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Don’t Target Top or Bottom Performers: Move the Middle

April 10, 2019 • gal

Where should change begin?

When looking to improve business performance through enhanced 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. What sounds sensible in theory, does not actually work. A cold, hard look at the numbers  presented by the Harvard Business Review, proves that the opposite is true. 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. Let’s say you manage 100 employees. 15%, the bottom performers, are each producing 10 productivity units a month (they can be sales, customer service issue resolution, back-end 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 math:

  • Bottom performers produce 150 productivity units/month
  • Middle performers produce 1,300 productivity units/month
  • Top Performers produce 700 productivity units/month

Here’s another angle:

  • 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? Most managers intuitively point 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, the truth is that getting the middle tier to acquire the attributes of top performers is the best use of time and effort.


Marrying capabilities and motivation

To turn mid-level performers into 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, providing an employee with better training without addressing his potential motivation issues, can have an adverse, almost cannibalistic effect on the organization. After their training commences and they have successfully  acquired new-found capabilities, many employees seek better terms and leave for competing companies. Employers often put forth substantial resources to develop employees, only to never see a yield on that investment. What companies need to worry about  motivating their employees to remain on-board.

On the other hand, a highly motivated employee whom lacks sufficient skills can also be disastrous for the organization. This kind of worker does not execute at a high level, and creates multiple “fires” which need to be put out by his colleagues. Despite potentially being well-intentioned, this employee 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 need to be addressed, and at the same time. This is where gamification can (and does) have a significant role to play.


Using gamification to “move the middle”

With gamification, “high performance” can be translated from an abstract concept to a set of behaviors and activities which are the emblematic of high performance employees. Using analytics tools, organizations are able to see exactly what makes high performers better than others. They can derive the knowledge, motivation, recognition and behavior that make up a high-performer.

Then, organizations can recreate “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. Over time, these will become their work-habits (we estimate the time it takes to form habits anywhere between 30 to 90 days). These habits have the potential to transfer mid-level performers into the high performing category and have a substantial impact on the organization.

Imagine what would happen when instead of having 20% high performers, a company would have 30% high performers – in our this a 7% jump in business results.


Avoiding gamification design pitfalls

Gamification will only prove beneficial when done correctly. If you do not take the time to properly prepare and design your gamified solution, you may find yourself scratching your head attempting to understand why those aforementioned benefits are no where to be found. From my experience, some of these mistakes are easily avoidable.

Firstly, it’s important to be willing to implement the program long-term. Too often organizations want to try out gamification mechanics for a short period of time. They do not understand creating a real shift in habits and in organizational culture takes time. 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 may be met with suspicion, if not outright hostility. It is important to be sincere and clear about the goals that the organization is trying to achieve. Therefore, we recommend marketing the process internally by naming it according to the goals it is set to achieve. 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, provides guidance regarding desired behaviors, and most importantly, creates intrinsic motivation by communicating to employees how their behavior matters for the organization as a whole.

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