Guest Column - May/June 2015

Breaking Bad: Building Workplace Excellence

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP

Regardless of your industry, one of the most effective competitive strategies you can leverage is to improve your products or services. Often, this is easier said than done, and even when you are successful, you're challenged with achieving innovative, breakthrough results on a continual basis to remain at the forefront of your industry.

But is it possible to operationalize and scale this continuous pursuit of excellence?

That's exactly the question Stanford professors Huggy Rao and Robert Sutton set out to answer in their book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, on which this article is based. For more than seven years, they interviewed business leaders, reviewed research, studied and conducted case studies about the mindset and strategies companies used to spread excellence within their organizations.

What they discovered may surprise you.

Leaders who aim to boost organizational performance often start with efforts to spread positive behavior, however they define it. Yet case studies and rigorous academic research show that if you want to create and spread excellence, eliminating negative behavior must be your first order of business, because destructive behavior has five times more impact on employees than positive interactions.

Efforts to scale up excellence stall when bad behavior crowds out positive activity. To spread and sustain something good, you first have to take out the bad, and then spread excellence to more people and more places. Eliminating the destructive behaviors and beliefs actually clears the way for excellence to spread.

This may feel counterintuitive because of the widely held assumption that everything gets better as it gets bigger. As much as you want to replicate goodness, growing bigger is a complicated process and not everything remains consistent—or positive—when it's scaled.

However, there is hope—here are nine techniques to set you on the path to success and help you to clear out the negative behaviors that stand in the way of organizational progress.

1. Nip it in the bud

Supervisors of the most productive teams confront problems directly and quickly, issue more warnings, use formal punishments more often and promptly fire employees when warnings fail. This isn't an argument for striking fear among employees—the best bosses nip bad behavior in the bud but treat people with dignity. Never withhold bad news or hesitate to tell employees when and why their work isn't up to snuff—but do deliver these messages with empathy. You owe it to your team to give them the opportunity to improve—many employees who have exhibited bad behavior change their ways after getting feedback, coaching or moving to a workplace where the behavior isn't tolerated.

2. You need both story and structure

You certainly need inspirational messaging about excellence to grow, but you also need structure and authority to frame that growth. If you don't have both, you'll have a harder time of it. If everyone is aligned behind the same vision, it clears the way for less bureaucracy and micromanagement. Getting employees to focus on the operational details is effective for eliminating negativity, and those details need to be addressed before you can focus on the aspirational.

3. Adequacy before excellence

What drives customers away—and hurts companies—is bad service. Corporate Executive Board research found that 25 percent of customers are likely to say something positive about a good customer service experience, but 65 percent are likely to say something negative about a bad one. Similarly, 23 percent of customers who received good service told 10 or more people, compared with 48 percent who experienced bad service. Making things easy for customers is crucial for maintaining their loyalty. Again, concentrate on delivering flawless execution first.