Unlocking High Performance

What is high-performance?

If you ask people to define high-performance, you’re likely to get different answers. They might share from different contexts, from sport to business. They might share when they observed a momentary glance of genius or when they experienced an individual or group of people achieving above average results consistently.

My first experience of observing high performance came when I was only eighteen years old. I grew up in Ireland and was fanatical about a sport we play there called hurling. At under 12 level, my first coach was a tall man named Liam, who had an enormous physical and energetic presence. He was a retired teacher, articulate and direct with his words and a great storyteller. When he raised his voice and yelled instructions during training sessions, you listened.

He had two sons on the team, both great friends of mine. For that reason, he continued to be our coach for under 14s, under 16s and under 18s. My lasting memory from the age of 12 was the monotony of practicing the basic skills over and over again at every single training session. My team was successful throughout the years. We won the county championship at every age level growing up. When I played in our under 18 team, we won the county and provincial championships. We were now competing for a chance to win the under 18 All-Ireland Championship.

A men’s county team, Kilkenny, won 8 out of 10 All-Ireland Championships throughout that decade. By chance, my coach was from Kilkenny, and as part of our preparation for the most important game of our lives, he took my under-18 team to Kilkenny to attend a training session with the best team of the decade. I was so excited to see my idols that I couldn’t sleep. As we were travelling on the bus to the stadium where they trained, I remember asking myself the question, “What does the best team in the country do differently to be the greatest?” I was full of anticipation as my question was about to get answered.

We arrived at the stadium. My teammates and I were standing along the side-line as the Kilkenny players, our heroes, emerged from the tunnel and onto the field. They got into position for their first drill and started. I noticed that it was the exact same drill our coach began our training sessions with since the age of 12. The Kilkenny players then moved into their second drill. It was the same as what our coach did with us! The third drill, the same! The fourth drill, the same!

I turned to my coach and said to him with surprise, “the best team in the country over the last decade train the exact same way we do. They’re doing nothing but practicing the basic skills.” My coach turned to me with a smile, paused as if he was about to tell me something he had known all along, and said: “When you practice the basics with discipline and consistency, you’ll be world-class.”

I didn’t realise it at the time, but that one sentence response from my coach profoundly impacted how I observed high-performance and what it takes to achieve it. The three words that stood out for me were “practice,” “basics,” and “consistency.” Perhaps my coach had studied the famous philosopher, Aristotle who said:

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

What causes high-performance?

To influence high-performance, you must first get clear on your measure of high-performance. After consulting and coaching in Fortune 100 companies, I have seen an excessive amount of key-performance indicators (KPIs) posted on office walls and in company reports. The majority of organisations gauge their success on outcomes and results. This is no surprise since the core outputs of most businesses are discrete, and you can measure them using quantity or time or some derivative of the two.

In my early career, I was a Mechanical Engineer and spent a lot of time conducting root-cause analysis of failure modes in fighter jet engines. I applied these principles of cause and effect to high-performance. I identified, in simple terms, that if the effect is ‘having KPIs that exceed targets,’ then the primary causal force is ’employee behaviour.’

The English mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, considered one of the most prominent scientists of all time and a major figure in the scientific revolution, formulated three simple laws of motion. In his third law, he states, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The laws of behaviour act in a similar manner.

As Aristotle affirms, if excellence is the effect, then the habit is the cause. My experience with root-cause analysis takes me to the same conclusion. If high-performance results are the effect, then employee behaviours and habits are the cause.

Here’s the thing. Low-performance behaviour will create low-performance results just as easy as high-performance behaviour generates high-performance results.

If managers and supervisors are not applying the laws of behaviour consciously and correctly, they are almost certainly decreasing some behaviours they want and increasing others they don’t want. To have sustainable high-performance, the one thing executives, managers, and supervisors should know the most about is human behaviour and how to influence it.

Most managers and leaders know enough about human behaviour to know that positive management approaches are more favoured than negative ones. However, they usually know very little about the selection, delivery, and timing of positive and negative consequences in the workplace to influence the way people behave.

What’s the cost of poor performance?

In my almost ten years of consulting and coaching experience, I’ve found through dozens and dozens of employee engagement surveys and personal experience that employee engagement scores are consistently low across the board. A disengaged workforce means you have people doing just enough not to get fired. Studies have shown that the level of effort put in by disengaged employees is around 40% of their capacity.

What if you could find a way to tap into the 60% discretionary effort that’s available to you? What impact would that have on your results? What if you could tap into it with consistency and discipline? Could you be world-class?

What is the glue that connects behaviours to results?

The single greatest tool leaders have at their disposal for influencing the behaviours of their employees is feedback. More specifically, ‘effective’ feedback connects the dots between behaviour and consequence.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can unlock high performance in your teams, check out my course ‘Creating High Performing Teams with Effective Feedback.’

Marty Hassan
Leadership and Business Improvement Specialist

If you are interested in learning more about Marty and his workshops on Essemy, please visit this link.