Successful Performance in a Complex World

By Lori Bartels

In his book The Future of Success, Robert Reich describes the role of the mid-twentieth century executive as serving on multiple boards, playing several rounds of golf each week, entertaining lavishly and participating in highly visible acts of charity. This work-life seems like a relatively easy, low-key experience compared to what organizational leaders and employees face in the twenty-first century. The work world has indeed become more complex. In 2005, Thomas Friedman declared "The World is Flat." In his book of the same title he describes a world full of intricate foreign policies and multi-layered economic issues; and he highlights the impact these factors have on organizations and the people working inside these organizations. Bob Johansen (Get There Early, 2007) describes a world in which leaders face complicated, messy situations. These situations demand that to be successful organizations need to get "there" ahead of the crowd. It's no longer ok to get "there" just-in-time or to be fashionably late.

In today's organizations, whether they are in the private sector, public sector, not-for-profit, or are educational institutions, leaders and employees are facing a very new landscape, one never experienced before. For example:

  • Organizations are playing in a global market, whether or not they have locations outside of the country in which the main offices are located,
  • Products are sold globally,
  • Employees originate from all around the world,
  • Customers or students come from diverse cultures,
  • Raw materials are imported from other countries and/or
  • Production occurs outside of one's geographic location.

The external environment is not the only area that is becoming more complex. The world inside organizations has also become more nuanced and challenging. It is no longer acceptable to be working in silos within organizations focused only on your own area of work. Increasingly organizations are expecting and demanding their employees collaborate with others across divisions, business units or functional areas. At times employees are expected to partner with employees from other organizations. These other organizations may be a partner in one arena and yet a competitor in another.

In the midst of all these shifts, organizations need employees who are high performers. In order to be high performers, employees must understand the systems/processes of their organization to ensure success in their own work group. For a glimpse of how this might play out for an employee, consider these scenarios:

Imagine that an employee in the finance department of an organization decides that a change should be made in the packaging material for one of the company's products.

Before the finance department mandates a change in packaging materials they need to think about the change from a manufacturing point of view and determine why the current materials were chosen.


Or imagine this one: Before Human Resources changes the compensation system they need to contemplate the unintended consequences of the change and try to foresee what impact this will have on employees and their managers.

Employees who wish to be seen as high performers must know about the organization as a system rather than solely from the perspective of their own function or job title in the organization.

As a result of these growing expectations related to performance, employees need a new inter-related skill set, which includes the ability to:

  • continually learn,
  • look at issues from different perspectives and
  • be flexible in how they achieve results.

The bottom line is this: what worked in the past may not work now or in the future.

Lombardo and Eichinger (2000) have conducted several studies on high performers and high potential employees that emphasize this new inter-related skill set. Their results indicate that employees who are high performers, or who have high potential demonstrate an ability to continually learn new skills and an ability to adapt to a changing environment. They call this ability learning agility. In their research they discovered four subcomponents of learning agility:

1. People Agility - people who know themselves, treat others well, are cool under pressure, learn from their experiences

2. Results Agility - people who get results in tough situations, inspire confidence in others

3. Mental Agility - people who look at situations from a novel perspective, are comfortable with complexity and ambiguity

4. Change Agility - people who are curious, have a passion for ideas, like to try novel approaches

All four of these factors were correlated with high performance or having high potential; and all four of these factors can be highlighted in our work with our employed (or hope-to-be employed) clients.

When we think of career development in the current century it is important to look at the internal and external environment in which employees currently work and will work in the future. Given the working world is becoming increasingly complex and given the results of recent research, focusing on the development of the four learning agilities is one path to helping individuals and organizations become high performers.


Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World Is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Johansen, B. (2007). Get There Early. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Lombardo, M. M. & Eichinger, R. W. (2000, Winter). Human Resource Management, 39 (4), pp. 321-330.

Reich, R. B. (2000). Future of Success. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Dr. Lori Bartels has a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology from Old Dominion University. She served as a faculty member in the graduate & undergraduate I/O Psychology program at San Jose State University and for the last 10 years has consulted to numerous Fortune 500 companies on leadership and organization development initiatives. She can be reached at lbartels@covad.net.

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