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Sphere on Spiral Stairs

How do you create the ideal performance culture?


In 2001 The Harvard Business Review published an article by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz titled, The Making of a Corporate Athlete and it started a revolution, of sorts. It centred on the elusive search for sustained high performance in the face of ever-increasing workplace pressures. Up to that point management theorists had suggested exposure to significant ‘material’ rewards, the ‘right’ culture and management by objectives delivered sustained high performance. This ‘neck up’ performance thinking has been reinforced over the last 30 years by Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995), Carole Dweck’s Growth Mindset (2006), Angela Duckworth’s Grit (2016) and even Simon Sinek’s Start with Why (2009). All these texts embody a ‘Mind over Matter’ approach to enhanced workplace performance where the body is simply a vehicle which transports our brains to places of work activity. But is it as simple as that, do our bodies play such an irrelevant role?

To date we know more about the universe than we do about what’s going on between our ears, and whilst the body behaves in accordance with scientific law our minds simply don’t. Our brains are super complex machines and in comparison, our bodies are relatively simple phenomena. We use our brains much more than we use our bodies in work, or so we think (pardon the pun), so it’s no wonder then when it comes to workplace performance and recruitment, cognitive skills are a primary focus; but are we missing a trick, have we been getting it wrong for a long time? Loehr and Schwartz certainly thought so, and their Ideal Performance State model suggested a hierarchy of ‘capacities’ that support performance based on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual attributes.

Is it ok to transcend the sport-business barrier?

The simple answer is yes but with care, we don’t always want to copy the ‘athletic’ approach nor are the context of business and sport exactly the same. They can on occasion be diametrically opposed. Loehr and Schwartz were however amongst the first to transcend the sport – business barrier, two well-known and well-respected sports scientists with many publications stretching over their careers, they viewed executives as ‘corporate’ athletes and if treated like the athletes they coached they believed they could sustain similarly high levels of performance.

In their eyes, for executives to perform they needed a multifaceted training programme like that of an athlete. Loehr and Schwartz were neither sport or business coaches, they didn’t focus on basic athletic or executive skills, they couldn’t teach someone to run faster or hit a ball farther, nor did they know how to coach negotiation skills or how to analyse a balance sheet, what they focused on where ‘secondary competencies’ or more specifically an executive’s endurance, strength, flexibility, self-control, and focus.

The authors brought psychology and physiology into the workplace or more specifically the boardroom, but also understood that “the demands placed on executives to sustain high performance day in day out, year in year out, dwarf the challenges faced by any athlete.” For example, the balance between performance and training are opposites, athletes usually have a 3-4 month off season and the life span of an athlete is usually less than 10 years whilst executives can expect to perform for 40-50 years 46-50 weeks a year. So, when we consider workplace performance, we can learn from sport, but we cannot simply copy it.

Does an Ideal Performance State work?

The overarching problem with the original proposition was not the content or complexity of what they suggested but simply the audience. It’s no coincidence that the number of ‘executive’ triathletes and iron-people grew exponentially post their HBR article as the C-suite started to battle it out not just in the boardroom but in the lakes, and on the roads and athletic tracks across the world. Executives embraced the fit body fit mind concept, ignoring perhaps the emotional and spiritual side, and threw themselves into a range of sporting endeavours and training. Loehr and Schwartz’s message certainly hit home with the readers of the Harvard Business Review, which to be fair to them, was probably their target audience; they were after all the ones who could afford their consulting fees. However just making the C-suite physically superhuman doesn’t really deliver organisational high performance; what you need is an Ideal Performance Culture, Environment and Mindset, after all we can walk the body and mind to the gym, but we have to be willing to participate.

How do you create an Ideal Performance Culture?

Twenty years on from the HBR article nothing much has changed, if we want to ensure that employees not just the C-suite can operate to their maximum we need to ensure we are supporting every employee in terms of their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity. Loehr and Schwartz’s ‘Ideal Performance State’, recognised that short term success could be achieved even with acute inhibitors such as smoking, drinking, being overweight, having emotional issues or lacking a ‘higher’ purpose, however over time these created chronic physical and psychological challenges that affect long term performance. So here are some tips on how to develop an Ideal Performance Mindset.

A heathy lifestyle is essential if you want to consistently perform at work.

