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Lead Your Team Managing

Making the Most of Your Best Workers

Making the Most of Your Best Workers
Credit: Ismagilov/Shutterstock

Employees who go above and beyond the call of duty have the potential to improve the performance of all of their co-workers, new research finds.

The key to making this happen is for employers to make sure the workers who put in the extra effort are strategically placed where they have as much interaction as possible with their peers, according to a study from the University of Iowa.

Researchers discovered that workplace teams function better when the employee who shows the most willingness to go beyond his or her job description — the so-called "extra miler" — is in a more central position in the workflow and comes into contact with the most teammates.

These top performers have more influence in this central position because they have more contact with other workers, so others can see what they're doing, said lead researcher Ning Li, a professor of management sciences in Iowa's Tippie College of Business.

"Through this role modeling, everyone on the team becomes better," Li said in a statement. "If the extra miler is on the periphery, they don't come into contact with as many team members, and nobody notices them."

The researchers said the employees who put in the extra effort tend to do so with both their actions and their voice. Specifically, they use their actions to physically assist other workers with their jobs — for instance, when other employees are overwhelmed or out sick — and they use their voice to provide leadership by speaking up to make constructive changes that provide a better workflow, or work with management to make the job easier for the workers. 

For the study, researchers analyzed 87 teams of workers at a petroleum plant with an average of eight workers per team. They identified the extra miler in each team through interviews with peers, and the top-performing teams through interviews with managers. [The Skill Successful Workplace Teams Need ]

They then looked at whether the top performer was in a place in the team's workflow network that required that they come into contact with many other team members, or if they were relatively isolated from their peers.

The study's authors found that, in the highest-rated teams, the extra miler was more centrally located in the workflow and had frequent contact with other team members. In teams that were rated lower, employees who put in the extra effort were on the periphery.

Overall, the higher-performing teams typically had a more balanced workload, more self-developed solutions to team challenges and less direction from management. The results show that managers should organize work teams based on the individual characteristics of team members rather than treating workers as interchangeable parts, Li said.

"It demonstrates that you need to pay attention to key players in a team because some of them are more important than others," Li said. "Management can rely on the extra miler to have a positive impact on the team and know that person will help to manage the team."

The study was co-authored by Tippie College doctoral students Helen Zhao, Sheryl Walter and Jia Yu, as well as Xin-an Zhang, of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.