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

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)

Face the Coaching FACTS

I’ve been writing about why more managers don’t use coaching skills to guide and develop their people. When managers don’t have clear framework for initiating coaching conversations, they revert to managing in more traditional ways, without coaching. Here is another framework and some powerful questions that work for coaching.

People enjoy receiving their managers’ support, yet they also want to be challenged, note John Blakey and Ian Day in Challenging Coaching: Going Beyond Traditional Coaching to Face the FACTS (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012).

Blakey and Day developed the FACTS coaching model from frontline observations:

  • F = Feedback: How can coaches provide challenging feedback that informs and inspires? How can we ensure that praise and recognition for a job well done are balanced with honest feedback on mistakes, learning and failures?
  • A = Accountability: How does a coach hold people accountable for commitments without blame or shame? How can accountability be extended from personal commitments to alignment with the values, strategy and ethos of the wider organization?
  • C = Courageous Goals: How does a coach move beyond incremental goal-setting models to those that engage the right-brain attributes of courage, excitement, inspiration and transformation? Which models and concepts help structure coaching conversations and provide a practical road map?
  • T = Tension: When is tension constructive? How can coaches practice creating and holding tension without risking burnout in key performers? How can the tension in a conversation be calibrated and dynamically adjusted to ensure peak performance? When does tension go too far and damage the underlying relationships?
  • S = Systems Thinking: How can a coach stay sensitive to “big-picture” issues like ethics, diversity and the environment without losing focus on bottom-line results? What can be learned from the world of systems thinking that enables the coach to be a positive agent of change for the wider organization? What is the role of intuition in guiding interventions that reach beyond the immediate coachee and touch on deeper organizational change?

The FACTS approach requires you to master core coaching skills (intent listening, asking vital questions). You must also achieve a firm foundation of trust and respect with your employees. The FACTS approach is a launch pad for high performance and change.

Powerful Questions

Managers who avoid coaching often struggle with initiating coaching conversations. In the absence of deep, hour-long coaching sessions, you can use key questions to realize change and growth.

Michael Bungay Stanier shares seven core questions to open coaching conversations in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (Box of Crayons Press, 2016):

  • What’s on your mind?
  • What else?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • What do you want?
  • How can I help?
  • If you’re saying “yes” to this, to what are you saying “no”?
  • What was most useful for you?

Managers who effectively use their coaching skills will boost team performance and foster employee growth and development. You can achieve stellar results if you lose your fear of initiating coaching conversations. With a simple coaching framework and powerful questions, you’ll enjoy coaching conversations that are short, simple and provocative.

What do you think about using coaching conversations for managing? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Key Frameworks for Coaching Conversations

I’ve been writing about why more managers don’t use coaching skills to guide and develop their people. Some managers don’t have clear framework for initiating coaching conversations. Here are two popular models that are easy to follow.

GROW Model

One of the original coaching frameworks is the GROW model, created by Graham Alexander, Alan Fine and Sir John Whitmore:

G

Goal

The Goal is where the client wants to be. It must be clearly defined so people know when they’ve achieved it.

R

Reality

The Current Reality is where the client is now. What are the issues and challenges? How far away is Goal achievement?

O

Obstacles

What Obstacles are stopping the client from reaching the Goal?

Options

Once Obstacles are identified, the client finds Options to deal with them and make progress.

W

Way Forward

The Options are converted into the Way Forward—action steps that map the way to reach the Goal.

FUEL Coaching Conversations

Zenger and Stinnett suggest using the FUEL model in The Extraordinary Coach:

  • F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process and desired outcomes.
  • U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
  • E = Explore the Desired State. Articulate your vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
  • L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.

If you’ve had training in coaching skills, what framework did you learn? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Even More on Why Managers Don’t Use Coaching Skills

Even though most managers get trained in coaching skills, the majority aren’t having coaching conversations that expand awareness, thinking and capability in the people they lead. Why don’t more managers coach?

According to John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett in The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), three common barriers stand in the way:

  1. Misconceptions of what coaching is
  2. A desire to avoid difficult conversations
  3. No clear game plan for initiating and framing coaching conversations

I discussed the first reason, misconceptions of coaching in my previous post here. Let’s discuss the next barriers.

A Desire to Avoid Difficult Conversations

Coaching conversations require time and energy, but they’re the only way to gain trust, honesty and transparency. If you’re unwilling to invest the required time and effort, coaching will inevitably fail. Both parties must be committed to creating a positive relationship.

Managers must be fully present during coaching conversations, which means turning off phones and email alerts during sessions. Keep any promises you make, and be sure to emphasize that you’ll maintain confidentiality.

No Game Plan for Coaching Conversations

Even after training, many managers have trouble initiating coaching conversations, let alone developing a process that expedites desired results.

Many models exist, but the best are short, simple and easy to employ whenever coaching opportunities arise. Coaching needn’t be scheduled as 50-minute sessions. With a solid framework, you can achieve results in as little as 10 minutes.

There are many models to follow, most with easy-to-remember frameworks such as the GROW model, the FUEL model, and the FACTS system. There is no shortage of books and experts who claim their system works best. The key is to learn a process and stick to it so that coaching conversations become natural and productive.

All coaching models proceed from setting the stage, defining desired outcomes, exploring alternatives and barriers, deciding an action plan and setting milestones for feedback and accountability.

