Integrated performance development
Watching Britain’s Menna Fitzpatrick and guide Jen Kehoe win gold in the women’s visually-impaired slalom at the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang was impressive - two very talented athletes working together to achieve the ultimate sporting prize, an Olympic gold medal.
If only we had those genes and that fitness - we can but dream. But of course performance at that level is so much more than having the right genes and fitness. Elite athletic performance has embraced a holistic approach that combines psychological preparation, nutrition, tactics, strategy, equipment, skill, teamwork and fitness (to name but a few). Somehow, this holistic approach has not transferred into other spheres of life such as elite performance in business.
Most organisations offer management and leadership development programmes that focus on aspects of performance, such as self awareness, coaching, facilitation, performance management, critical thinking and strategy. Little or no time is dedicated to fitness, nutrition and sleep, despite the overwhelming evidence of the impact these things can have on personal effectiveness. The irony is that we pay senior business executives small fortunes and then expect them to work under high pressure for long hours, with limited rest and little opportunity despite the overwhelming evidence that this type of pressure can affect cognitive performance and in turn, logical reasoning.
In addition to this, sleep deprived long hours of work affect the ability to learn, memory, vigilance and reaction times. It is interesting to reflect on how much more value we might get from our senior leaders in business and politics if we invested time in optimising their performance. In contrast, there is not a single elite level athlete that does not understand the importance of rest and recovery in order to perform at their best. Whilst the physically demanding nature of athletic performance means this is a more obvious requirement, anyone who has lived a life involving frequent flights and different time zones will tell you that it may not be as physically hard as participating in the Olympics, but it’s not easy. It’s physically draining.
To perform optimally in business demands a multifaceted approach. It requires an objective and some frame of reference that allows you to determine the standard of performance. These are the goals that individuals agree with their line managers and which form the basis of their annual appraisal. Achieving the goals set invariably depends on the support of others, which in turn means an ability to work with and through others. This is where traditional management development programmes serve a very useful purpose in helping people improve these skills.
The pressure of achieving the targets needs to be optimised - we need a certain level of pressure to perform. Too much pressure and the effects can be harmful. The impact can result in increases in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate as well as raising the levels of the stress hormones and over a sustained period of time, can have a damaging effect on the body as well as a deleterious impact on cognitive performance and emotional state.
Simply learning to be resilient is not enough, it is important to be able to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress and respond accordingly. This is a core skill of the high performing individual. How an individual handles stress is a function, in part, of their personality. Research by neuroscientists has demonstrated a quantifiable variation in brain activity between different personality types. This means different people will have different needs and require different strategies in order to cope. Other factors that can create additional pressure include the physical demands of the task, the level of ambiguity, boredom, sensory overload or sensory deprivation, perceived danger or threat and a sense of being powerless, all of which should be considered and managed.
Thus in addition to traditional management and leadership skills, our ability to perform at our best is improved if we get enough sleep, eat a healthy balanced diet and take regular exercise. Mental and physical wellbeing is linked to higher levels of employee engagement and reduced absenteeism. Take the time to consider job design - matching the role to the individual, ensuring they have appropriate resources to do the job and have clarity in their goals - then performance can really begin to soar. If all of this takes place in a business culture that rewards and recognises the value of high performance habits, then it is hard not to imagine that business outperforming the profitability and productivity in their industry.
Given that achieving the highest levels of performance requires a holistic, integrated, multifaceted approach that moves beyond training the mind of employees, and instead recognises the complexity of variables involved, a development programme that focuses on essentially cerebral activities and ignores the whole person is akin to taking your car to a car wash and hoping that will make it go faster. It ignores the importance of keeping the mechanics in sound condition, training the driver and ensuring they are in the best physical condition to drive to the required standard.
Whilst there are a wealth of experts available, for example nutritionists, coaches, clinicians, fitness instructors, learning and development specialists, organisation development experts and many others, what is fundamentally lacking in business is bringing these skills together into a coherent package that supports employees to become elite level performers in business. Let’s call it ‘integrated performance development’. It is my belief that the business(es) that recognise the value of this approach will secure an advantage that will leave their competition wondering ‘what just happened?’