Book review: The “Why” of Work

May 2011

Dear clients,

The latest research by Bersin and Associates (Josh Bersin, The Science of Fit: Using Psychology to Replicate High Performance, June 2011) reiterates what Industrial Psychologist have been emphasising for many years – the importance of selecting and promoting the right people. It is critical to identify the personality types and traits that reinforce an organisation’s business proposition and culture. High performing organisations focus on “who” they hire, not just “what” people do – and build tools and systems to help managers and leaders assess and attract the right type of people into each particular job.

“ When applied across an organization, the science of fit helps leaders create a strong and enduring company culture – one which attracts the right people and encourages people to find the best roles where they can add the most value. Engagement levels go up, and the organization becomes more agile and customer focused” (Josh Bersin, 2011).

In this edition we review a book by Dave Ulrich and Wendys wife Ulrich on how to create meaning in the workplace and

we give you a snapshot of the research by Bersin and


We would love your feedback on these issues in your own organisations so send me an e-mail at


Sandra Schlebusch

Book review: The “Why” of Work
Book review: The “Why” of Work

According to many studies, we all work for the same thing--and it's not just money. It's meaning. Through our work, we seek a sense of purpose, contribution, connection, value, and hope. Digging down to the meaning of work taps our resilience in hard times and our passion in good times. Dave Ulrich, an influ ential voice in the corporate human-resources field in the United States, suggested that companies should be "turning down the downturn" by creating "abundant organisations" where employees find meaning in their work. Dave Ulrich suggested that some companies had found that in the grips of the recession they had taken the meaning and purpose out of the work of their employees.

While employee-engagement scores remain high at many firms, these can paint a false picture because employees with jobs are grateful simply to have a job. Many employees are having problems with a "psychological recession" because they are finding a lack of purpose in their work,” (Ulrich, 2010).

"Leaders have to be 'meaning makers'. Successful leaders are multipliers," (Ulrich, 2010). The concept stems from a new book Ulrich has co-authored with his wife Wendy, a psychologist, called "The Why of Work: How Leaders Create Meaning at Work to Exceed Financial, Customer and Community Goals".

Managers must be able to articulate the company’s purpose in terms that do not include only profit. Meaning comes from the company’s contribution to its customer and communit y and how that contribution allows it to earn a profit. Companies can aid managers in this task by building intrinsic motivation and employee engagement into their executive coaching and management training.

The message needs to be conveyed from the top down that the company does meaningful work and does it well. Managers can underscore the importance of the intrinsic factors by including meaning, choice, competence and progress into all conversations about work projects and measuring their impact.

The Science of “Fit”
The latest research by Bersin and Associates (Josh Bersin, The Science of Fit: Using Psychology to Replicate High Performance, June 2011) views “Fit” as a simple, but profound concept that managers at all levels should understand. Unlike the traditional performance management process (which focuses on goal-setting and appraisal), the science of fit forces the organization to understand success drivers at an individual level. Organisations can identify these drivers by studying the characteristics of high-performers – and then use this information to help managers better hire, develop, and coach to fit. The issue of fit is described as follows in this research (Josh Bersin, The Science of Fit: Using Psychology to Replicate High Performance, June 2011) : “Successful business leaders know that a small percentage of people typically drive a large percentage of company value. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, once stated that if he had lost the top five performers in the company, Microsoft would never have become the company it is today. In sales organisations it is common for the top 10 percent of performers to generate 30 to 50 percent, or more, of the revenue. In software engineering, the top programmers often write 10 times more code than average performers. In customer service there are individuals who are loved by clients, while others struggle with the job. We all recognise these top performers when we see them. The challenge is how we replicate this success. How do we bring the rest of the team up to this level of peak performance? The science and strategy of fit can help. Bersin’s research shows that implementing the science and strategy of fit has four steps: 1. Clearly identify the top performers in a role or business function. In any major business area (e.g. sales, IT, customer service, operations), identify the top 10 percent in performance. These are the employees who far outperform their peers. You can do this by looking at business-outcome data measured at an individual level (e.g. sales performance, quality metrics, output volume and other measures available on an individual basis). 2. Figure out what makes the top performers different. Using science (this is really the magic part of the process), compare these top performers to the rest of the team. Identify what makes this group different. Look at all elements, including experience, personality, education, job history, skills and personal nature. Through this process you will identify “fit characteristics,” – the traits, skills and behaviors that determine success. During the process, you will find that some of your pre-existing beliefs about high performers hold true: they work hard, they have experience in the role, they have deep skills, and they focus on quality. But you will also find other characteristics (the secret sauce) which may not have been obvious (the Bon-Ton Stores example in this research explains some of these non-obvious characteristics). 3. Incorporate the “fit characteristics” into all management practices, making it easy for managers to find and develop high performers. Next organisations build tools and systems to help managers select and hire people based on fit. These tools will help managers assess candidates for fit, train for fit, coach for fit, and promote based on fit. Tools should include pre-hire assessments, interview guides and coaching and self-development aids. Build a management culture based on how people succeed, not just what they are supposed to do. 4. Clearly communicate your definitions of fit throughout the organisation: Finally, publicize the winning traits and behaviors you have identified throughout the organisation. Discuss why and how people succeed. Celebrate not only results, but also how individuals deliver results”. How to Apply the Science and Strategy of Fit (Josh Bersin, The Science of Fit: Using Psychology to Replicate High Performance, June 2011) “Any organization can apply the science and strategy of fit. Whether you are the CEO, HR manager, or business leader, ask yourself these questions: · Do leaders understand the core of our company’s (or my business area’s) value proposition and what drives success? · Can leaders identify the roles that contribute most to revenue growth, customer satisfaction, innovation and savings? · Do we have an employment brand or outward-facing communications program to find and attract people with the background and nature we need? · Do my managers have the tools to easily select the right people even if these managers are not seasoned in their jobs? · Do we communicate and reinforce our core values through stories about employees who embody what we want to encourage? · Do we have a strong culture? Can all managers describe it, talk about it and help reinforce it? · Do we apply the principles of fit to all levels of management, from supervisor to top executives? Do we understand what makes leaders succeed in our organisation? · Do we understand how engaged our employees are in each business area, and do we have programs in place to regularly measure and monitor fit and engagement? · Do our executive team members understand and believe in the power of having the right people in the company, and do they themselves understand how to assess the fit characteristics of top performers? If you cannot answer “yes” to these questions, you have an opportunity to dramatically improve your company’s performance through the science and strategy of fit”.