Turning the Tide of Harmful High Performance, Why It's Hard, What We Can Do



Last week, I shared my view that, while there are legitimate reasons that the journey to high performance can be a painful one, it should not be one that harms or breaks people. You can find that article here.


As a follow-up, I’d like to acknowledge the reality that, just because we can see that something is bad for us or the people we lead, sometimes an intellectual awareness is not enough. I want to call out the things that continue to hold us back in the high-performance “hurt locker," and share a few ideas about how to overcome our inertia in this space.


Here are the responses I get when I ask people why they don’t take better psychological care of themselves or the people they work with or lead:


  • Wow, I never thought about this before!

  • What you say is all well and good, but the pressure is on to get the outcome. Need a quick win, need someone to perform now, KPIs are breathing down my neck.

  • Old beliefs remain insistent and the myths that surround them are durable. If I’m not hard on myself or others, I/they will lose my/our edge! I am unworthy, I’m afraid to let up - who knows what will happen?

  • I’m too stressed or afraid to change.

  • Management/the public/shareholders want their pound of flesh and this is the only way I can give it to them.

  • The old way of doing things was good enough for me, why should others get things easier?

Does any of this sound familiar? Let's start by rewriting some of our more unhelpful beliefs in this space.


The past 20 years have seen rapid advances in how science and medicine are helping us understand how the brain works, and by extension to “see” how the mind works. We can “see” thoughts and emotions light up parts of the brain through the power of fMRIs. We are starting to tease out cause and effect. And with that knowledge comes power. As we moved from an uneducated guess about how the brain works - turns out it’s not like a computer or a muscle but more of an exquisite, ever-changing network of neural connections - we see how much more adaptable it is, and how less of a machine. The good news is that learning is always possible. We are far more psychological agile and flexible than we thought.


But with this next level of knowledge comes an obligation to recalibrate our own understanding of mental health, emotions, and thinking. Before we knew these things, we could be excused from making clumsy and inaccurate metaphors that misrepresented reality. That suffering from poor mental health meant that you were weak. That if you thought “hard enough,” things would go your way. That if you just corralled your wayward emotions, or better yet ignored them, you could get back to the “just doing” business at hand. That somehow all of these mechanisms were like levers we could pull when we wanted.


It turns out that not only is none of this true but that we control none of it. Not our brains, not our bodies, not our minds. Further, our attempts to impose our will on our thoughts and emotions, if they succeed at all, are short-lived and more often lead to more, not less harm.


Here’s the thing. The first of many things. :) Just because we don’t control does not mean we can’t influence and renegotiate the terms of our relationships with our bodies, as well as how we think and feel. In ways that help us thrive through difficulty, overcome adversity, and perform more durably. In the interest of getting us there, here are a few inescapable human realities to consider.


Humans differ across a host of mental characteristics, such as whether we are more inclined toward thinking about things or noticing our emotional experiences. We are also differently coloured based on our backgrounds, the quality of our parenting, were loved or abused, did we feel safe or scared, our cultural mores, the colour of our skin, and our socioeconomic background, among many other factors. All of these comprise the environment we lived in and absorbed without even knowing it. There’s now evidence to suggest that, on top of all this, trauma passes through generations. We each come differentially wired with the experiences of the generations that came before us. This IS what it means to be human.


All this is to say that we judge ourselves or others by any uniform standard at our peril. The truth is that grit will come easier to some people than others. Some people will be better at controlling their emotions than others. Some of us will be born more susceptible to mental health issues. Others of us will endure life circumstances that will leave us scarred and more vulnerable.


Whatever the case, it’s time we accepted the reality that it’s our job both personally and interpersonally to seek to allow and understand ourselves and others first before making judgments or issuing one-size-fits-all solutions.


So what can we do, as performers ourselves, and as those who help them?


First, be kind to ourselves. I am no longer surprised by how few of us are. Be it out of ignorance that such a thing is possible, the idea that we are not worthy, we don’t deserve it, we will lose our edge, it’s selfish, or we are too busy taking care of others, many of us suck at this. And we are even worse when the mistake or failure is our fault. I’ve asked this before and will ask it again: who wakes up in the morning energised by the possibility of making the mistake that costs them the game or their team the championship? Who anticipates with glee the idea of saying the wrong thing in a meeting? Presuming we are of good intent but despite that, we fall short of a challenge, isn’t the outcome of the mistake itself “punishment” enough? What’s the point of piling on? Self-inflicting wounds is what the Buddhists call “shooting ourselves with the second arrow.” No need. The first one landed just fine, thank you. The resilience-preserving move in this instance? Pivoting to self-compassion and comfort.


In our relationships with those whose performances we are assisting, lead with empathy and seek to understand. Remember back to times we were hurt and how that felt. If the other person may have reason to be struggling, there’s a good chance they are. But it is equally likely that they experience their struggles differently from how you do. So don’t assume and commiserate. Ask open-ended questions. Offer up hypotheses.


Be curious, kind, and compassionate. These three qualities are leadership superpowers when it comes to inspiring trust and opening up lines of communication.


At the same time, inspire accountability. Effective leaders remind those they lead of their innate value and use that fact to inspire improvement, not punish it into existence. Most of us know when we have made a mistake. No need to pile on. Create a safe place to unpack failure and learn from it. Yep, sometimes direct, firm feedback is the answer, but it’s not the only answer. If someone is making the same mistake over and over or is a chronic underperformer, there is a necessary conversation about standards and expectations to be had. Short of that, consider leading with trust and compassion and see what happens.


Scott Brennan, Olympic Gold Medal Rower described his coach’s style this way:


So, Sam, he gave me grit by making it about more than the actual performance thing itself. It was never really about—I mean like, [on the one hand] it was always about how strong you are, how fit are you, how well did you row--it’s always about the basics.


But Sam would always be, “what kind of man are you?” “What does it mean to you, what kind of athlete do you want to be in this circumstance?” “How do you want to be when you win? What kind of athlete do you want to be? How do you want to be when you lose? When no one is watching? When everyone’s watching, who are you?” He would challenge that all the time. And talk about it. He had a real—he was... On paper, he was an average man. Taught himself to read and write and not well. He was amazingly intuitive about people’s emotions and how to draw out the best of them.


What I love about even this small snippet is the power of emotional connection and the use of questions to inspire.


As always, I love your feedback and ideas. If you are struggling to see your way through to “first do no harm” personal performance or leadership, I can help.


In case you missed my main message :), high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want while doing less damage to yourself or your people. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com



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