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Who is the ‘glue’ in your organization?

In any organization, employees take on different roles, some of which are perceived as core to the organization’s goals.

For instance, the work of surgeons in hospitals and pilots in airlines is recognized as critically important, and is usually compensated accordingly.

However, for every employee in a highly visible role, there are dozens of employees in non-core jobs. These employees may receive less attention and compensation than their more visible colleagues, but they are often responsible for doing the little things that enable the organization to succeed day-to-day.

In a book about Southwest Airlines, Jody Hoffer Gittell of Brandeis University described how Southwest’s strategy of having one of the industry’s lowest turnaround times from landing to takeoff depended heavily on the behind-the-scenes coordination between baggage handlers and gate personnel. In other words, the “glue” that holds together Southwest’s strategy is the cooperation and teamwork among its less visible, non-core employees.

Although non-core employees far outnumber core employees in most organizations, we know surprisingly little about what and how non-core employees actually contribute. In a paper that will be published in October in the Academy of Management Review, I worked with Anthony Klotz and Keith Leavitt of Oregon State University to develop a model to explain how the quality of relationships among core and non-core employees (a concept called relational coordination) can facilitate organizational performance.

Here are two immediate takeaways from our research on non-core employees and their implications of our model for managers:

• Non-core employees contribute value that managers often overlook. During a visit to NASA headquarters in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do?”

“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor reportedly responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Stories like this that celebrate the mundane, behind-the-scenes work of organizations are rarely told, in part because the contributions of non-core employees are often subtle and easy to overlook.

For instance, best-selling author Michael Lewis wrote of a professional basketball player for the Houston Rockets, Shane Battier, that Battier was “a basketball mystery.” Battier was a player with mediocre athleticism and limited skills who never garnered many statistics or much attention. But Lewis observed that Battier dived for loose balls, played great defense, and helped out his teammates, and “every team [Battier] has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.”

Similarly, although it is easy to take the work of non-core employees for granted, managers should actively seek to identify the value that noncore employees bring to their organization.

• Relational coordination between core and non-core employees can become contagious if organizations encourage it. In a study of dozens of professional string quartets in Great Britain, researchers Keith Murnighan and Donald Conlon found that the second violinist invariably occupied the least visible position in the group. The second violinist was quite literally a “second fiddle,” playing harmonies and counter melodies to the attention-grabbing melodies of the first violinist.

However, Murnighan and Conlon discovered a trend among the more successful string quartets: The more visible members of the group expressed genuine appreciation of their second violinist’s contributions in being the harmonic “glue” that held together the ensemble’s sound. 

Teamwork among employees in core and non-core roles sets the stage for cooperation that can spread throughout the organization.

Managers send important signals that encourage or discourage teamwork through their hiring and reward practices. Southwest Airlines, for instance, emphasized hiring employees who are not “elitists” and who actively embrace the value of relationships and cross-department coordination.

Understanding the contributions of your non-core employees is more important than ever, because our state’s economy is increasingly service-based and it is very likely that interactions with your non-core employees will shape your customers’ perceptions of your organization. So it is worth your while to ask the question: Who is your organization’s “glue?”

Alex Bolinger is an associate professor of management at Idaho State University in Pocatello. His research focuses on groups and teams, negotiation, and entrepreneurship and has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, and the Academy of Management Review, among other outlets. He earned his PhD in Management at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and previously taught at Penn State-Brandywine.

About Alexander Bolinger