Managing For Peak Performance

 “Put simply, the best managers bring out the best from their people. This is true of football coaches, orchestra conductors, big-company executives, and small-business owners. They are like alchemists who turn lead into gold. Put more accurately, they find and mine the gold that resides in everyone.” ~ Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011)

Most managers want their people to achieve excellence at work. We really can’t ask for more. In fact, peak performance can be defined as a combination of:

  • Excellence
  • Consistency
  • Ongoing improvement

To achieve peak performance, each person must find the right job, tasks and conditions that match his or her strengths. Facilitating the right fit therefore becomes one of a manager’s most crucial responsibilities. While every employee has the potential to deliver peak performance, it’s up to the manager to find ways to make it happen.

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.

Each of us has relished such moments, but it’s hard to purposely replicate “flow” experiences. Many managers struggle to find the right words to rekindle motivation in people who have lost their enthusiasm.

Two Sides of the Disengagement Coin

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.

Meanwhile, managers try to work around such problems, hoping for a miraculous turnaround or spark that reignites energy and drive. They try incentives, empowerment programs or the management fad du jour.

While it’s impossible to spark flow moments all day long, you can greatly improve your ability to help others achieve peak performance. Until recently, managers tried various motivational methods, with only temporary success.

You can’t sprint to peak performance, the brain needs careful management and rest. Brain science tells us that as knowledge workers, we must manage our thinking minds with care.

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 providing these essential elements.

We often forget that thinking is hard work. 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.

Peak performance also depends on how we feel: hopeful, in control, optimistic and grateful. We need to know that we’re appreciated.

Using Brain Science to Bring Out the Best

While no management guru has found the golden key to unlocking the full panoply of human potential at work, several diverse areas of research shed new light on the possibilities.

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, author of Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011), synthesizes such new research into five sequential steps managers can apply to maximize employees’ peak performance. A psychiatrist and ADD expert, he draws on brain science, performance research and his own experience to present a proven process for getting the best from your people:

  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.

“Neither the individual nor the job holds the magic,” Hallowell writes. “But the right person doing the right job creates the magical interaction that leads to peak performance.”

Hallowell refers to the five cited essential ingredients as “The Cycle of Excellence,” which works because it exploits the powerful interaction between an individual’s intrinsic capabilities and extrinsic environment.

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 organization?

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 organization.

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. 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, backbiting, 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 behaviors 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 humor 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. Play boosts morale, reduces fatigue and brings joy to our workdays.

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 behavior.
  • 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 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 recognized 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.
  • Recognize attitudes, as well as achievements. Optimism and a growth mindset are two attitudes you can single out and encourage. Look for others.

When you’re in sync with your people, you create positive energy and opportunities for peak performance. Working together can be one of life’s greatest joys—and it’s what we’re wired to do.

Maintaining Excellence in Uncertain Times

Nothing is as difficult as managing in uncertain times. With the rapidly changing competitive environment and new technologies, it’s hard to keep up.

Managing people well is even more challenging when you’re constantly putting out fires. How are you supposed to bring out the best in your people when no one has a clue as to what will happen tomorrow?

Most managers draw upon their core values and lessons learned along the way. To ensure success, embrace a plan like the Cycle of Excellence. It can help you manage people when they’re faltering. Perhaps one of the five steps is going unfulfilled. An employee may not be in the right job or may not be sufficiently challenged.

A plan is a mooring to use during times of crisis and chaos—a strategy for redirecting energies in the right direction. It can be used to correct course. You can’t sacrifice performance in the name of speed, cost cutting, efficiency, and what can be mislabeled as necessity. When you ignore connections, deep thought disappears in favor of decisions based on fear.

These five areas of focus can help you avoid fear-based management practices, which have the potential to disable you. Use it to identify problem areas and decide on a plan of action. In this way you and your employee can creatively manage for growth not just survival.

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