Bring Out the Best in People: 5 Steps to Peak Performance

  • 10 mins read

How do you bring out the best in people? Managers want their people to achieve excellence at work. Leaders and management alike know that they can’t achieve expected business results without the participation and engagement of individuals and teams.

Without people motivated for peak performance, companies will go out of business. Peak performance is defined as a combination of excellence, consistency and ongoing improvement.

To achieve peak performance, one must find the right job, tasks and conditions that match his or her strengths. Therefore, facilitating the right fit becomes one of a manager’s most crucial responsibilities. While every employee has the potential to deliver peak performance, it’s up to the manager to bring out the best in people.

Disengaged Or Bored?

Disengaged employees often appear to lack commitment. In reality, many of them crave engagement. No one enjoys working without passion or joy.

While many factors cause disengagement, the most prevalent is feeling overwhelmed — or, conversely, underwhelmed. Disconnection and overload pose obstacles to performance, yet they often go undetected or ignored because neither qualifies as a disciplinary issue.

Meanwhile, managers try to work around such problems, hoping for a miraculous turnaround or a spark that reignites energy and drive. They try incentives, empowerment programs or the management “fad du jour.”

While it’s impossible to create “flow” moments all day long, any manager can greatly improve on the ability to help people achieve peak performance. Traditionally managers try various motivational methods, such as incentives and rewards, but with only temporary success.

Managing Knowledge Workers

You can’t force peak performance with knowledge workers—those employees who need to think to do their jobs. The brain needs careful management and rest. Brain science tells us that knowledge workers must manage their critical thinking skills with care.

In addition to variety and stimulation, all humans require food, rest, engagement, physical exercise and challenge. It is unrealistic to expect a human being to sit at a desk for hours and produce quality work without providing these essential elements, and more.

We often forget that thinking is hard work. When we work too many hours, the brain’s supply of neurotransmitters becomes depleted, and we are unable to sustain top performance. Without proper care, the brain will underperform—and brain fatigue mimics disengagement and lack of commitment.

Peak performance also depends on how we feel: hopeful, in control, optimistic and grateful. We need to know that we’re appreciated.

Use Brain Science to Bring Out the Best

While no management guru has found the golden key to unlocking the full panoply of human potential at work, research sheds new light on the possibilities.

As far back as a 2005 Harris poll, 33 percent of 7,718 employees surveyed believed they had reached a dead end in their jobs, and 21 percent were eager to change careers. Only 20 percent felt passionate about their work.

The situation isn’t improving.  In 2014, 52.3 percent of Americans said they were unhappy at work, according to a report by the Conference Board, the New York-based nonprofit research group.

When so many skilled and motivated people spend decades moving from one job to the next, something is wrong. They clearly have not landed in the right outlets for their talents and strengths. Their brains never light up.

The better the fit, the better the performance. People require clear roles that allow them to succeed, while also providing room to learn, grow and be challenged.

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, author of Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011), synthesizes some of the research into five steps managers can apply to maximize employees’ performance.

Hallowell refers to the five cited essential ingredients as “The Cycle of Excellence,” which works because it exploits the powerful interaction between an individual’s intrinsic capabilities and extrinsic environment. A psychiatrist and ADD expert, he draws on brain science and peak performance research for bringing out the best in people:

  • Select: Put the right people in the right job, and give them responsibilities that “light up” their brains.
  • Connect: Strengthen interpersonal bonds among team members.
  • Play: Help people unleash their imaginations at work.
  • Grapple and Grow: When the pressure’s on, enable employees to achieve mastery of their work.
  • Shine: Use the right rewards to promote loyalty and stoke your people’s desire to excel.

“Neither the individual nor the job holds the magic,” Hallowell writes. “But the right person doing the right job creates the magical interaction that leads to peak performance.”

Step 1: Select

To match the right person to the right job, examine how three key questions intersect:

  • At what tasks or jobs does this person excel?
  • What does he/she like to do?
  • How does he/she add value to the organization?

Set the stage for your employees to do well with responsibilities they enjoy. You can then determine how they will add the greatest possible value to your organization.

Step 2: Connect

Managers and employees require a mutual atmosphere of trust, optimism, openness, transparency, creativity and positive energy. Each group can contribute to reducing toxic fear and worry, insecurity, backbiting, gossip and disconnection.

A positive working environment starts with how the boss handles negativity, failure and problems. The boss sets the tone and models preferred behaviors and reactions. Employees take their cues from those who lead them.