Coaching works best when the relationship is grounded in trust and respect, and it can’t work without that foundation. It proceeds with the coach asking the powerful questions and requires deep listening. No matter which coach training model is used, attention to the relationship is foundational.

In the next post I’ll provide some effective frameworks for having coaching conversations that work. Until then, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Why Managers Don’t use Coaching Skills

In spite of a lot of coach skills training for managers, not many are actually initiating coaching conversations with people. There are some misconceptions and barriers that stop them, from what I’ve observed in my work.

According to John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett in The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), managers usually cite lack of time as the main excuse for failing to coach employees, but the real reasons may be different.

Misconceptions of What Coaching Is

Some managers are not clear what they’re supposed to do when they coach. Skilled managers initiate coaching conversations so their people can explore what they do and how they do it. Coaching expands employee awareness, uncovers better solutions, and allows employees to make and implement sound decisions.

Coaching provides a safe platform for growth. Successful managers consciously choose growth as a priority outcome. They understand that developing people is as important as getting things done.

Coaching isn’t instructing, mentoring, counseling, cheerleading, therapy or directing, although there are some similarities. Coaching skills include:

  • Clarifying an interaction’s outcome and agreeing to a conversation’s goal
  • Listening to what is—and isn’t—said
  • Asking non-leading questions to expand awareness
  • Exploring possibilities, consequences, actions and decisions
  • Eliciting a desired future state
  • Establishing goals and expectations, including stretch goals
  • Providing support
  • Following up on progress
  • Setting accountability agreements

Managers must be non-directive, listen intently and ask the right questions. Coach training emphasizes supporting people, with an eye toward challenging them.

As a manager, you’re tasked with bringing out the best in people, including high performance and bottom-line results. When you take up the coaching baton, performance goals must share the stage with employee growth and development.

Many managers struggle to balance direction and support. They’re usually afraid of making mistakes, so they revert to telling employees what to do instead of coaching them.

Does that happen where you work? I’d love to hear your experiences. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

The Manager-Fixer vs. the Manager-Coach

I’ve been thinking about why more managers don’t use coaching skills to grow their people. While most have had coach training, I’ve observed that coaching conversations are the exception not the rule.

After coach training, once back in the office, managers revert to instructions, advice-giving, and explaining instead of asking questions to encourage people to think things through. Many managers are great problem-fixers instead of coaches.

Despite good intentions, the manager-fixer creates numerous problems:

  1. Quick fixes don’t teach people to think for themselves. When managers explain what needs to be done, some learning may occur, but it isn’t necessarily retained. Employee engagement is minimal.
  2. When work is challenging, employees will look to their managers for a quick and easy fix. They’re denied any sense of ownership or autonomy. When people aren’t fully engaged or empowered, their job satisfaction significantly decreases.
  3. This leads to a third problem: Managers who fix problems encourage dependency, thereby creating additional work for themselves. Being the hero who comes to the rescue may boost your ego, but you’ll become increasingly overwhelmed with work and ultimately create a bottleneck.

The Manager-Coach

Strangely, at most companies, coaching isn’t part of what managers are formally expected to do. Even though research makes it clear that employees and job candidates alike value learning and career development above most other aspects of a job, many managers don’t see it as an important part of their role.

~ Monique Valcour, “You Can’t Be a Great Manager If You’re Not a Good Coach” (Harvard Business Review, July 2014)

Many managers believe they lack the necessary time for coaching conversations. Yet, 70% of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training. If line managers are unsupportive or uninvolved, employee growth, engagement and retention are stunted.

What happens where you work? Are managers there to fix things or to coach? I’d love to hear your experiences. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

A Need for Managers with Coaching Skills?

Managers who effectively harness coaching skills reap multiple benefits. Their employees are more committed, willing to put in greater effort and are less likely to leave.

Coaching skills have a huge impact and significantly affect people and profits within organizations committed to training managers to use coaching to guide performance and develop employees.

Most managers have had some training in coaching people for high performance. Ten years ago, 73% of managers received some form of training, according to BlessingWhite, a global leadership-development firm. But the firm’s 2015 report reveals that employees who receive regular feedback through coaching conversations are in the minority.

Why Don’t More Managers Coach?

Managers usually cite lack of time as the main excuse for failing to coach employees, but the real reasons may be different, note John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett in The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010).

Three common barriers stand in the way:

  1. Misconceptions of what coaching is
  2. A desire to avoid difficult conversations
  3. No clear game plan for initiating and framing coaching conversations

The problem is, once managers return to the office after training, many revert to old habits. Instead of taking time to ask questions and find solutions, they find it easier to explain and provide instructions. Finding a quick fix and moving on is their default response.

I’ve seen this happen in the organizations where I consult. In spite of training in coaching skills, managers don’t really use them like they are designed. Task updates are not really coaching conversations, even though many one-on-one conversations may focus on project status updates.

Think about it. If you define a coaching conversation as one that expands an employee’s awareness, thinking, and capability, then task updates that don’t do that aren’t coaching conversations.

Let me ask you this: as a manager, how often are you focusing on expanding awareness, thinking and capability when you have conversations with your people? What about your conversations with your own boss? Are you having good coaching conversations?

As always, I’d love to hear your perspectives. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.