Research: What Do People Need to Perform at a High Level?

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The researchers identified common factors helping (or hurting) employee effectiveness. Among them were personal factors including mindsets and skills that the individual brings to the job and over which they have some control. Others are managed at an organizational level: managing rules about how work is done and showing emotional intelligence. Turning to nurses during the Covid-19 pandemic, the researchers found that these factors became even more important during crisis. They found that when the background uncertainty and anxiety are high, if the organization does not provide clear expectations and the supervisors do not acknowledge staff feelings and help them manage them, workers will not be able to work to their full potential.

Of practical importance to organizational leaders, our research provides insight about how managers can boost employees’ potential – even in times of crisis.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, American workers were struggling to reach their full potential. In a national survey we conducted of more than 14,500 workers across industries in 2017, approximately 85% of them said they were not working at 100% of their potential. In fact, only 15% of workers said they were. Moreover, 16% said they were using less than 50% of their potential. What was keeping the vast majority of workers from using all of their potential? And what was empowering the minority who reported that they were able to do so?

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In this research, we identified organizational, interpersonal, and individual factors that contributed to a person’s capacity to do their job most effectively.

When the pandemic hit, with all of its uncertainty and anxiety, we revisited our research and began interviewing nurses at a large university hospital. We learned that the factors helping (or hurting) employee effectiveness that we identified earlier became even more important in the time of crisis. The insights we gleaned can help organizational leaders and managers to boost employees’ potential — even in times of crisis.

How Employees Reach Potential

In our survey of 14,500 U.S. workers we learned that employees report working to their full potential when:

  • They are clear about what they are expected to do.
  • They are willing to ask questions and feel safe doing so.
  • They are not overwhelmed with rules about how the work has to be done or with unproductive meetings.
  • Their organization supports creative problem solving (e.g., implementing employee suggestions for improvements) and provides rewards and recognition for jobs well done.
  • Supervisors notice and acknowledge employee feelings, understand how their decisions will impact employees, and help them manage their emotions.
  • They see purpose and meaning in their work and are committed to their organization.

Importantly, this list combines personal, interpersonal/relational, and organizational factors. It underscores how an individual’s mindset is just as important as the support they receive from their supervisors, but also that without support from supervisors and the organization, even the most committed, motivated employees might not be able to fully use their potential.

Looking at nurses’ experiences in hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic allowed us to test our understanding of how these factors shape workers’ job experience.

During the first wave of infections, much was unclear — what kind of masks offered sufficient protection, when to intubate patients, how to weigh the countless new risks they faced. Many nurses “regressed,” according to one nursing leader — they couldn’t perform at their usual skill level or make relatively simple decisions at the bedside because of the uncertainty about what they had to do.

In one interview, a nurse shared an experience about asking for time off. The supervisor agreed that it would help manage her exhaustion and stress, but her request went against the hospital policy about allotted PTO and the request was denied. The nurse was forced to keep pushing forward despite being emotionally and physically exhausted, and unable to do her best work.

Other nurses shared that they were not comfortable speaking during meetings with nurse educators. They described their discomfort about asking nuanced questions or more details about how to perform new procedures. This made it more challenging to learn how to carry out their job in the crisis situation. Importantly, their reluctance was not necessarily because of fear of negative consequences for themselves, but also due to not wanting to add stress or tension to the education session. It was clear in our conversations with the nurses that these factors were preventing them from working to their fullest potential.

Despite this, we did see many ways nurses, their managers, and their institutions were finding ways to succeed. First, as messages from scientists and hospital leaders became clearer, nurses became less anxious about what was expected and were better able to take care of their patients. Second, supervisors encouraged nurses to consider creative ways they could provide comfort to families, who were prohibited from visiting with ill patients. With this support, nurses painted hearts for their patients and placed them in patients’ palms. Nurses photographed the patients with the hearts in their hands and shared them with families who repeatedly mentioned finding solace in this small act. Third, emotionally intelligent supervisors were able to support employee growth. One supervisor offered a way to reframe feedback that a nurse was at times seen by her colleagues as harsh or uncaring; this was an opportunity to learn the impact she had on others’ when being triggered. The nurse was offered coaching to build the skills she needed to more effectively recognize and manage her emotions, which has allowed her to deepen the relationships on her unit.

Finally, the nurses we spoke with discussed seeing their jobs as a calling and deriving pride and fulfillment from the knowledge that their actions eased patients’ pain, helped them heal, and sometimes saved their lives. Moreover, this personal strength can be purposefully practiced and deepened. One nursing leader described intentionally reminding herself of the commitment to her calling to serve both her patients and staff every morning.

How to Increase Employee Effectiveness

During the pandemic, the organizational, interpersonal, and individual factors we identified shaped how effective nurses were in their work. When nurses had clear expectations about how to perform their jobs from the hospital leaders, they were also more likely to work from their sense of purpose as healers. When supervisors supported their creative problem solving and helped them manage challenging feelings, nurses were indeed more resourceful and pushed themselves to work to their full potential. These lessons can provide guidance for managers and other organizations to best support their employees towards their full potential.

Organizations can support employees by reducing the bureaucratic demands, creating a culture of trust, and rethinking the role of leadership.

In our experience guiding organizations through significant changes (e.g., restructuring), our team has found that learning the granular details of employees’ days can reveal ways to reduce bureaucratic, redundant, and unnecessary activities that get in the way of their work.

Building trust rests on employees seeing how supervisors and organizational leaders care about their work-related concerns and well-being. To truly develop trust, managers should solicit input from employees at every level in the organization, acknowledge employee ideas, understand how their decisions influence employees’ experiences at work, and communicate why some ideas are not/cannot be accepted. Asking for input and communicating a response to it leads to employees feeling heard and not feeling dismissed by pat explanations of budget shortages and other standard replies.

Leaders should work to develop and practice their own emotional intelligence skills to help them perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions. During the pandemic, acting in emotionally intelligent ways means acknowledging employees’ heightened anxiety and assuring them that being overwhelmed under these circumstances is not a sign of poor skills. Supervisors who act in emotionally intelligent ways will create a more positive work climate, have employees who are able to grow in their jobs, and be more effective.

In the best of times, many employees do not work to their full potential. This should be a call to action. Our potential is like an energy reservoir, and when some of it is drained by unmitigated stress, less is left to fuel work performance. To mitigate these productivity sapping stresses, managers should consider employees’ experience through the lens of the factors we identified above. Productivity and well-being at the personal level will enable productivity and success at the organizational level.

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