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High Performance Is A Myth In A World Of Ordinary Humans.

(The following article was written Colin Browne, author of The Happy Sandpit and my go-to-guy for all things culture. If your organisation needs a cultural rethink, this is the guy to call.)

High performance is a myth in a world of ordinary humans.

You may point to Lewis Hamilton or Beyonce or Elon Musk and say: what about them?

My response: not ordinary humans. Those are elites, and ‘elite’ is a unique proposition.

Or you may point to those around you, closer to your frame of reference, who always seem to have their acts together; those who are fitter, stronger, earn more money and have more impressive job titles, and you may say: what about them?

My response: demi-elites comfortable with big sacrifices … or perhaps those in possession of a better mask.

The majority of us just aren’t like that.

What we are is fairly cheerful, fairly hopeful, fairly capable, fairly smart and fairly nice. Sometimes we surprise each other with a real achievement. Sometimes we break out of the pack and find our gallop. Sometimes our luck turns good. But for the most part, we occupy a middle space where we’re destined to do fairly well in our careers and live fairly nice lives.

We aren’t trying to slay the world. We’re okay leading small personal parts of it, and allowing our sphere of influence to extend no further than our circle of friends and acquaintances.

We all get to be a big shot to someone, somewhere, and often that is enough.

This would be a matter of little interest, were it not for the fact that most organisations today consider it essential to be explicit about their love of hiring high performers, A-Team players and so on.

Especially since you know, when organisations describe themselves as ‘high performing’, they are euphemizing. The same thing applies when they describe themselves as ‘results oriented’, ‘numbers driven’ or when they use terms like ‘what gets measured, get managed.’

Too often, those euphemistic expressions, when unpeeled, reveal an imbalanced recipe for a stressed, overworked, on-the-brink-of-burnout workforce that can barely cope with the load they have been given, much less deliver the elite performance the guys on the top floor believe they are due.

Since the dawn of the corporation, that thinking has been, and always will be, the biggest thing that is wrong with us.

For most of your people, high performance isn’t an exciting thing to strive for; it’s a stick to be beaten with. It’s a fuzzy measurement that demands grueling work, unhealthy focus and regular shape shifting as the political dynamic of the organisation morphs with each frequent performance-enhancing tweak (re-org, anyone?).

Those who thrive are often so narcissistic and self-serving that the utter nonsense of the rhetoric that enabled them to get ahead finds itself perpetually renewed.

And in the middle of this, we hope to find culture. We hope words on a wall will inspire people to live in ways that are often contradicted by the goals of the organisation.

And we’re missing something huge.

Managed with empathy, respect and optimism, your fairly cheerful, fairly hopeful, fairly capable, fairly smart and fairly nice people are actually more than capable of good work.

They’re more than capable of working together in such a way that they can achieve the multiplying effect of teamwork and turn good work into better work. And yes, sometimes even great work.

That multiplying effect is ultimately the key to the attainment of your constantly hard-to-reach goals, but it requires wide acknowledgement that we’ve been wrong about people and wrong about their relationship with performance.

High performance is a myth in a world of ordinary humans.

But it’s frequently the norm in a world of supportive, enthusiastic, optimistic teams of ordinary humans.

And that is why culture is, and always has been, the entire game.


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