John McLachlan debunks three myths about high performance based on findings from his new book, Rest. Practise. Perform.

In our organisations, we want to perform well and do so sustainably. However, in reality there is often a performance struggle. This can be very demoralising for employees and leaders. Financial targets may be reached, projects delivered on time, or a product can be launched. But there are questions. Could you have done better? Would a tweak have made a difference? Did an idea that was dropped have more mileage than people realised?

There are many misunderstandings or indeed myths about performance. Strategists like to talk about the importance of metrics; however, much of what makes an organisation work well is how its people are organised and how they are motivated. And here lies the danger. In the absence of clear expectations and outcomes, people frequently divert to effort and presenteeism as a way of demonstrating their value. That’s all understandable, but performance is about achieving results.

Elite Sports and Sustainable Performance

For our new book, Rest. Practise. Perform., we studied three popular elite sports for their keys to sustainable performance. Whilst all three sports (Formula 1, tennis and football) are very different, they share a lot of commonalities in how they organise themselves towards performance. We found that in the pursuit of such a clear measure of performance, they busted some commonly held organisational beliefs about how performance is achieved.

We found there is much for organisations to learn from how sports achieve performance. Let’s look at three of these common myths:

Myth 1: You Have to Be Performing 100% of the Time

Sport professionals only perform at key moments. We have termed this the ‘performance window.’ It represents the time period or event where someone needs to be performing in their most intensive, focused way, with no distractions. By reserving maximum focus and energy for key moments, sports people are able to perform more sustainably and get better results. After all, if you put 100% of your energy into your training, then you will have little left in the tank when you really need it.

Organisations could learn a lot by adopting the concept of a performance window. Many employees believe they have to be giving 100% (or even 110% – whatever that actually means) to be doing a good job. While a lot of essential work is done outside of the performance window – planning, preparation, experimenting, training and practice – the key is that the intensity, focus and emotional energy expended in these tasks should not equal that of the performance window.

To define your performance window, or that of leaders you work with, think about the times where it really matters, where you need to be ‘on your game,’ where you are focused and all your attention and energy is needed. This can be different for different people in different roles. For example, not all meetings are performance windows – so which ones are? The standard staff meetings are unlikely to be, so leaders can run at 60 or 70% in those, saving their energy for the ones where they really need to be performing. If you feel like you are performing all the time, think about where some additional planning or coordination will help things run more smoothly. Ideally you shouldn’t be in a performance window for more than around 30% of your working time or you will get exhausted, and your performance will deteriorate.

Myth 2: If People Are Working Hard, They Are Performing

Be careful of conflating effort with performance. People can direct a lot of energy, love and care into something in the hope that their effort will be rewarded, but this is not performance. In sports this is the equivalent of rewarding the person who came last in the race because they tried hard, even if they lacked skill. This is fine at the school sports day, but in elite sports rewards are based on your ability to win, to do better than the competition, regardless of how hard you tried.

The problem with acknowledging effort alone is that in organisations, you get more of what you reward. If people are rewarded for working hard, instead of outcomes, you will just get exhausted people trying even more heroic efforts to be appreciated. Instead, focus on defining performance outcomes for teams, individuals and the organisation overall. If people understand where they need to head towards, they will focus their energy on that, rather than proving themselves in a way which adds nothing to the organisation and may well be detrimental to them.

In defining your performance outcomes, think about the work you do that provides the most value to the organisation and set goals around that. It can be hard in a field such as executive support to think about performance in any other terms than ‘nothing went wrong today’ or evaluating your ability to save your leader from an impending disaster, and that is the reality of the work. However, try to define some performance goals that are within your control and influence. It might be the successful delivery of a certain event, or improvements to the board pack. These kinds of proactive performance goals help people to feel they have more agency and are also more motivating and tangible over the longer term.

Myth 3: Resting Is Taking a Holiday

Well-rested people think more clearly, have better judgement and are more productive – so why wouldn’t you want more of this? The answer, as elite sports people know well, lies in the art of taking the right kind of rest. This is something elite sports do much better than organisations. Sports people are highly competitive, so it can be hard to get them to stop or slow down. Fortunately, science now informs much of the elite sports rest cycle in such a way that the sports professional can see how the rest phase actually helps performance.

The secret is that in elite sports, you rest what you would use to perform, not do nothing. Elite sports professionals are usually resting their physical body but may still be very active in the rest phase. For example, professional golfers hit the gym after competitive rounds to balance the body after a lot of repetition; tennis players cool down using an exercise bike. They don’t just perform and then sit still.

Those organisations which tend to think that holiday is the only time to rest miss an opportunity to use rest as part of the performance cycle. Much of the denial of a rest phase in organisational work is the concern that it will be perceived as a weakness of some kind, but it could be your secret sauce. The term ‘a change is as good as a rest’ was coined for a reason, but rather than doing lots of random activity, you can design your rest phase so that it enhances your performance by resting whatever part you use to perform in your work.

Everyone is unique in terms of the kind of rest they need. For some people it is simply a case of not putting maximum effort into everything; for some things good enough is good enough – then you can save your energy for the aspects of your work that will really pay off.

In Conclusion

Organisations often struggle to know if they are truly performing, and that’s in part down to a lack of understanding of what performance actually looks like. The risk of this is that the performance that might have been achieved is missed due to the influence of myths that hinder, rather than help. We discovered that elite sports people think and act differently. They have seen the myths for what they are. If organisations are to achieve similar levels of sustainable performance, they need to do the same.

John McLachlan is co-author of Rest. Practise. Perform.: What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance. John takes the latest scientific and academic thinking and makes it useful and easy to apply. His approach is grounded ... (Read More)

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