High Performance Result of Human Transitions

In my last post I wrote about the fundamental discontinuity between good and exceptional organizational performance, after hearing a talk given by Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University.  That post focused more on the systems side of performance and this one focuses more on the people side of high performance.

High performance organizations are filled with great human beings, not dysfunctional ones and not dysfunctional dynamics – which doesn’t mean that things don’t sometimes get messy. Creating a culture of high performance means paying attention to the “soft skills” of leadership and human dynamics and learning to deal with the messiness before it becomes dysfunction.

Ray Ivany commented, “If you ignore the transitions people need to go through, you will not get to high performance.”  He suggested that in the book Good to Great, Collins overrates leadership and underrates the human transitions people need to make, not just in their professional lives but in their personal lives as well.

The culture in many workplaces supports a fundamental separation of self: “please do not bring your whole self, just bring the part you need to get your job done.  We will all pretend that professional growth is isolated from personal growth and we’ll just focus on that part. And when we don’t get the best out of you, we will just assume it’s because you are lazy, are just putting the time in and really don’t want to take any initiative.”

But take a good look around: People do not wake up in the morning desiring to put in mediocre performance; most people are thirsting for a deeper meaning in their work and believe it is unachievable, believe their initiative is not welcome and so they leave a part of themselves at the door, trying to collect it at the end of the day when they go home.

Too many rules in our organizations – the stated and the unstated – create the conditions that make it extremely difficult to tap into the full potential of our people.  And when we do put the toe of empowerment in the water and are met with resistance we withdraw it quickly rather than persevering.  We often do not support people in transition, we make it more difficult for them to navigate it.

It is the job of the leader(s) to create the environment and set the conditions that allow people to do extraordinary work.  People need help in unlocking the part of the heads and their hearts they cannot get to themselves.  Leaders create these conditions by lightening up on the rules and instead providing clarity and context.  With clarity and context people have enough freedom and flexibility to be responsive to the needs and requests of others and the organization. and to do it in ways that make sense to them.

As a leader, in order to do that well, you need to be in fundamental alignment with the core of who you are and your values. The greater your own personal integrity and center, the easier it is to let people run with their own ideas.  With the right conditions, things you could never dream will emerge in the most delightful and unexpected ways.

This kind of emergence is not likely to happen in organizations that reject failure.  The one thing we are assured off as we move toward higher performance is more failure.  That may be counter-intuitive but failure is where creativity and innovation often meet.  Creating a culture that makes it safe for people in your organization to fail for the sake of learning with no blame attached is a component of high performance organizations.

Where and how does the shape of your leadership need to shift in order to support your organization in a quest for exceptional performance?  What systems can you put in place that allow your people to become the best they can be – an integrated human being showing up in the fullness of who they are ready to offer more than most imagine possible


“Soft Skills” – A Real Misnomer!

Ask anyone.  The hardest thing we ever do is relate to other people, especially as leaders in our organizations or communities, but also in our personal relationships.  Ask anyone what the most difficult component of their job is: relationships, interpersonal dynamics, people.  Ask project managers why most projects fail: inadequate communication and team members moving in different directions or having differing priorities.  Ask teams their greatest challenge: getting work done – because of interpersonal dynamics that get in the way.  Because people challenges interfere in getting the job done, slowing us down.

Empathy, leadership, communication, sociability, ability to laugh, optimism, common sense, responsibility,  integrity and motivation are some of the skills identified as soft. Somehow soft has become interchangeable with expendable so when budgets become tight the first thing to go is soft skills.

Soft skills are not about being nicey nice.  They are about creating the conditions for relationships to grow, enabling individuals and teams to engage in difficult and necessary conversations, not so we can all live in some kind of utopia but in service of getting work done, achieving results, having impact, shifting systems, seeing possibility, opening to emergence.  We do our best work with people we like, people we care about and people we love.  We have our greatest resilience in systems that care. We reach our highest potential in supportive environments that encourage growth.  We take our greatest risks when we know someone will help us up and dust us off when we fall so we can all be ready for what’s next.

There is nothing soft about soft skills.  They require discipline, practice and self awareness.  They require risk and letting go of control, trusting others to step up and in when we create the space for them to do so and they require discernment about what is the right amount of leadership, coaching and support required to allow teams and individuals the highest possibility of growth and contribution.

One of the reasons I gravitate to the Art of Hosting Body of Knowledge is because of the emphasis on creating the field or conditions from which wise action, results and impact will flow, flowing out of a well tended relational field.

We will not shift the shape of the world only through projects.  We will shift it by paying attention to the quality of the relational field and our relationships.  The greater the quality of the relational field, the greater the power to engage in actions with such purposefulness that the shape of the world cannot help but shift.