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My friend Bill was a superb performer at a nuclear power plant where he worked.
He was one of those guys who—regardless of the assignment—always added value beyond what his coworkers even imagined.
He carefully listened to everyone, regardless of their role.
He appreciated contrary viewpoints.
He challenged the status quo.
He frequently saw performance improvement opportunities that nobody else had noticed.
And Bill did it all with no fancy title, no fancy degree, and none of the other bullet points you’d expect to see on a LinkedIn profile.
What Bill did have was a mindset that took him beyond what was merely needed to what was truly useful. While staying faithful to important safety regulations, he constantly scanned for ways to sidestep bureaucratic speed bumps. He quickly adapted to change. He was consistent, proactive, and as reliable as tomorrow’s sunrise.
In short—wherever Bill was, good stuff always happened.
Bill was what renowned researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman calls an impact player. Her views on human performance are not merely theoretical. They are based on years of up-close-and-personal study of workers in innovative organizations like Adobe, Google, Target, Salesforce, Apple, Disney and Tesla.
You likely associate Liz with her previous bestselling books, including Multiplier: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.
Her newest book is IMPACT PLAYERS: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You say two equally capable people may be set apart by mindset and behaviors—one remains a valued contributor while the other becomes a top-performing Impact Player. Tell us more about that differentiation.
Liz Wiseman: The Impact Players weren’t necessarily more gifted than their peers, but they thought about problems differently, enabling them to respond in more valuable and impactful ways. The fundamental difference manifested in how they dealt with ambiguity and uncertainty, especially in handling what I call “everyday challenges” of the workplace. These are the problems everyone deals with regardless of workplace: things like problems without clear owners, unclear roles, unforeseen obstacles, moving targets, and unrealistic workload. Here are the ways that Impact Players handle these five situations differently than others:
- When dealing with messy problems, other people tend to do their job while Impact Players do the job that needs to get done.
- When roles are unclear, other people tend to wait for direction from above while Impact Players step up and lead (but also step back and follow others when needed).
- When unforeseen obstacles arise, other people tend to escalate problems while Impact Players move things across the finish line.
- When targets keep changing, other people tend to stick to what they know best while Impact Players learn and adapt quickly.
- When the workload feels heavy, other people tend to suffer through while Impact Players make work feel lighter for everyone.
Duncan: Impact Players, you say, wear opportunity goggles. What does that mean?
Wiseman: The Impact Players in our study saw these five types of challenges as opportunities to contribute and add value rather than as distractions to avoid. To Impact Players, unclear direction and changing priorities were chances to add value, and to dive into challenges.
For example, when Jethro Jones was interviewing for the job of principal at a middle school in Alaska, he learned that unless there was a major boost in enrollment or a fairly massive transformation at the school, it was on track to be closed within 1-2 years. He took the job anyway. The staff was understandably dejected. He acknowledged the difficulties and told the staff that the situation actually presented a unique opportunity to rethink their practices, and to experiment without the looming fear of failure. They could completely rethink their education programs to be led by students with teacher supervision. They did this and not only did the school remain open, but the model they built was adopted across the entire district. As a result, when Covid hit the following year, they didn’t see the pandemic as a threat, but just as another challenge to push through.
In short, Impact Players see these everyday challenges through an opportunity lens while others are looking at the same challenges through a threat lens.
Duncan: Most organizations have “unwritten rules.” How do Impact Players tend to respond to them?
Wiseman: Impact Players seem to understand the rules of the workplace better than others. They’ve figured out the unwritten rule book—the standards of behavior that one should follow in a particular job or organization. They tune in to the important needs of the organization and their immediate colleagues; they figure out what needs to get done, and they ascertain the right way to get it done.
This rule book is unwritten not because managers are secretive, but because the rules are tacit for most managers, held at a level below conscious awareness. Through my research, I came to understand what managers need most from the people they lead. I learned why it’s easier to entrust critical assignments to certain people, and why they hesitate to fully support the efforts of others. Managers want their staff to make their jobs easier—to help them lead their teams and to be self-managing wherever possible. They need people who can think for themselves and step up to a challenge. In reality, managers want people to help them find solutions and foster teamwork.
Impact Players can maximize impact when they understand the priorities and values of the organizations and managers they work for.
And, because they decode the real values of the organization or team, they can work in a way that garners support and reinforcement, further strengthening their impact.
Duncan: How can Impact Players multiply their influence by mentoring—or at least providing an example for—other team members?
Wiseman: Managers can replicate the mindsets and practices of Impact Players by thinking of their top contributors as “starter” talent that can be replicated- Similar to how sourdough starter is used to produce delicious bread. Once you have the starter—someone on the team with the right mindset—you can bring them into contact with other team members. Some of their attitudes and behaviors will spread naturally as their colleagues observe their behavior and its consequences (e.g., she took the lead, organized a group to solve a problem without being asked, and the boss publicly thanked her for her initiative). Managers can accelerate this spread of positive behaviors by naming the positive behavior, calling attention it to, increasing contact between Impact Players and other members of the team, focusing on the most learnable behaviors, and modeling the behavior in stressful times.
Duncan: You use the term “upward empathy.” What does that mean, and how does it apply to Impact Players?
Wiseman: Impact Players learn what their leaders need and are great practitioners of what I call upward empathy—the tendency to look at managers and see more than just a demanding boss. Instead, they see their boss’s challenges, constraints and best intentions. Most fundamentally, it’s trying to understand what a situation feels like for another person. Upward empathy is looking beyond what frustrates you about your boss to appreciate what frustrates your boss, especially if the frustration is you.
Through upward empathy, Impact Players develop a rich understanding of what their leaders and stakeholders see, think, and feel. This awareness can then guide their actions and enable them to make a more focused and valuable contribution.
Practice upward empathy by realizing that other people can experience a situation differently than you do. We can be curious about their experience and imagine what a situation feels like to them. We might ask: What difficulties might this present for them? What makes their job hard? What pressures are they under? What are they worried about?
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.