Friday, 19 July 2013 14:17

Managing for Peak Performance

Disengaged employees often appear to lack commitment. In reality, many of them crave re-engagement. No one enjoys working without passion or joy.

While many factors cause disengagement, the most prevalent is feeling overwhelmed (or, conversely, underwhelmed). Disconnection and overload pose obstacles to performance, yet they often go undetected or ignored because neither qualifies as a disciplinary issue.

But you can’t sprint to peak performance. In addition to variety and stimulation, we require food, rest, human engagement, physical exercise and challenge. You cannot expect a human being to sit at a desk for hours and produce quality work without these essential elements.

If you work too many hours, your brain’s supply of neurotransmitters will be depleted, and you won’t be able to sustain top performance. Without proper care, the brain will underperform—and brain fatigue mimics disengagement and lack of commitment.

Using Brain Science to Bring Out the Best

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, author of Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011), synthesises new neurological research into five sequential steps managers can apply to maximise employees’ peak performance:

  1.     Select: Put the right people in the right job, and give them responsibilities that “light up” their brains.
  2.     Connect: Strengthen interpersonal bonds among team members.
  3.     Play: Help people unleash their imaginations at work.
  4.     Grapple and Grow: When the pressure’s on, enable employees to achieve mastery of their work.
  5.     Shine: Use the right rewards to promote loyalty and stoke your people’s desire to excel.

Step 1: Select

To match the right person to the right job, examine how three key questions intersect:

  1.     At what tasks or jobs does this person excel?
  2.     What does he/she like to do?
  3.     How does he/she add value to the organisation?

Set the stage for your employees to do well with responsibilities they enjoy. You can then determine how they will add the greatest possible value to your organisation.

According to a 2005 Harris Interactive poll, 33 percent of 7,718 employees surveyed believed they had reached a dead end in their jobs, and 21 percent were eager to change careers. Only 20 percent felt passionate about their work.

When so many skilled and motivated people spend decades moving from one job to the next, something is wrong. They clearly have not landed in the right outlets for their talents and strengths. Their brains never light up.

The better the fit, the better the performance. It’s easy to spot peak performance when it happens. It’s what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008). Employees who work at optimum levels experience a state of “flow,” typically losing themselves in a project, meeting or discussion. They may lose track of time or where they are.

People require clear roles that allow them to succeed, while also providing room to learn, grow and be challenged.

Step 2: Connect

Managers and employees require a mutual atmosphere of trust, optimism, openness, transparency, creativity and positive energy. Each group can contribute to reducing toxic fear and worry, insecurity, backstabbing, gossip and disconnection. A positive working environment starts with how the boss handles negativity, failure and problems. The boss sets the tone and models preferred behaviours and reactions. Employees take their cues from those who lead them.

To encourage connection:

  •     Look for the spark of brilliance within everyone.
  •     Encourage a learning mindset.
  •     Model and teach optimism, as well as the belief that teamwork can overcome any problem.
  •     Use human moments instead of relying on electronic communication.
  •     Learn about each person.
  •     Treat everyone with respect, especially those you dislike.
  •     Meet people where they are, and know that most will do their best with what they have.
  •     Encourage reality.
  •     Use humour without sarcasm or at others’ expense.
  •     Seek out the quiet ones, and try to bring them in.

Step 3: Play

Play isn’t limited to break time. Any activity that involves the imagination lights up our brains and produces creative thoughts and ideas.

Encourage imaginative play with these steps:

  •     Ask open-ended questions.
  •     Encourage everyone to produce three new ideas each month.
  •     Allow for irreverence or goofiness (without disrespect), and model this behaviour.
  •     Brainstorm.
  •     Reward new ideas and innovations.
  •     Encourage people to question everything.

Step 4: Grapple and Grow

Help people engage imaginatively with tasks they like and at which they excel. You can then encourage them to stretch beyond their usual limits.

If tasks are too easy, people will fall into boredom and routine without making any progress or learning anything new. Your job, as a manager, is to be a catalyst when people get stuck, offering suggestions but letting them work out solutions.

Step 5: Shine

Every employee should feel recognised and valued for what he or she does. Recognition should not be reserved solely for a group’s stars.

People learn from mistakes, and they grow even more when their successes are noticed and praised. Letting them know that you appreciate victories large and small will motivate them and secure their loyalty.

When a person is underperforming, consider that lack of recognition may be a cause. An employee usually won’t come right out and tell you that he/she feels undervalued, so you must look for the subtle signs. In addition:

  •     Be on the lookout for moments when you can catch someone doing something right. It doesn’t have to be unusual or spectacular. Don’t withhold compliments.
  •     Be generous with praise. People will pick up on your use of praise and start to perform for themselves and each other.
  •     Recognise attitudes, as well as achievements. Optimism and a growth mindset are two attitudes you can single out and encourage. Look for others.

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