The Limitations of “Performance”

Photo by Kolleen Gladden on Unsplash

Just when, I wonder, did “performance” become important in our lives as human beings?

c. 1300, performen, “carry into effect, fulfill, discharge, carry out what is demanded or required”

Until very recently, performance was something attributed to things we made – machines, weapons, treatments – but not people. I cannot find performance assessments of Galileo, DaVinci, or Einstein, or of anybody else who made an important difference for that matter.

Performance, it seems, parallels our love affair with processes, efficiency and data. People as components to be dispassionately judged by others on criteria which, like GDP, measure what’s easy, not what matters.

Performance assessment of course has always been with us in different forms – mainly some aspect of natural selection or the sort of forced ranking so beloved of corporate titans. After all, personal development is such a chore when a Gladiatorial thumbs up / thumbs down is so much more fun when there are plenty of skilled people out there to fill the gaps created.

Then around fifty years ago, as technology and globalisation made the world of work more complex, we repurposed the world of sports coaching into business and performance coaching was born. Tim Galwey came up with

Performance = Potential – Interference

Which was an elegant encapsulation of the idea that mostly, we get in our own way by letting the voice of others define our view of our own performance. Interference as self talk.

As with all elegant ideas however, interference is a wonderfully elastic idea, extensible into things like home life, working hours, forced ranking and before we knew it, “Moneyball” approaches were being applied to education, medicine, local government and many other areas reliant more on long term learning and commitment than “hitting base.”

But what is less noted is something else Tim wrote:

“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”

W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance

As Alfie Kohn noted in “Punished by Rewards” the easiest way to kill vocational commitment stone dead is to incentivise it. In the short term world of CEO tenure, five year political cycles and nanosecond stock arbitrage, the long term is so boring when behaviourism is so effective in the short term, and long term thinking, reflection and the potential of the Rose are such sources of “Interference”

And here we are, with expensively, exclusively educated politicians and forensic business leaders who, in the words of Oscar Wilde “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Whose response to any form of human challenge is to lead with a sum of money. From “Levelling Up “to war in Ukraine, money takes the place of agency, accountability and integrity. Like sport, “skin in the game’ is great – as long as it’s somebody else’s.

Fortunately, what goes around comes around. Cycles are wonderful things, and even if the current version of “performance” ADHD has shaped the lives of three generations, it seems unlikely to shape a fourth.

Three things have determined that. Firstly, the pandemic has punctured our mindless routines of work. Secondly, the disintegration of global supply chains as the pandemic and climate change are making themselves felt and thirdly, the generations now moving into work and leadership will not tolerate it.

Add to that the effect of the “Great resignation / Great Realignment” as older, tenured managers are saying “enough” and we may be seeing an interesting reversal. “Performance” focused less on individuals, and more on organisations, less on financial value and more on human values.

It’s early days of course, but we may want to take the hint. Work is an important part of our lives, but only if we define it, not let it define us.

Machine learning and AI are rapidly encroaching into many of the areas so beloved of “performance management” and algorithms just love performance appraisals. They can do them all day. Performance, after all, is for machines.

The opportunity for people to be, well, people on the other hand is huge. Those who sense as much as calculate, feel as much as tell, imagine as much as design and use judgement as much as evidence. Those who can find joy in their work through the opportunity to be useful and kind, and bring who they are, not just what they do into the work equation.

Performance is engineered. Potential is grown.

Performance is how “Supreme Leaders” define their Subjects.

Potential is how Citizens develop Society.

“Performance Appraisal” – give me a break……

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