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Embedding sustainable high performance

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying: “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. In a modern workplace, we can add another certainty: the need for managers and leaders to have sustained high performance from their people.

But given tight resources, long working hours, widening responsibilities and the increasing pace of change, stress makes that harder to achieve.

On this subject, I read with interest the recent Harvard Business Review article, ‘The making of a corporate athlete’. It presents an integrated theory of performance management, which takes into consideration four pillars: the body, emotions, mind and spirit.

The article suggests that material rewards, the right culture and management by objective only partially answer the question of how to sustain high performance.

Connecting high performance primarily with cognitive capacity deals with people only from the ‘neck up’. Physical capacities can often be ignored but are crucial to encouraging sustainable performance and achieving an ‘ideal performance state’.

This ‘ideal performance state’ is reached by focusing on and building rituals around the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities. These capacities are combined in the ‘high-performance pyramid’. Physical capacity (health and fitness) is the pyramid’s foundation. On top of that, we have emotional capacity (to ignite or drain energy), mental capacity (to focus) and spiritual capacity (to motivate).

The white paper, with its extensive research, concludes that people perform better over a sustained period of time when they feel strong and resilient physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It’s about creating a work-fit culture.

Personally, I have never found a quick win for focusing employees to strive for sustained high performance. But that still means organisations need to offer ways for their people to be the best that they can be. As with most things, it’s about starting at the beginning, weaving in lots of initiatives and adapting them over time.

One of the most interesting examples I’ve come across in my networks is at financial services organisation 4finance. With its technology division, the company is exploring the physical aspect of its ‘work-fit’ culture. Initiatives that are planned include ‘team workations’. 

As the name suggests, it’s a trip or vacation where you perform regular work but at a different, special location. It is not to be confused with the annoyance of having to take work on holiday with you. The technology teams’ ‘workation’ will have physical activities built around the working day, as well as tapping into other initiatives like team building and learning new skills.

The CIO at 4finance says he wants to “create an environment where individuals can gel better as a team” and offer the chance for his people to have time away from the office somewhere inspirational, to draw out and design creative solutions to business problems.

This all makes perfect sense. Ultimately, it is our people who drive and deliver business growth. While some organisations are starting to realise the correlation between fitness and performance, HR now needs to demonstrate why the relationship is so important and why it requires our investment.

Catherine Rush is former head of talent for technology at DMG Media