High-performance AND fulfilling work

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2 Sep 2013

Paul Fairhurst

‘I regularly wonder how we can get the best out of people so that they perform as well as they can and so that they enjoy coming to work - and how easy it is for organisations and managers to get it wrong.

‘I spend much of my time working with people to help them identify their unique set of strengths, how they can best deploy these and how to develop them. It is so clear that when people start talking about their strengths and how they use them, their energy level rises up several notches. Yet when I ask teams of people how many of them can strongly agree with the statement that they 'have the opportunity to use what they are good at every day' (from the Gallup Employee Engagement questionnaire) only about one in five put their hands up. You have to wonder what people spend their time doing - clearly things that they are not good at. Why would anyone design an organisation or jobs which cause this to happen? Couple this with the evidence from organisations like Gallup1 and the Corporate Leadership Council that helping people play to their strengths can lead to improvements of the order of 30% then it seems this should be a real focus for organisations in job design and managers in coaching their staff.

‘This doesn't mean just letting people do what they want to. A well-designed strengths-based organisation is very outcome focused, with people being held to account for their outcomes. The difference is that they work out how to achieve what they need to using their own unique set of strengths rather than in some pre-determined way that either the organisation prescribes or the manager thinks is right (subject of course to fitting in with organisational values such as integrity).

‘Some people think that we don't stretch people in this sort of environment, but actually people are stretched in a positive and energising way by developing their strengths as far as they can and by finding ways to use their strengths in new situations: mediocrity is not an option. It also doesn't mean that people will spend all their time using their strengths (even the best organisations probably only get the proportion of time people use their strengths up to about 70%), there will always be 'stuff' that just needs doing. The point is to make a conscious effort to understand people's strengths and help them use them more (whilst not overplaying them) and more effectively. What's more, you don't ignore weaknesses; it is OK to acknowledge that you can't be great at everything. But, rather than the traditional model of trying to fix them, you find ways to manage them so that they don't interfere with your success.

‘For those readers with an interest in sport, there was a fascinating interview in the Times2 before the recent England vs Australia Ashes series, by Mike Brearley (England captain during the famous 1981 Ashes series and now a highly regarded psychotherapist) with Andy Flower the current England coach. Flower describes how he helps the players identify what facets of their game make them outstanding and how they can build on these to make themselves world class, whilst also talking about allowable weaknesses and working on these just enough that they don't stop them performing at high levels.

‘This approach fits well with Dan Pink's views in his book Drive, about what motivates people, where he identifies three intrinsic factors - Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (I remember these with the acronym AMP, being a measure of power, or MAP as a guide for how to get there). Autonomy is about letting people be in charge of their own work and how they do it, and in a strengths world is about agreeing outcomes and letting people use their own strengths to get there in their own way. Mastery is becoming the best you can at what you do and developing strengths to become the best in the company or the sector at what you do, rather than saying 'I am good at that so that is OK' (just think how much effort musicians and sports people amongst others put into becoming the best). And Purpose is having a clear and motivating reason for doing what you do and fits with the Engage for Success idea of organisations providing a strong strategic narrative and allowing employees to have a voice.

‘With the recent coming together of knowledge about employee engagement, playing to strengths and the importance of intrinsic motivators, we probably know what is necessary to create opportunities for people to perform well and enjoy themselves at the same time. What is clear though is that these are not one-off initiatives; they need to be built into the way organisations operate and continually be focused on by managers and employees alike. It is easy in the helter-skelter world of organisational life to lose focus on them despite the evident benefits to both organisations and individuals.’


  1. Harter, James K., Frank L. Schmidt, and Theodore L. Hayes. "Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: a meta-analysis." Journal of applied psychology 87.2 (2002): 268.
  2. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/sport/cricket/article3803405.ece

About Paul Fairhurst

Paul is a People and Organisational Development consultant who works on the interface between research and its application, providing strategic thinking and coaching to challenge his clients' thinking. He specialises in the three areas of Organisational strategy and effectiveness, Coaching and strengths-focused development, and Learning and Development strategy.

To arrange a media interview with Paul, please email lorna.hardy@employment-studies.co.uk or call 01273 763 414.

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