How to Get the Best From an Extra Miler
Identifying and Protecting People Who Like to Say "Yes"
You've probably heard that one "bad apple" can spoil the team. But did you also know that just one carefully-placed "extra miler" – someone who consistently does more than is asked of him or her – can have a positive influence on team members?
A team of researchers led by Ning Li, from the University of Iowa's Department of Management and Organizations, discovered that the presence of one person who regularly goes that extra mile can play a vital role in helping the team to achieve its goals.
In this article, we'll look at how you can quickly and easily identify your extra miler, protect her from burnout, and position her so that her positive work ethic influences as many people as possible.
What Is an Extra Miler?
Li's research identified two types of extra miler: ones that use "helping" (promoting team cooperation and harmonious relationships by taking on work that is outside their core roles) and ones that use "voice" (challenging the team's culture, values and practices, to try to improve existing practices and promote creativity).
The extra miler usually does both of these things. However, two separate individuals may perform these roles.
Li's team was inspired, in part, by a previous study that found that the top five percent of employees produce 26 percent of a company's output. This, in turn, was linked to an idea known as minority influence, which happens when a majority is persuaded to accept the beliefs or behavior of a minority, and the result is a real shift in opinion, rather than just superficial compliance.
However, for this to work, you must first identify the extra miler on your team, and then give him a central position in its workflow.
You'll likely know lots of people who sometimes go out of their way to help others. There are also people who work extremely hard within their role and strive for excellence. And, there are people who very occasionally complete a large amount of extra work for the good of the team.
However, the research that this article is based on only deals with team members who consistently go above and beyond what is expected of them, spontaneously offer help, and demonstrate the benefits of good teamwork.
How to Identify an Extra Miler
Think about which members of your team regularly do more than is expected of them.
Is there someone who welcomes co-workers' requests for advice? Or maybe a team member has made a series of helpful and creative suggestions over the last few months. Or has one of your people jumped in and helped with a project that was falling behind schedule?
If there is a person like this in your team, she'll likely be an extra miler, and her talents and enthusiasm need to be nurtured.
If an extra miler isn't immediately obvious, you could ask your team members open questions about how much help they receive from one another. Make sure that you listen carefully, and follow up what you hear with your own observations.
How to Enable an Extra Miler
Li's research shows that if the extra miler works with colleagues in only a limited way (either because he's physically separated from them or he's not included in projects or assignments), it becomes difficult for him to impact the team's performance. This can affect the team's ability to reach its full potential.
However, if completing tasks is a team effort, her spontaneous offers of help and advice will likely improve your team's output.
Here are four tips for enabling an extra miler:
- Give your extra miler a central position in your working environment, and remove any physical barriers to collaboration, such as partitions.
- If possible, subdivide a task so that part of it must pass through your extra miler's hands. This allows him to check its progress and to give advice to the person responsible for the next stage.
- Introduce more team collaboration and monitoring. This will make it easier for your extra miler to offer help spontaneously.
- Encourage your team to suggest alternatives to existing processes. If you have time, provide an occasional forum for giving mutual, constructive feedback and praise those who offer it.
Insecure managers may be threatened by an extra miler's expertise, drive and tendency to challenge the status quo. Their natural reaction may be to "sideline" that person. If you find yourself resisting the extra miler's help or suggestions, read our article on managerial self-sabotage to ensure that you're not inadvertently limiting your team's potential.
Showing favoritism to your extra miler could make other team members resentful. Avoid this by making sure that everyone has equal access to you, and that you encourage everyone to voice their opinions.
It's right that people who make a major contribution are rewarded for their efforts, but this must be done in a way that is clearly fair, and doesn't put them in a difficult position.
How to Avoid Collaborative Overload
If the extra miler becomes known as a person who has useful knowledge and is willing to help others, there's a significant danger that she'll become the victim of "collaborative overload," and may come to dislike her job because of all the demands on her time.
This phenomenon has been identified by U.S. academics Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant. They found that the top talent in an average organization is overstretched by numerous, often unnecessary, demands on their time by colleagues in other departments.
As an extra miler's manager, it's important that you make it clear that requesting her collaboration must be done thoughtfully and considerately. Here are three tips for doing so:
- When an extra miler gives up his time, he has less time for his own work. So try to find ways for him to share his knowledge and skills while giving up as little time as possible. For example, he could record a quick tutorial video, or explain something to several colleagues at once rather than individually.
- Try to keep track of the time demands made on your extra miler by assigning one member of your team to act as a point of contact, responsible for receiving all requests. This will help you to monitor how many requests are being made, and filter out unnecessary ones.
- You may need to limit the demands made on an extra miler's time and experience. For example, request that a minimum of 80 percent of her time be spent on her own tasks and helping her team, leaving no more than 20 percent for collaboration, training or consulting with other teams.
An extra miler is a person who spontaneously offers assistance and advice to other members of his team, and who consistently and creatively looks for improvements and solutions. He can, therefore, be a tremendous asset to both his team and the organization as a whole.
The more contact she has with her colleagues, the more she can improve your team's collaborative culture and boost its performance. But this also exposes her to collaborative overload.
As his manager, it's important that you encourage and enable an extra miler while protecting him from distractions and exhaustion. Help him to ensure that demands on his time from elsewhere in the organization are necessary and manageable.
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