As we crawl out of the pandemic, exhausted by a year and a bit of worry and fear and general rubbishness, we are all looking to where to turn to next. This week is apparently Mental Health Awareness week, but you not necessarily know it in organisations that constantly bang on about “high performing” cultures.
Most people hover around average performance. Most organisations hover around average performance. That’s, as they say, the law of averages. But the mythology goes that if you hire only high performers then you’ll perform better than most.
The language of performance, though, is interesting. Although it can mean the ongoing perpetual delivery of a service or function, when associated to humans not machines I think it invokes more of the stage or the playing field. “To perform” is the exception, something that occasionally interrupts long period of not performing. Rehearsing, or training, practicing or resting.
High-performing individuals in the worlds of art or sport art high-performing for eight hours a day, five days a week. They perform in spurts, and then build themselves up for the next one.
That kind of peak and trough can be exhausting. Sportspeople and artists often have relatively short careers. And they spend most of their time readying themselves for performance.
In the world of normal work we are expected to perform in the other sense. In that context what does “high” or even “peak” performance possibly mean? Moments of flow interrupting the more usual mundanity? My postman battling through the heavy rain this morning in comparison to more clement-weathered days?
Why talk about High Performance at all? Surely we need to look to attain sustainable performance. Varying levels of output and outcome that reflect the natural rhythms of human existence. Patterns of work and output that can be sustained in the long term without having to constantly worry about burnout or exhaustion. Styles of management that don’t constantly complain about a lack of “grit” or resilience.
Sustainable performance would mean levels of expectation on people that are human and humane, and start on the assumption that most people, most of the time want to be able to do their best.