In a lot of leadership and management theory, there is often a fondness for talking about the outliers. We like to think about the extreme use cases — where employees are really, really good, or really not so great.
We’ll often choose to focus on “maximising the impact of your top innovators” or “getting a disengaged employee back on side”. Research will pay attention to the employees set for executive stardom, and to the effort to recruit high-performers to supremely technical roles.
All of which is very well and good. There is certainly a great deal of business benefit to be gained by concentrating efforts on these employee outliers. Top talent will likely produce some of your greatest business successes, and it’s certainly a compelling vision to think there’s a gifted innovator in your midst who just needs the right encouragement to have an amazing business idea.
At the other end of the spectrum, handling underperforming employees effectively can often result in significant business gains in performance and output. Who wouldn’t want to avoid the trauma of dismissal and the expense of recruitment if they could effectively bring these rogue talents back on side?
But there is also a risk, in focusing on these outliers, that you actually miss addressing the concerns of the majority of your employees. You can forget about the consistent performers; the people who always go above and beyond to get things done; the managers who are the effective glue that holds departments together.
In working hard to handle the exceptions and the exceptional, you can sometimes risk the effective management of the people who do the bulk of the work your business actually does.
And this isn’t just the realms of theoretical talk. Many companies, if they looked at their HR policies and talent management processes, would probably be able to point to a significant proportion of content that is aimed squarely at the top and bottom performers in their workforce. Think, for example, of high-performance leadership development programmes, or stringent disciplinary processes for sub-par efforts.
Certainly, some of these processes are potentially applicable to any employee, either as an aspirational aim or as a perceived professional unpleasantness. But many still take up significant time and effort, and there should be a genuine effort to make sure the opportunity cost isn’t the full-engagement of a well-performing majority of employees.
So how can you do this? Well one approach is simply to make sure that leadership starts from a place that is actually and visibly founded in fairness. There can be very few employees at any company that are happy to be treated less well than their peers and colleagues. Nobody enjoys the sense that others are being gifted unfair advantages, or that their own workload is unreasonably greater than other peoples’.
This doesn’t mean treating everybody the exact same way, of course. Good leadership comes from being able to lead appropriately to the needs and wants of individuals and teams. But fairness does mean ensuring that your attention, and the attention of your HR department, aren’t skewed towards the needs of just a few.
Those high-development schemes are assuredly an important business priority. But it is as important that people who aren’t involved in them are still aware of their own career development opportunities within your business.
In a similar way, efforts to boost and strengthen the engagement of high- or low-performing employees should extend to the whole workforce. Not only does this have an evident impact in overall levels of employee engagement, but it can also have the effect of reinforcing the efforts to engage those outliers anyway.
People are more likely to invest themselves in a company where the culture is consistent and enthused throughout the whole workforce.
Fairness doesn’t mean paying every grade of performer the same salary or providing the exact same development opportunities to every person. But it should mean providing opportunities to grow professionally (and financially) for each employee.
When a workforce sees that there is consistency in the way they are treated, the fact that some attention needs to be paid to outlier employees is far more readily understood. People can see that it is part of a clear and readily communicated approach, and they will be far more willing to keep putting in their consistently great efforts for years to come.
Ahmad Badr is CEO of Knowledge Group.