Our bodies are what creates the energy for our brains to function, our bodies are the brains energy management system. The benefits of exercise, positive moods and the release of endorphins have been widely researched, but it goes much further than running a little or simply going to the gym, these help of course, but good sleep and eating rituals are integral to efficient energy management. A lack of contact with family and friends also impacts positive emotions as we get a sense of profound safety and security when we have contact with them.

Don’t avoid stressful situations; control them and find time to recover.

The authors make some interesting but rather obvious suggestions when it comes to stress. Much of the recent focus has been on reducing or avoiding stress which can be achieved by identifying the sources of stress or increasing our ability to cope with stress, I call this our copability.

What is important about stress is that a reduction in the stress inducing activities might actually hindering the development of our people. Loehr and Schwartz suggest that optimum performance occurs when we ‘oscillate’ between periods of stress and recovery, and it is the recovery that is essential to avoiding the burnout and breakdown associated with chronic stress.

Consider any sport where the athlete wants to develop muscle strength, to do this, and it does sound rather contradictory, they must break their muscle fibres. It’s a process called supercompensation which is essentially a balanced work-rest cycle. When it comes to the corporate athlete the problem is linearity, they just keep going, expending energy without any recovery. Typically, they push themselves mentally and emotionally and not at all physically.

Be aware of your moods and your negative emotions, especially when they affect others.

Just as positive emotions increase energy, negative emotions reduce our energy sources. Over time these feelings can become toxic, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and cripple performance. When we are anxious and fearful, we are more likely to choke whilst anger and frustration can inhibit our ability to remain calm and focused. We have all experienced managers who are perfectionists, often critical of others, they become frustrated and impatient when things don’t proceed at the speed or with the necessary outcome they expected. These often boil over into angry tirades. Anger management, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and emotional control help us self-regulate our emotions.

“Excellence is not a singular act but a habit” Aristotle. Form good habits and eradicate poor ones.

Our habits describe who we are, they are the subconscious routines and rituals that help us get through our day-to-day activities. It can be as simple as the way we brush our teeth or the way we plan and schedule our work. Of course, these routines, rituals can also have a negative impact and distract us from our goals.

Some distractions however can also support the stress recovery cycle e.g., music have a powerful physiological and psychological effect on our performance, many athletes use it to cycle through stress and recovery. It can help switch peoples thinking from the rational left hemisphere to the more intuitive right hemisphere, it can also distract us from obsessive worrying and reduce anxiety levels.

How we think defines how we perform.

Whilst there is a clear link between roles and education, cognitive ability is where most non-physical performance enhancement is aimed. Improvements in our ability to focus, manage our time and apply positive/critical thinking aid all performers. Meditation, reprioritising time enable the executive to refresh their capacity for work and visualisation skills helped maintain a positive mindset when faced with negative thoughts when under pressure.

Have a purpose, understand your value, and bring meaning to what you do.

Spiritual capacity can prompt conflicting emotions and is often confused. What the authors were referring to was what is today called purpose, or as Simon Sinek would say our ‘Why’. It’s about working in a space which is congruent with your values and not opposing them, it about having a clear and strong sense of why we do what we do. When this occurs, we are more productive, we experience positive emotions and we are able to perform at higher levels.


The interest in transferring the lessons of sport into the world of work has come from senior managers in business. There seems to be a sense that “elite” leaders are the equivalent of elite athletes. However, just as sport is not restricted to elite athletes, so leadership is not just the preserve of senior managers. As most commentators observe, almost all managers in organisations have a leadership role, especially front-line managers who are responsible for delivering services and making products. They too have to develop staff, build teams, improve performance and motivate the people with whom they work. Just as the vast majority of coaches are part-time or volunteers working with amateur athletes and teams who will never aspire to the glittering prizes, so the vast majority of leaders in organisations do not sit at the top table. Yet, the lessons of how to motivate individuals and teams to keep improving are as relevant to them as they are to those at the top. They may not be able to spend time with elite coaches, but they can certainly spend time with the “weekend” coaches who work with the majority of amateur sports men and women. Indeed, the push by governments to get more people involved in sport for their general health could, if viewed as staff development, have an equally beneficial effect on organisational health.

The path to an Ideal Performance State or an Ideal Performance Culture requires effort, dedication, and focus. For some it is easier than others, however we have a responsibility as leaders to not just focus on our own personal state, but to create an environment and support network that helps all employees approach and reach their Ideal Performance State. The suggestions here are the start, everyone needs to find their own path, however a focus on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities will help all employees improve their performance.

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