Is peformance really what it’s all about?

The short answer is: No, performance is not what it’s all about. In fact, it’s possible to put too much emphasis on performance…and as a result undermine your business objectives. That’s right, I said “undermine”. Now, before you decide that I’m some sort of heretic…or just came unhinged, hear me out. You may find that you agree with me.

Some interesting research with students compared those who held themselves to a high standard of performance…always and without exception, (I’ll call them Group A.) to those who were willing to accept something less than perfection in themselves (I’ll call them Group B.)

The research found that those in Group A—the ones determined to always prove themselves by performing well—tended to take fewer risks and choose less challenging assignments (so they could maintain their success). By their own statements, they were more likely to consider cheating in order to assure that (they looked like) they performed well. When confronted with any evidence of their own lack of success, they tended to deny it, blame others, or misrepresent the situation. When they acknowledged their failures, they tended to be very hard on themselves, labeling themselves failures, and refusing to make any further effort. They resisted acknowledging personal shortcomings.

The research found that those in Group B—the ones willing to accept some failure in themselves—tended to find more value in overcoming setbacks. So, they were willing to take greater risks and sought more challenging assignments. When confronted with failure, they were more likely to push through it, to try alternative strategies, and to seek appropriate help. Because failure was acceptable to them, they were more willing to take honest feedback and learn from it. So they increased their skills and over time outperformed the students who most valued performance.

Group B thought performing well was important. They just kept it in perspective and balanced it against other goals like learning and growing and integrity and getting feedback. When asked what made them feel good about themselves, they said it was when they were helping their peers. Those in Group A said they felt best when they did better than their peers. (Who would you rather have on your team?)

I can’t help thinking of Enron. According to former Enron Executives Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and others, Enron was a deliberately Darwinian organization. At Enron, performance (or at least the appearance of performance) was everything. Its culture was intended to promote intense rivalries with its competitors and internally among its employees. One symptom of that cutthroat culture was the internal e-mail from an energy trader at the height of devastating California forest fires. His sentiment: “Burn, baby burn!” because it raised the price of the energy Enron sold.

It wasn’t just personal ethics that suffered at Enron. The deceptions became so pervasive that the organization itself ceased to get meaningful feedback. What ultimately collapsed was not only personal values but the creation of any real business value. It turned out to be little more then a massive shell game…all in the name of “performance”.

I can hear executives now, saying, “Wait a minute. Of course I want performance, but that doesn’t mean I want people doing things that are unethical or illegal…or ignoring feedback…or deceiving each other. Any competent manager knows that people need to be taking thoughtful risks, acknowledging their mistakes and learning from their failures. I’m not saying we want performance at any price.”

Exactly. Welcome to Group B.

Now the question is: What message is coming through? If you began reading this article mentally defending the importance of performance, that’s probably the message your people hear from you. If you’re assuming that those other concerns will take care of themselves, then you may be sending the message that performance is all you really care about. What impact is that having on personal ethics, on innovation and yes, even performance?