The Heart of Performance: Leading Through Emotions

Today’s organizations are complex, quickly changing, under intense financial pressure, and facing more work with less people. All too often leaders find themselves asking people to “do more with less.” What leadership alchemy does it take to engage people to dig deeper and reach further quarter after quarter? Every leader can improve the “people side of performance” by understanding the emotional drivers that bring out the best in people.

New research on organization climate by the Institute for Organizational Performance shows a powerful link between feelings and performance. Assessing customer service, productivity, and retention, a recent study finds 57.7% of the difference between low and high performance is predicted by five climate factors plus trust (using the Organizational Vital Signs climate assessment). In other words, climate is a bell-weather for financial and programmatic success.

When employees feel good about coming to work, they perform better. When they are disengaged, energy drops, quality suffers, communication is compromised, and good people start looking to leave the organization. These feelings are costly — both in immediate financial loss and in longer-term impact on the organization’s reputation that come with reduced quality and lost customer/client relationships. Fortunately, there are sophisticated, low cost, and creative methods to improve and maintain this essential area of organizational viability.

To illustrate this challenge, let’s look at two fictional employees on their way to work: :: Carl is looking forward to doing his best work; he’s engaged and excited. Partly because he’s “just a positive guy,” and partly because he’s part of a great team – his boss listens, the work seems to matter, and his team is supportive. :: Joan is dreading another day on the grindstone. She’s experienced, skilled, and a good worker, but there’s something about this organization that rubs her the wrong way. She doesn’t think her boss cares, and she’s just not connecting with the team.

How will they each perform today? How will they affect others? And what do they each need to remain productive and engaged?

Based on research across hundreds of organizations and dozens of countries, there are specific drivers that will provide a tremendous improvement in Joan’s performance, and different drivers that will keep Carl’s high level of energy and commitment.

Understanding these subtle drivers takes emotional intelligence (or “EQ”), the capacity to effectively use emotions as a source of data for making optimal decisions. Leaders who have this capacity and use their EQ skills on the job know how to work with the “Joans and Carls” to optimize performance. In turn, this attention to the human side of performance ripples out to create a positive and robust organizational climate. A place where employees like to come to work and do their best. The result is superior products, service, and quality – which leads to customer loyalty – which leads to enduring value.

The first requirement is for leaders to commit that a healthy and positive climate is a strategic priority. Today, the “people side” is not a “soft” area that gets attention when business is booming. Climate is one the top, if not the highest, priority of the best leaders. It’s time to take the phrase “we put our people first” off the wall and put it into action on a daily basis.