Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mastering Work – Creating High Performing Teams and Individuals (Why Context creates Performance, not Training)

As an individual striving to succeed in the world of ‘big corporate’ I have become obsessed with finding that ‘x’ factor that differentiates high performing teams and individuals. My natural tendency is to want to perform and perform well (if not better than my peers), which has been very difficult to accomplish in the world large corporate. I could have given up and just blended into the corporate background but that is not in my nature either. It has to be possible to succeed, after all, I have a world record, how hard can success in a corporate really be compared to that ? At this point you would have thought I had learnt my lesson. When I started my world record journey the question that drove me was, yes, you guessed it, how hard could it be ? Then again, I had no experience in creating exceptional success, so this time should be a whole lot easier.
In diving I took a lot of time to understand the environment I was in and then to correlate what people did to service that environment and understand what they were doing and why. In diving it was easy because the environment was almost exclusively physical, at work, well the environment is not that simple. In diving I also never had to worry about other people’s performance or impact on my success, not so in the work place. So what causes a lack of performance in the work place ? As if often the case, a book gave me an answer that really connected for me and that book was ‘How Nasa Builds Teams (Pellerin).
Pellerin refers to another book (that is not on Kindle, I hate it when that happens) by Stolovich and Keeps (2004) - Training ain’t Performance, where the cause of performance in the workplace is linked to environmental rather than individual factors. The context then in which individuals find themselves is therefore the key aspect that defines performance. Their research indicates that 80 % of team performance is associated to environment (context) with individuals’ abilities only contributing about 20% of the time. Which basically means that training ain’t going to fix your problem, managing the context will.
Even more thought provoking was the finding that context/ environment drives behaviour and in fact modifies it, which can turn a high performing individual into a non-performing individual just through consistent exposure to the behaviour norms within an environment. We all know unconsciously that context drives behaviour because we do it all the time. How you behave at a dinner when your in-laws are there, or your boss or your best friend or it is your bachelor/ ette party are all different with the different contexts clearly defining your behaviour. This control of an individual’s behaviour is managed by the participants in the environment, with people who do not ‘conform’ sanctioned until they do.
Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling argument that our character has more to do with environment/ context than who we are innately. He states that the reason most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment”. Corporates are even better at controlling behavior through a mechanism Pellerin calls normalization of deviance.  This is what happens where bizarre behavior that even the individuals exhibiting it would consider inappropriate outside the workplace, is completely appropriate and propagated within.
Now take all that and apply it to your workplace.  You are either in an environment that supports high performance or you are not! No amount of training will change that as it is the environment and not the skills that are creating the non-performance, and as training is what companies do to create change, you are now stuck in ground hog day… with the people around you exerting enormous pressure for you to behavior just like them, no matter how destructive that may be.
So what do you do ? I fundamentally believe that individuals have the power to create change (even when stuck in a world of instituitionalised disempowerment), which means that I do not believe in sitting back and letting some-one else fix the environment I am in. As an individual I am empowered and I can make a difference through who I am and how I behave. If the problem is create by environment and context, I can start to actively change the environment toward something that would support my vision (in this case, high performance). Focusing on environment is something that is  outside my nexus of control, which leaves me with one last tactic - consciously managing my behavior by choosing a ‘self’ that does not change based on context. By becoming more authentic I become part of an environment that supports high performance instead of becoming part of an environment that creates non-performance. I also am operating within my nexus of control, which means that I am fundamentally more at peace and more confident with who I am and whilst that may not matter to my company, it certainly matters to me.
There is a warning that I must attach to the concept of choosing who you are and so how you will act and behave - especially when you find yourself in an environment where conforming is required – it can create huge conflict if managed incorrectly. Then again, think back to those rare managers who have walked into a team and fundamentally turned it around through a combination of who they are, how they behave and how they manage the context. Sometimes, all it takes is one person with a strong vision of how it could be. Sometimes, that person is you!

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