High performance – the clue is in the name

Leaders say they want high performing teams. But because they don’t know what it really means, they label things “high performance” that aren’t.

There’s a clear choice here. You can spend time and energy understanding what high performance teams actually do or you can just use the label because it makes everyone feel a bit better.

Reading time: 5 minutes

High performance headlines

  • They understand their picture of success – the result they want, the signs that will tell them they’re winning and the behaviours they expect from themselves and others
  • They obsess over the performance just as much as they do over the result because they know that it will deliver consistency and predictability. So that involves hard work, focus, discipline, sacrifice, the risk of failure and the postponement of immediate gratification
  • They know what great looks like in other similar places so they can be confident that when they call themselves high performing, it’s credible

The full viewpoint

Great teams are prepared to do what’s necessary to get high performance in their particular role in their particular arena.

Doing what’s necessary is simple and really hard. High performance requires hard work, focus, discipline, sacrifice, the risk of failure and the postponement of immediate gratification. The concepts are easy, the application of them isn’t. That’s why high performers are not typical and not “normal”, where normal is seen through the lens of a bell-shaped curve. High performers know that their place is away from the average, away from normal, seeing how far away from normal they can get.

20 years ago, Mary Collins PhD. Wrote a paper on high performing teams. Here’s the final paragraph:

Today’s trend is to label every successful team as high performance. Whilst these teams must be recognised for their success a high performance team is uniquely different. Use the words too loosely and they will lose their power as did empowerment, participative management and quality”.

20 years later, she’s still on the money.

It seems like everyone wants high performance, like they want sunny days and lovely holidays. It’s just that they don’t want to do the hard yards to deliver high performance. The fact that it’s hard work should hardly be a surprise. The clue is in the name. It’s called high performance. It’s not called normal performance, or pretty good performance or average performance. It’s high performance. High performance will never be normal or average. That’s why it’s called high.

So now leaders and teams can decide to do the work, make the sacrifices and start the never-ending journey to high performance. Nice and simple, though uncommon.

They can be honest and ‘fess up that they don’t want high performance for themselves, their teams or their organisations because they simply are not ready, willing nor able to do the consistent hard work that’s required. This one’s never going to happen. Saying “we’re OK with being ordinary” isn’t exactly career enhancing, however honest and truthful it might be.

Then there’s the third and most likely choice. This choice means you don’t have to do the hard work but you don’t give up on high performance. How do you make this magic happen? Easy. You debase the currency and start calling things high performance without any reference point, evidence or understanding of what high performance means for them.

So before you start labelling something “high performance”:

  1. Do you know what you mean when you say “performance” or do you think it’s the same thing as results?
  2. Do you have a clear idea of what high performance means in your organisation based on the crucial defining and rare qualities that mark out the 1 or 2% of the very best?
  3. Do you know what great looks like in performance terms in other comparable teams or organisations so you can be confident that you’re standards are objectively high?

Leaders who don’t know the answers to these questions are not in a position to talk about high performance. They are simply debasing the currency. If you want the high performance T-Shirt, you need to put in the high performance work.