High performance is one of the hallmarks of corporate executive leadership. Notwithstanding that there are exceptions to every rule, most of the people that work their way up into the high levels of leadership have done so through a willingness and commitment to exquisite performance.
Doing whatever it takes to get things right, a willingness to work past the reasonable point of quitting, and doubling down on the task at hand when that is what is required. We could keep articulating different approaches to high-performance, but the underlying way of being is what I’m pointing to.
When someone wants to really create transformation in their lives, it tends to require confronting the well-worn patterns of the past, so that we can create new ways of showing up in our lives, and so, when I coach people in positions of executive leadership, one of the first things we confront is that tendency towards high-performance.
If you ask people to get curious about the motivation behind that high-performance, they’ll tend to tell you things like “Oh, that’s just the way I am.” Like they’ve always been this way. But that doesn’t leave the door open for much transformation. If you’ve always been this way, and transformation requires setting down patterns in order to create new ways of showing up in your life, then you’re kind of stuck. Hope that whatever you want doesn’t lie behind that high-performance…
As we start to dig deeper, and get beneath the “is-ness” of “I’ve always just been this way”, we can look at how this all got put together, and what it’s really for. Through this exploration, the “need” to perform usually resolves into some kind of habit designed to avoid getting feedback.
If, every time I take on something, I get some kind of feedback about what I did wrong, and that feedback lands on me as hurtful or painful, then I’m going to start to learn to perform really quickly.
Feedback stops being about orienting myself along my own progress, and instead becomes a measure of whether or not I’m a worthy human being.
Do this long enough, and people are going to develop a few strategies to deal with the problem of painful feedback. One strategy, which we won’t be talking about here is to simply underperform, not try, and therefore dodge the feedback. If I just go limp and refuse to show up, your feedback doesn’t really matter. You can tell me I didn’t work hard enough, but big deal, I already decided that for myself, so your feedback is moot.
The other approach is just to perform so effectively that you don’t have feedback for me. This approach is ultimately an attempt to outrun, or outperform feedback.
As long as I do an absolutely stellar job, I can avoid getting the feedback I find painful. And as I travel down that path, an added bonus to not having to confront feedback I find painful is that I tend to get rewarded with accolades and awards as I perform.
Life down this path ends up looking a few ways. First, over time, the feedback becomes less obvious that it is what you’re really seeking to avoid, and instead, life just starts to seem like you’re a high-performer. That’s just “what you’re driven to do”, for whatever reason. The better you run this strategy, the more urgent your need to perform, the harder it is for you to accept and be with things like mediocrity (ever notice yourself resenting people for their lack of effort?), and your capacity to be with and receive feedback atrophies.
The other challenge this pattern presents is that it works. Performing at an exquisite level garners you acknowledgement and results, which reinforces the pattern. Look, how can it be a bad thing that I’m so driven to perform? Everyone praises me for it!
When I meet these people to support their transformational work, all of this stuff has been running, efficiently, for a very long time.
The transformational challenge for these kinds of leaders is a function of what their performance is designed to avoid: feedback. In order for you to grow beyond what you’re already reliable for, you’re going to need feedback. Absent feedback, all you can really do is your own best guess.
Kind of like being in a relationship with someone and them expecting you to anticipate their needs. We’re not mind readers, and our own awareness only takes us so far. Without the feedback from someone outside of you, you’re never going to be able to get a hold of your blindspots (by definition).
Confronted by all of this, you end up with leaders in a coaching conversation, trying to perform enough to avoid getting the feedback they make significant. Ironically, they end up trying to “get everything right” in an attempt to avoid getting the feedback they’re afraid to receive from their coach.
On the surface it looks like they’re kicking ass. Underneath it, it’s just more of the same pattern that got them here — and will keep them here.
What ends up making the difference in these situations is when the leaders start to see the bankruptcy of this approach (that it’s not actually going to have things go any differently), and start to surrender to what they don’t want to be with. Feedback about how they’re showing up and the impact it’s having, and then simply sitting with that feedback.
Not racing into action to change it. Not figuring out what they need to do next. Not getting cerebral and figuring out how to avoid this in the future.
Simply sitting with what is scariest.
Only on the other side of this can their performance become a function of something other than outrunning fear.
Only then, does life start to crack wide open.