Why Organizations Need To Shift From Top-Down To Side-To-Side Focus

Most companies have a long-standing issue, worker productivity, yet they try to solve it with the same unsuccessful strategy again and again. Why not try a new strategy?

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Most companies have a long-standing issue, worker productivity, yet they try to solve it with the same unsuccessful strategy again and again. Why not try a new strategy?

Gallup estimates as many as seven out of 10 employees are not bringing their “A-game” to work every day, and the cost of this lost productivity is as high as $500 billion in lost profits annually in the United States alone. Productivity statistics are even worse for international organizations. I am a huge Gallup fan—they continue to shine a bright light on an issue for which companies are demanding, and frankly workers are craving, a solution. But Gallup’s recent article advocating for another top-down strategy misses the point, yet again.

Yes, it’s true that hiring better managers is a good thing. But that well-worn strategy has proven insufficient. More action is needed. My advocacy is to shift from a top-down focus to a side-to-side focus.

Side-to-Side Engagement

In my experience, looking at an additional, little-understood horizontal or side-to-side approach can deliver huge returns. Research supports what I have experienced personally. It starts with the understanding that any employee can impact the engagement of every employee in a group.

A foundational study by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis out of the University of California and Harvard, respectively, demonstrated that cooperation spreads from person to person. Significantly, and to the surprise of many, they found that positive emotions actually spread further—from person to person to person to person—up to three degrees of separation, even among people who are not acquainted.

But it’s the breakthrough work of another researcher who proved that positive emotions spread from person to person in a work environment. Specifically, Yale researcher Sigal Barsade authored the study that linked the spread of positive emotion with improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased task performance in the workplace.

That’s been the missing link in the workforce—the understanding of the power that co-workers can have on each other to engage. I call that viral engagement. And it rarely starts at the top.

We know that engaged employees feel great about giving their all at work. They are disciplined and creative in their chosen craft and team well with others. Their high level of satisfaction comes from working in an environment where they can connect what they do to who they are. I refer to these individuals as Chiefs.

Companies would be well-served to consider these 10 opportunities to create the conditions for viral engagement, with the understanding that engagement is contagious and can start from anyone, anywhere in an organization.

Selection: Do you hire good team players and hold the expectation that every addition to your team can have an immediate impact on the engagement of current employees?

Education: Does your company invest in the soft skills that will enable your employees to be more effective in engaging others?

Communication: Do you reinforce verbal and written communication as equally important in engaging others?

Compensation: Could you pay a small team bonus for improving engagement scores?

Recognition: How could you recognize individuals and teams when new practices are adopted that are generated “bottoms up?”

Promotion: Do team members know that engagement success is part of the path to promotion?

Retention: When people do leave, do you ask about engagement in exit interviews?

Performance management: Is engagement a part of performance management discussions?

Values: Could engagement language be added to define your organization’s values?

Assessment: Do you assess for engagement skill sets?

When you understand that viral engagement is possible—and that it happens when you shift your focus from top-down to side-to side—you have the power to fill in the missing piece and unleash a whole new paradigm in your organization.

[Excerpted in part from Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title]

Originally published at

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