To encourage connection:

  • Look for the spark of brilliance within everyone.
  • Encourage a learning mindset.
  • Model and teach optimism, as well as the belief that teamwork can overcome any problem.
  • Use human moments instead of relying on electronic communication.
  • Learn about each person.
  • Treat everyone with respect, especially those you dislike.
  • Meet people where they are, and know that most will do their best with what they have.
  • Encourage reality.
  • Use humor without sarcasm or at others’ expense.
  • Seek out the quiet ones, and try to bring them in.

This is common sense, but we fail to use it when it is really required. When people are floundering, the last thing they need is to have their flaws and mistakes spotlighted. Instead, make sure you understand where they are at and what the real problems are.

Step 3: Play

Play isn’t limited to break time. Any activity that involves the imagination lights up our brains and produces creative thoughts and ideas. Play boosts morale, reduces fatigue and brings joy to workdays.

Encourage imaginative thinking with these steps:

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Encourage everyone to produce three new ideas each month.
  • Allow for irreverence or goofiness (without disrespect), and model this behavior.
  • Brainstorm.
  • Reward new ideas and innovations.
  • Encourage people to question everything.

Step 4: Grapple and Grow

Help people engage imaginatively with tasks they like and at which they excel. Encourage them to stretch beyond their usual limits.

If tasks are too easy, people fall into boredom and routine without making any progress or learning anything new. Your job, as a manager, is to be a catalyst when people get stuck, offering suggestions but letting them work out solutions.

Step 5: Shine

Every employee should feel recognized and valued for what he or she does. Recognition should not be reserved solely for a group’s stars.

People learn from mistakes, and they grow even more when their successes are noticed and praised. Letting them know that you appreciate victories large and small will motivate them and secure their loyalty.

When a person is underperforming, consider that lack of recognition may be a cause. An employee usually won’t come right out and tell you that he/she feels undervalued, so you must look for the subtle signs. In addition:

  • Be on the lookout for moments when you can catch someone doing something right. It doesn’t have to be unusual or spectacular. Don’t withhold compliments.
  • Be generous with praise. People will pick up on your use of praise and start to perform for themselves and each other.
  • Recognize attitudes, as well as achievements. Optimism and a growth mindset are two attitudes you can single out and encourage. Look for others.

When you’re in sync with your people, you create positive energy and opportunities for peak performance. Working together can be one of life’s greatest joys—and it’s what we’re wired to do.

Maintain Excellence in Uncertain Times

Nothing is as difficult as managing in uncertain times. With the rapidly changing competitive environment and new technologies, it’s hard to keep up.

Managing people well is even more challenging when you’re constantly putting out fires.  You can’t sacrifice performance in the name of speed, cost cutting, efficiency, and what can be mislabeled as necessity. When you ignore connections, deep thought disappears in favor of decisions based on fear.

These five areas of focus can help you avoid fear-based management practices. Use these five steps to identify problem areas and decide on a plan of action. In this way you creatively manage for growth, not just survival.

Lastly, in order to achieve peak performance, one needs to be in top shape, physically and mentally. Psychologist Sherrie Campbell, in an article on Entrepreneur Magazine, lists five habits worth cultivating that managers can suggest to help people achieve peak performance:

  • Get enough sleep: Sleep deprivation can leave one feeling scatterbrained, foggy and unfocused. Good sleep improves our ability to be patient, retain information, think clearly, make good decisions and be present and alert in all our daily interactions.
  • Get daily exercise: Exercise is the best way to reduce the stress that impairs performance stamina. Exercise increases our “happy” mood chemicals through the release of endorphins, which help rid our mind and body of tension.
  • Connect for emotional support: Having healthy, loving relationships increases our happiness, success and longevity by promoting the capacity to function in life as our best self.
  • Be unapologetically optimistic: Look for the best in every situation. Optimism is the commitment to believe, expect and trust that things in life are rigged in our favor. Even when something bad happens, find the silver lining.
  • Create alone time: Time spent alone for reflection refuels our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self. This is time to recharge, focus on values and purpose, and cultivate self love and respect.

“Put simply, the best managers bring out the best from their people. This is true of football coaches, orchestra conductors, big-company executives, and small-business owners. They are like alchemists who turn lead into gold. Put more accurately, they find and mine the gold that resides in everyone.” ~ Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011)

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