Performance by Proximity: High-Performers Boost the Productivity of Those Around Them

Say what you will about “cube farms,” the row upon row of fabricated walls without doors that make up many of today’s offices, new research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University suggests that high-performers actually boost the productivity of those around them.

Research led by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor discovered that workers who sat within a 25-foot radius of high-performers at a large technology firm boosted their own performance by an average of 15 percent. Minor calls it “positive spillover,” and says it translates to an estimated $1 million in additional annual profits.

“We’ve known since kindergarten that who you sit next to can matter,” Minor says. But performance in the workplace is more complicated than during one’s early school years. Employees often are strong in some areas and not as strong in others.

Minor and Housman analyzed two years’ worth of detailed information on the performance of more than 2,000 workers at a large technology firm, categorizing workers primarily by two performance metrics – speed and quality. The researchers mapped out where each employee sat and how each worker’s performance changed as their work neighbors changed.

Good News and Bad News

Employees who ranked high on either speed or quality boosted the performance of those within a 25-foot radius. The researchers state the spillover is especially effective when employees who have different strengths sit near each other. In other words, when a worker who ranks high in speed sits near one who ranks high in quality, they raise each other’s level of performance.

Unfortunately, those workers whose performance was so poor they were ultimately fired – what Minor calls “toxic workers” – have the same spillover effect. Worse still, while positive spillover appears to be limited to a 25-foot radius, toxic workers leave a much broader imprint. And while positive spillover took a month or more to take effect, the researchers found that negative spillover occurs almost instantly.

Minor says this powerful effect of negative spillover aligns with other psychological studies on negative effects. The concept of loss aversion is the sting of losing $100 is a lot more powerful than the joy of winning $100.

Minor says managers can take comfort in knowing that most workers aren’t toxic. What’s more, the important lesson learned from the power of negative spillover is to identify and cull toxic workers quickly.