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Why performance culture?



How many pieces of information do I see each day that mention high performance cultures? Too many.  No, that isn’t a joke….but pretetnding that your organisation can be or will be high performing is.  And to add to that, why the hell do you want it to be?

When you think of high performance you think of elite sportsmen and women and the parallels have been drawn with business on numerous occasions.  I ask you this, would you really want to live with one of them?  Sleeping routines, exercise routines, nutritional plans. Everything driven by the next competition, the next performance.  Every move analysed to within an inch of its life, data determining how you then live and breathe between now and the next.

Is that what you really want?  Do you really want to be high performing?

I don’t.

I want my home life to have room for a bit of cheese and wine here, the odd meal out there.  I want to skip the gym if I feel tired and not worry about it.  I want to have a barbecue on a summer’s evening and over indulge, knowing that when I get into bed that night, later than I should, I’ll feel stuffed, but happy and alive.  I want to go for a run because I enjoy it, not because it says so on my schedule.  I want to know that I can do fairly much what I want, when I want as long as it isn’t going to hurt someone or cause distress.

And the same goes for work. Too often the drive for “high performance” means “kicking the living shit out of anything that was fun about this place”.  I want my organisation not to care if people are having a chat and a drink together, if they go home early because they’re tired from working late the night before.  I don’t want my organisation to always be striving for continuous improvement, to never settle for second best.  I don’t want my organisation to be lean, I like a little lump here and a bump there.

You want to strive for high performance? Go for it, you won’t make it.  Me? I’ll be sitting on the sofa relaxing, enjoying life, not seeing its inadequacies.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. ianpbuckingham permalink
    07/27/2010 08:25

    Hoorah! A courageous voice of reason (albeit an anonymous one unfortunately)!

    There’s nothing wrong with the notion of a “performance culture” per se, albeit balanced performance should be a given. The problem lies in the interpretation.

    For example, I was having a coffee with one of the senior executives of a UK FS company with strong Mutual Society roots. This was just before the banking sector imploded. He was talking at length about the need to drive greater accountability; six monthly horizons; leaner processes and to “cut out the dead wood”. But his employee engagement statistics were excellent; the brand had great credibility and the financial results were generating steady returns. In short, they were an admirable; stable; confidence inspiring organisation with strong employee and customer relations. They already had a performance culture appropriate for their league – it’s just that they weren’t an investment bank!!!!!

    But he wouldn’t be dissuaded from pursuing what he saw as the performance management model of the Tier 1 institutions. Six months later and the masters of the former universe had fallen and our executive in question was forced into a U turn and to re-think his notions of “performance” after hostile feedback from customers/investors and employees alike.

    A sign of a healthy market is a spread of brand personalities, from the “bullish” risk takers and margin trimmers through to the “bearish”, less spectacular, steady state performers who innovate in their own way at their own pace. As long as they’re honset with themselves and their stakeholders, employees and customers alike will be happy with the returns thy receive. Exactly who does it serve if we encourage everyone to jump on the testosterone fuelled, survival of the fittest white knuckle ride when we all know that organisations need a healthy blend of “approaches” and “types” to function (even if some are a little “lumpy”).

    Who says “performance culture” means slashing; burning and winning at all costs? Sustainability isn’t such a dirty word. Given the damaging consequences of “win at all costs” practice it’s time to re-claim the terminology and re-frame the thinking…………..!

  2. 07/27/2010 08:47

    Thank you. You have written wisely and there is a lot to be gained from this.

    Voices of reason are important but rarely funky or popular. The courage to assert a note of reality is vital. I spent many years working as a performance management adviser and the hardest part of my job, was trying to get buy-in, at the most senior levels, to the fact that humans are – well, human. In fitting the human into an organization, we have made a fundamental assumption that we then have to ‘top and tail’ all that is human, in order to drive ‘efficiency’. The fact is, organisations exists because they contain and serve humans, and the equation will not balance until we work more closely with who we truly are.

    I recommend you look at TEDtalks on YouTube – listen to Mark Pink. Guess what, ‘the scientists’ have worked out that the higher up the skill levels you work, the less incentivizing incentives are. In fact, they are counter productive. I think you’ll know that, if you worked for a driven, coke-sniffing, insomniac in the 80s. Well, I did.

    Of course they are. You cannot grow half of a seed and expect a full flower. The models that are used are based on an idea of controlling outcomes. They therefore predicate that they need to control inputs completely. This is impossible given that the inputs come from humans. We are naturally changeable, growing, malleable, curious, problem solving, dynamic and awkward within that process. And that’s OK. What we need is cultures that accept the intangibles and allow them, rather than continue this childish pursuit of “My organisation is better than yours”. In fact, it’s the measuring of one against another that drives many CEO’s to deny what their reality needs to be.

    Great post.

  3. 07/27/2010 10:38

    Excellent post and I wholeheartedly agree. Bring on the sofa sitting, wine drinking and having fun. I recently sat down with the marketing agency who manage our communications to talk about the ‘language’ of learning and development. And one of the most contentious discussions was around the subject of high performance. Like many terms in the world of training, it’s nebulous and is open to interpretation.

    I like your interpretation of high performance. It brings it back to something tangible and rigorous. It also brings it back to something much less attractive! I think that when people are too prescriptive about high performance they end up with the inflexible, difficult to manage approach that you describe. Where there is room for high performance is where this means engaging with the individual, recognising that we are human and that we make mistakes and looking at how we can achieve the best performance we can with the people, tools and resources that we’ve got. It’s about trust, being vulnerable, admitting when we need help and supporting other people.

    So perhaps the literal meaning of the word high performance isn’t what we should be striving for, but the idea of being the best we can be in terms of emotionally engaging with other people, building great working relationships and working in a way that brings the best out in people is something worth striving for. And part of that process is getting to know people and understand them – often best done over a glass of wine!

  4. 07/27/2010 12:01

    I reckon you need to give yourself a shake, and stop slacking!

  5. 08/02/2010 20:11

    @ianpbuckingham – Ian a great comment and of course I completely agree. Performance isn’t one thing….it is a multitude.

    @Debs de Vries – Welcome and thanks for taking the time to comment. Humans are…..humans, you are absolutely bob on with that one, let us rejoice in that and never hide from it.

    @Ruth Moody – And thanks to you for commenting too! Being the best we can be is exactly what it is about, not some nebulous concept. As for that glass of wine, make mine a Rioja?

    @Stephen O’Donnell – Yes sir!!


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