5 Scientific Principles of Success
There are thousands of books about business success, but most are based upon the author's personal observations and consulting experience. That raises a question: Is there any science to business success?
Surprisingly, you can find a great deal of science in the five basic principles:
1. Successful companies tell stories.
We may live in the information age, but human beings are genetically identical to human beings who lived in the Stone Age. Back then, what separated humans from apes was the part of the brain called the neocortex, which in humans is huge compared with other mammals.
An important element of the huge neocortex are what neuroscientists call "mirror neurons"--brain cells that fire both when we do something ourselves or when we observe somebody else doing the same thing. When a storyteller tells a story with emotion, those emotions are echoed in the listener's mirror neurons.
According to psychologist Brian Sturm at the University of North Carolina, swapping relatable stories brings people closer together and builds trust, making them part of the same tribe and therefore appropriate as business partners.
Though stories connect people emotionally, people quickly forget facts provided outside the context of story. In fact, most people forget 90 percent of the information presented to them within "a relatively short period of time."
Therefore, though you will need facts and information to verify and buttress your stories, your success depends upon the stories you tell, because the stories you tell are how your customers and investors decide what it means to do business with you.
2. Successful employees work smarter rather than longer.
Many companies encourage working long hours under the belief that paying fewer people to do more work increases profit. That belief, however, is unfounded.
According to studies conducted by Ford Motor Company early in the last century, the sweet spot for worker productivity is around 40 hours a week. Adding additional hours creates only a minor increase in productivity that turns negative in three to four weeks.
The problem is that overworked people start making avoidable errors, which then take additional time to correct. The solution, of course, is to "work smarter." But what does that mean?
It certainly doesn't mean adding more technology; there's an obvious correlation between the amount of technology in business and the extension of the workday. Technology makes it easier to work ever longer hours.
The only real way to work smarter is to spend your time doing the things that matter rather than the things that don't. This is a practical application of the Pareto Principle, the economic law that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your actions.
In the business world, the Pareto Principle is best known as the rule of thumb that "80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your clients" or sometimes "80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your salespeople."
However, Pareto patterns apply to almost all human activity, which means that in most companies only 20 percent of the effort expended generates 80 percent of the results. As a corollary, 80 percent of the effort generates only 20 percent of the results.
You can therefore make yourself and your company more successful by doing more of the 20 percent that really matters and less of the 80 percent that doesn't. BTW, this is the scientific basis for the intuitive notion of core competency.
3. Successful companies recruit team members, not superstars.
Conventional business wisdom says your organization will succeed more easily and quickly if you hire as many top performers as possible. In other words, the more superstars on your team, the better your team.
This philosophy lies behind concepts such as stack ranking, in which "a work force is graded in accordance with the individual productivity of its members," and best practice, in which you attempt to recruit candidates who resemble your current top performers.
Though that all sounds reasonable, it doesn't work in practice. Stack ranking results in all sorts of weird and dysfunctional behavior, because employees are goaled on looking good while making others look bad.
Indeed, superstars tend to become successful at the expense of others, according to statistical analyses of a database of more than 400,000 salespeople and 700 sales forces conducted by Chally Worldwide.
"In practice, top performers often depend heavily on internal resources and connections that if made available to everyone on the sales staff, might damage other parts of the business," explains Chally CEO Howard Stevens.
Business success, however, is always a team effort, which means that successful companies must hire people who can put their egos aside and help everyone to become more effective and efficient.
According to a study recently conducted at MIT and published in the Harvard Business Review, the most effective teams "talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members while lower performing teams have dominant members, teams within teams, and members who talk or listen but don't do both."
It need hardly be said that the latter behaviors are characteristic of superstars rather than team players.
In other words, your company will be more successful if you hire above-average performers who work together as a team than superstars who succeed at the expense of everyone else.
4. Successful companies treat honesty as the best policy.
For the past few decades, many companies have tended to look upon corporate ethics as an expense. The assumption is that it's more profitable to cheat than to play fair, as long you don't get caught.
However, groundbreaking research by emeritus business professor and author Robert B. Cialdini indicates that cheating generates huge hidden costs, even when leaders think they're getting away with it.
According to Cialdini, employees who know that their company is cheating fall into two categories: those who feel a conflict of values and want to leave, and those who feel perfectly fine with it.
Many of the best employees fall into the first category, which creates expensive churn and turnover. Because turnover costs can easily be two to three times the yearly cost of an employee, the result of cheating is a lower profit margin.
What's worse, the employees who are OK with corporate-level cheating are OK with personal cheating, which explains (among other things) why rogue trading has become so common in the financial industry.
In other words, rather than an unnecessary expense, creating an ethical corporate culture avoids unnecessary expenses that will be incurred even when that company gets away with cheating.
5. Successful companies seek to reduce worker stress.
There's no simpler way to put it: Science says that stress is the No. 1 enemy of success. According to the American Psychological Association, stress results in a host of health problems, including headache, muscle tension, muscle pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach, insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, lack of focus, irritability, depression, eating problems, addiction, and social withdrawal.
Health problems of this sort don't just result in productivity-killing absenteeism but also (when combined with the work-longer-hours ethos) presenteeism, in which staff members go to work even when ill with a communicable disease.
In business, the main sources of stress are the sense that there's too much work to be done and a climate of fear based on the (often accurate) belief that management will punish failure.
There are, of course, many outwardly successful companies that have this type of hard-driving, fear-based culture. However, such companies do eliminate stress on a regular basis--by discarding and then replacing employees who become too burnt out to function.
However, because turnover costs money, a more effective approach is to create an environment that is inherently less stressful by implementing Principles 1 through 4.
Having a strong, meaningful story creates a sense of community. Only doing what's important reduces both busywork and overwork. Building teams rather than spotlighting prima donnas reduces conflict, as does encouraging honesty and trust.
Not every successful business embodies all five principles, but if you read some of those thousands of books about business success, I'd wager you'll find that all successful businesses implement at least four of them.
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GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.