that the employer has invested in them. What they are missing is motivation.
On the other hand, a highly motivated employee with a low skill and capability level can also be disastrous for the organization. This type of employee does not execute at a high level, and creates multiple “fires” which need to be put out by other employees. When all things are taken in to consideration, this type of employee, although he has the best of intentions, may be causing the organization more harm than good.
So, in order to achieve the desired transference of employees from the mid-level group to the top-level group, both motivation and capabilities needs to be addressed at the same time. This is where gamification can and does have a significant role to play.
Using gamification to “move the middle”
Using gamification, “high performance” can be translated from an abstract concept, to a set of behaviors and activities which are the attributes of high performance employees. Using analytics tools, organizations are able to see what exactly makes high performers better than others. They can derive the knowledge, motivation, recognition and behavior that make up a high performer.
After doing that, it is possible to recreate the “high-performing behavior” in other employees. Using narratives and games specifically designed for the organization, employees are encouraged to partake in small activities and behaviors which become their work habits over time (we estimate the time it takes to form habits in 30-90 days, as most change management gamification approaches). These habits have the potential to transfer mid-level performers in to the high performing category and have a substantial impact on the organization.
Imagine the results when instead of having 20% high performers, the business would have 30% high performers – in this case a 7% jump in business results.
Avoiding gamification design pitfalls
Gamification can have major benefits for organizations, when done properly. But not taking the time to properly prepare and design your gamified solution, may have you scratching your head in several months, trying to understand why those benefits aren’t appearing. From my experience, some of these mistakes can easily be avoided.
Firstly, it’s important to be willing to implement the program for the long term. Too many times organizations want to try out gamification mechanics for a short period of time, not understanding that in order to make a real shift in habits and in the culture of the organization, a substantial amount of time is needed. One way to avoid this is to plan your organizations’ strategy in a way that offers small short term benefits, in addition to the long term benefits you are planning for the future.
Secondly, in some organizations change can be something that is faced with a lot of antagonism and suspicion. It’s important to be sincere and clear about the goals that the organization is trying to achieve. Therefore, we see that in many cases it is better to call the process that we are trying to implement in a name which conveys the goals in a more realistic way. Some examples we’ve seen used by organizations are “adoption processes”, “change journey” and “change management”.
Most importantly, think of gamification as the “new performance management” – it helps employees by coaching them, providing guidance as to desired behaviors and most importantly, creating intrinsic motivation by communicating to employees how their behavior matters for the organization as a whole.