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Creating A Pocket Of Excellence When Surrounded By Mediocrity


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by Shawn Murphy, author of “The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment That Energizes Everyone

65% of employees would rather a new boss than a pay increase because of their dissatisfaction with the workplace.

The workplace is going through an identity crisis. On the one hand, it wants to hang on to the traditional mindset that has helped build powerful businesses. Yet, there is plenty of evidence showing that this mindset is out of touch with today’s employees.

Solving the identity crisis means looking towards the bright side for solutions.

Let’s face it – not all work environments within an organization are great. There are usually pockets of excellence mixed in with mediocre and toxic environments.  A pocket of excellence thrives within an organization despite its surrounding environment. The key is to make them grow.

To create these pockets of excellence requires leaders to shield their employees from the negative or mediocre influences that undermine performance. Employees need to be coached on how to positively deal with the negativity when it does breach the pocket.

What is a Pocket of Excellence?

A pocket of excellence is an environment that enables employees’ high performance. This is an outcome of the team culture and optimistic climate. Employees thrive and develop as mature, fully functioning adults in these environments. Pockets of excellence are contagious and can spread throughout an organization.

The key inputs that create a rich, fertile ground for a pocket of excellence to flourish as follows:

1. Personalize work.

Business has always been built on the back of relationships. The most important relationship has been neglected for too long—the relationship between employee and leader. Strong relationships are fundamental in a pocket of excellence. Therefore, leaders need to spend time getting to know the whole person and not only the role a person fills on the team. Learn each person’s goals, their hobbies, and even their interests outside of work. This helps deepen a bond between the immediate leader and the employee.

2. Promote personal purpose.

Imperative, a consultancy, in coordination with New York University, released in 2015 the Workforce Purpose Index, quantifying the business value of purpose. The index, however, isn’t about the purpose of the organization, but clarity of purpose for each person within a company. Purpose-oriented people, according to the Imperative study, are 65 percent more likely to experience fulfillment in their work. What’s more, purpose is linked to employee resiliency, an ability important in today’s mentally demanding, dynamic work environment. Leaders can promote purpose through ongoing coaching conversations that help employees discover what’s important to them.

3. Pull back the covers.

For a pocket of excellence to become contagious, a leader needs to share the success of the team with the next levels of leadership. Clear, definitive examples of what’s being done to achieve results need to be documented and communicated upwards and with peers.

4. Bolster Belonging.

While personalizing the work helps deepen the bond between a leader and employee, it’s also critical to do the same for the team. Professor RoyBaumeister’s research on belonging concludes that human beings are motivated by the need to build and nurture personal relationships. Leaders need to intentionally shape the work context to help team members find a place for themselves within the team.

5. Create Clarity.

Finally, for excellence to be possible, employees need clarity on personal and team goals. Additionally, work priority needs to be understood. Goals and priorities are essential ingredients for people to make meaningful progress in their work. Without a sense of progress, employees become frustrated, even disillusioned with their work and their boss. To avoid frustrations, intentionally review goals and priorities monthly with employees.

In evaluating the above inputs to create a pocket of excellence, they are one-part personal and one-part savvy business acumen. Mixing the two creates a powerful influence positively shaping the work environment. This influence helps leaders create the conditions for a pocket of excellence to emerge.


Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy is an independent consultant with 20 years’ experience working with organizations to create workplace optimism. He is the co-founder and CEO of Switch & Shift, an advocacy and consultancy focused on the human side of business, and host of the popular Work That Matters podcast. He is the author of “The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment That Energizes Everyone“.