Organizations struggle to create a high performance culture. Here’s why.
“We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, but not because we have a scarcity of talent … We have a scarcity of achievement because we’re squandering that talent. And that’s not bad news, that’s good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It’s something we can do something about.” Malcom Gladwell, Outliers (2008)
In Pursuit of High Performance
Consulting is big business, with annual global revenues of $250 billion paid to more than 700,000 consulting firms. In a complex world, leading organizations and corporations rely on these consultants to help them determine what strategies, innovations and technologies will provide the greatest growth and profitability – that is, the highest performance.
Clearly, organizations invest considerable time, money and attention to drive high performance. So why do so many organizations still struggle to achieve it?
The answer is surprisingly simple: most organizations struggle to achieve it because most people struggle to achieve it. One of the consistent findings across more than 20 years of helping Fortune 500 companies apply the Achieve System for high performance is that very few of us are ever taught how to consistently perform at our very best, especially when under pressure. This troubling fact runs counter to an almost-universal assumption that somehow we arrive in the workplace knowing how to bring our best selves to the job and optimize our well-being and performance.
In reality, almost no one gets taught how to do this (and given that, you may be surprised to see these two terms – well-being and performance – linked, and yet they are inextricably entwined). There are exceptions, of course. There are a lucky few people who had that special teacher, or coach, or battalion leader or parent, someone who equipped them with the necessary tools and practices to consistently do their best by being their best. But even these high performers usually have an incomplete or outmoded tool kit to manage their performance.
Our lack of skills here is costly. Malcolm Gladwell pointed to research done by psychologist James Flynn that looked at something called the “capitalization rate” in the U.S. for various occupations, described as “the percentage of people in any given situation who have the ability to make the most of their potential.” For example, what percentage of American men intellectually capable of holding the top tier of managerial/professional jobs actually end up getting jobs like that? The number is surprisingly low, like 60 percent or so.
Why is this number so low? It’s likely the same reason why so many of us struggle to achieve and maintain daily high performance on the job: no one ever hands us an instruction manual showing us how to perform at our best, day in and day out, in the real world.
Instead, employers and their consultants have sought to neutralize the human variable by standardizing workplace policies, practices and procedures, by creating a science of continuous improvement and by giving employees specific training in systems and software implemented in part to overcome human vulnerability or variability.
That’s all fine, but improving human performance requires a different kind of mental engagement to learn a different set of skills. The goal is not for people to become proficient at a new digital technology or automated process, or to improve their skills in communication, sales, conflict resolution or contract negotiations. Rather, the Achieve System addresses something much more fundamental: helping employees become more proficient at managing their own work habits, attitudes and relationships.
Giving employees the tools to help manage their inner world means acknowledging that they have one and that it matters to the enterprise. And that’s the unvarnished truth: it is simply not possible to create a significant, sustainable and scalable boost in human performance without asking employees to examine their workplace attitudes and behaviors, and then helping them to better understand causes and manage effects. By building these skills on the level of individuals, teams and the organization, it is possible to create and sustain a state of high performance that pays truly remarkable dividends.
It also means turning away from the neat and orderly world of the quantitative, of KPIs and efficiency measures, and instead inviting your employees to “look under their own hood” to tune their performance and to examine the workplace culture in which they interact.
This is exactly what the Achieve System™ helps you do. It all begins by owning where we are by acknowledging that many of us are not consistently performing at the level we’re capable of. With that understanding in place, we can then ask, What would be required for us to consistently show up for work as high performers?
The Achieve System™ recognizes two essential truths about change. We’ve just examined the first one: On an individual level, all meaningful change is an inside job – that is, change begins when we shift what we feel, experience and think. The second essential truth is that All meaningful change in organizations is driven by culture and habit – and that will be the topic of our next article.
Mark Cunningham is the founder and CEO of The Achieve Institute and creator of the Achieve System, currently used to improve performance at many Fortune 500 companies.