Sustained Maximal Performance?

Welcome to Frictionless Performance, where I share ideas about how to up your performance game in ways that are sustainable, easier, and more enjoyable. And in the process, take on some high-performance domain “sacred cows” - those deeply held and highly-valued ideas around how we trigger high performance in ourselves that just might be no longer fit for purpose, if ever they were.



The title of this article reflected an experience I had while doing some work with an organization that prided itself on its high-performance ethos. Staff at the branch where I was visiting told me that they were expected to be on their best game all the time. That to let up, take rest, or even slow down could be construed in a negative light by the powers that be. To the point where sick leave and injuries were on the rise, and staff mental health was suffering. According to the branch staff person who had taken it upon herself to teach lunchtime yoga classes, staff was using yoga class as a way to legitimize an otherwise verboten midday nap. That same staff person answered the call by providing mats, bolsters, blankets, and encouraging people to use the class in the way that best served their needs. I imagined an adult version of kindergarten nap-time, with snoozing staff scattered across the floor.


When I reported what I learned to organizational leaders, there was confusion. It turns out that the official corporate mantra was “SustainABLE Maximal Performance.” What was interesting to me was the attitude with which this was conveyed to me as if, in telling this to me, all was well. I responded that I thought the organization—at the very least—had a marketing problem. Doesn’t much matter what motto is painted on your walls if it isn’t perceived accurately, or worse, disbelieved.


This led me to ponder a couple of questions on behalf of this organisation.


1. What does 'maximal performance' really mean? In this organisational context, this concept was understood to be one of appearance as much as reality. “Sustainable" became “sustained.” As in, based on your role, maximal performance was as much about your ability to appear to be working hard as it was about the quality of the work you were actually doing. If you weren’t doing, you were not performing. Against this cultural mandate, individuals felt they could not let up, slow down, or recover between efforts. Performance became an inexorable grind, with staff not only feeling powerless to regulate their own efforts, but worried about how others were perceiving those same efforts. Added to this, staff workloads were sometimes increased without warning, which only served to reinforce the message that it was about doing more, certainly not less.


As I have argued elsewhere—okay, in my last newsletter :)—I believe that performance maximisation is as much about the process - how things are done - as it is about the product. It is so often the fact that how we do things directly relates to outcome quality and performance sustainability. In this organisational context, leadership did not reinforce their words with examples of how sustainable performance was to be achieved; they did not educate about, much less operationalise or normalize concepts like recovery activities, periodised effort, or flexible work schedules. Nor did they highlight examples of what sustainable effort could and should look like. Without guidance about how to distinguish between sustained and sustainable performance, it is a small wonder that staff in this organisation defaulted to “harder is better.”


Buckingham and Coffman’s classic business text, First Break All the Rules, suggests that great managers get maximal employee performance not by controlling staff behaviour or focusing on max performance outcomes, but by defining relevant and reasonable outcomes and allowing each person to find their own individual route toward those outcomes. Making “how” as important as “what” means that people are empowered to figure out what processes work best for them which often led to higher performance outcomes, as work processes were put under regular scrutiny and doing things differently, easier, or more efficiently, was championed, not frowned upon.


2. What would make your maximal performance sustainable? It is apparent to me that this organization has not asked this question of its people at all, much less in a way that legitimised sustainability. No one on the ground there felt that there was room to even consider that question. Rather, it would appear that the organization was rewarding the opposite by not championing sustainability, but by seeking more output.


So what does this mean for your quest to achieve your own version of high performance that is sustainable?


Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in their book, The Power of Full Engagement, suggest these strategies — based on the compelling premise that it is more about energy management than time management when it comes to sustaining engagement in high-performance pursuits:


1. Pace your efforts with “change of activity” breaks. And take them. Don’t do what I do and simply move from writing an article on my office laptop to the dining room laptop to read the paper. Get out and move. Do the things that energise you or otherwise “fill your cup” so that you can come back with more intentional energy.


2. Craft your own work to be more meaningful. I’m lucky enough as a psychologist to get a lot of near-instant feedback over the course of my day that tells me whether my efforts are meaningful to my clients (and therefore to me)…or not. If you are not as fortunate in this direct feedback department, consider how you can touch base with the people who are impacted by your work and talk to them about it. Find out what they like, don’t like, or would like you to do differently. And consider how you could make that happen. I recently coached a client in this space who bent herself backward trying to anticipate how to make a positive difference for her customers…but wasn’t “feeling the love” back from them. It turns out she never asked her customers what THEY wanted. Once she did, her path toward satisfying her customers became clearer.


3. Look for opportunities to innovate and learn. This may seem obvious, but research suggests that few of us take the time to do this, even for ourselves, much less in the context of the jobs we do. I worked with a young coach who came into her first role passionate about shifting her young squad’s culture from coasting to achievement, yet was bumping up against resistance to her enthusiasm for change from her athletes. After some months of frustration, she began to pick up on the individual athletes whose motivation matched her vision and focused on them. Through a combination of one-on-one mentoring and encouragement, she saw some small wins and her initiative gained momentum. As other athletes saw what was happening—the work and improvement some of their peers were experiencing—they started to self-select in…or out. So while she lost a few members of her squad, the coach eventually landed the learning and performance culture that felt right and achieved meaningful results for her athletes.


4. Invest in the relationships that energise you. This can be a process of discernment. Who do you find yourself enjoying spending time with, who increases your energy and enthusiasm, who do you look forward to spending time with, and who do you learn from? On the other hand, what relationships can you afford to minimise - those people who subtract from your well-being or performance?


5. Thriving can happen anywhere. People who feel energized at work often bring that energy to their lives beyond work. And people inspired by outside activities—volunteering, training for a race, taking a class—can bring their drive back to their work. Rather than thinking of these non-work activities as “taking away” from your work, consider their value in what they let you bring back. We have all heard the stories of people who intentionally “slept on” a problem only to have answers to their problems come to them in their dreams. While I have yet to find my own dream-time epiphanies, I am regularly surprised by ideas that come to me while I am running with my dog. Then, it’s all about hanging on to them long enough to write them down! :)


High performance is hard enough. I hope these ideas can help you to balance your own performance efforts against ways to make your hard efforts easier and even more enjoyable.


Thanks for reading!


I provide individual and group coaching on how you or your team can learn more about getting out of your own way and working with your mind for more frictionless and sustainable performance. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com.

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