Written by Steve Weitzenkorn, PhD, and Jerry Toomer, PhD (authors)
Whether on-the-job, in school, or in general activities, statistically, 68 percent of the population perform in the middle of the pack. In today’s world, only a relatively small percentage of people have formal leadership positions, but that does not mean those of us who lack leadership authority or who perform within the middle two-thirds of the normal curve can have only an average impact. In fact, recent research has shown that those of us outside of the “top performer” spotlight can have an outsized, catalytic impact. It’s not about being “the star.” Having a catalytic impact is about finding ways to elevate the performance of others and can produce greater success for the organization as a whole.
For example, in sports, the scoreboard and individual box scores tell only part of the story. Those who score the most points may not necessarily have a catalytic impact on others or the team’s overall performance. Others, through less noticeable behavioral dynamics, can have that effect, and they can be equally if not more pivotal. This same unheralded leadership and teamwork phenomenon exists in other fields, including in business, the arts, nonprofit organizations, and education. Human catalysts make it easier for others in the organization to perform their jobs more effectively and create opportunities for them to produce at higher levels, which in turn elevates team performance.  From the outside, it may seem as if an element of magic has been injected into the process, when, in fact, it’s a combination of identifiable skills and behaviors that ignites the performance of others and which can be learned and applied in any situation.
In our research, we investigated how certain individuals, defined as “catalysts,” elevate the performance of others. The study was inspired by the performance of Shane Battier, a professional basketball player who made his teammates and his teams better, even though his individual statistics were unexceptional by typical NBA standards.  In an article for The New York Times Magazine, writer Michael Lewis defined him as a “No Stats, All Star.” As Battier said in a recent speech “The Art of the Intangible,” “the only commerce I cared about was the success of the team. My art was doing all I could to make my team better…to add to the greater good…including doing little things that no one else wanted to do and are never highly acclaimed.”  By doing these pivotal tasks well, Battier created opportunities for others to excel, which improved his team’s performance by 6 to 10 points per game, often the difference between winning and losing.  What he did, we define as catalytic.
One need not be “the star” to have a catalytic effect.
In sports, results show up immediately on the scoreboard. That’s not the case in business, not-for-profit organizations, or education. Most of the time, results are revealed over time. Yet the underlying skill sets are similar, as uncovered through field research that included more than 80 in-depth interviews and surveys of leaders, coaches, and individual contributors in a variety of fields. Consistently-demonstrated behavior patterns were distilled as the common denominators for elevating group performance. These behavior patterns can be learned and effectively applied by most people, whether they are in positions of authority or individual contributors.
What are some of the crucial things that “ordinary” performers do to have an extraordinary impact? How can team members “lead from wherever they are” without a formal title?  To illustrate how catalysts elevate performance, here are examples of some of the best practices for three of the twelve catalytic behavior sets, or “competencies” that emerged from our field research:
Competency:  Energize others to execute with the mission in mind.
What Catalysts Do

  • Make the mission a magnet to focus and motivate others.
  • Regularly remind others of its importance and what is at stake.
  • Promote a belief in what can be achieved.

What Catalysts Don’t Do

  • Promote alternative agendas.
  • Disengage from others on the team.
  • Create distractions or barriers to achieving the goal.

Competency:  Both lead and follow.
What Catalysts Do

  • Demonstrate flexibility to fluidly move from leading to following and back again as situations change.
  • Lead when best equipped to do so.
  • Step back when others have greater expertise.

What Catalysts Don’t Do

  • Choose not to follow when others have greater expertise.
  • Undermine directly or subtly the leadership of others.
  • Take charge when others have more knowledge or expertise.

Competency:  Invigorate with Optimism
What Catalysts Do

  • Encourage others to believe in themselves.
  • Promote self-confidence, hope, and resilience of team members.
  • Challenge naysayers.

What Catalysts Don’t Do

  • Deflate others with negative remarks or pessimism.
  • Focus on why things can’t be accomplished or only on barriers.
  • Act lethargically or remain outside of the team effort.
  • Gossip.

These are just a few specific practices each of us can integrate into our working lives, families, or teams, and in doing so, enhance our value to our organizations. Applying these practices in a thoughtful, intentional manner leads to heightened individual credibility, stronger group cohesion, greater team momentum, and a magnified impact.
What are the catalytic behaviors that you employ to elevate the performance of others on your teams? Which can you develop further?
All of the competencies and practices identified through field investigations and research, along with a more comprehensive set of catalytic practices, can be found in our book, The Catalyst Effect: 12 Skills and Behaviors to Boost Your Impact and Elevate Team Performance (Emerald Publishing).
A free brief survey for assessing one’s catalytic tendencies can be found at TheCatalystEffect.org.
Originally posted May 23, 2018 by Psychology Today