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We Need to Redefine How We Think About High Performance

John Bull
May 3, 2019

Irrespective of whether you’re a fan of sport or not, from a performance science point of view, it offers us a brilliant laboratory to learn about human performance; what works and what doesn’t.

For 20 years now, the UK has been pursuing an ambition to create the world’s best high performance system in sport. The progress we’ve made in terms of medals and world championships is astounding. We’ve gone from 36th in the Olympic medal table in 1996, to 2nd in Rio.

Over the last couple of years, a number of cases of bullying and toxic cultures have emerged, prompting the system to ask itself some very fundamental questions about what can go wrong in the pursuit for high performance. While the accusations of bullying are relatively few in number, the fact that many of them have come from some of the highest performing environments raises some interesting questions.

We have had the privilege of working with both UK Sport and Sport England to explore and try and answer these questions, and we believe the learning which is emerging is hugely relevant to any ambitious organisation or leader.

Last month Sport England launched quite a bold new strategy for talent development, setting out their intent to broaden the definition of high performance to encompass three mutually supportive goals

1. Create the world’s best system for the development of talent.
By itself this is not a new ambition. What is new is combining it with the next two.

2. Lead the world in athlete welfare.
Ensure the experience of being part of a development pathway enriches people’s lives and makes them better people. In business we often use the phrase ‘positive performance culture’ to reflect the goal to create a culture which is both high performing in terms of results, and engenders a positive buzz in the team.

3. Make the UK's talent system the most accessible and inclusive in the world.
Perhaps the most important and challenging shift of all in this new strategy. This is about ensuring natural talent and hunger are what determine progress, not personal circumstances. Because hunger to fulfil our potential is linked to us being able to identify with role models, ensuring our medal winners better reflect the diversity of the country they represent is a key part of this.

All our research into high performance tells us that these three goals should be mutually supportive. Creating an environment that is strong in all three will outperform an environment which is only strong in one or two. Saracens Rugby is a great example which proves this. And to be good at all three is not easy. The inconvenient truth is that plenty of environments trying to do the right thing and create a positive culture will be outperformed by a culture which is just very good at the first of these – high challenge and drive for results.

Our work with UK Sport, Sport England and Leaders in Sport on this journey over the last 2 years has highlighted 3 lessons we believe are relevant to all ambitious organisations and leaders.

Lesson 1: Intrinsic motivation is more effective, but it requires more leadership skill to create than extrinsic motivation.

While 70 years' research in performance psychology has proven time and again that intrinsic motivation will outperform extrinsic motivation; creating and sustaining it requires much more leadership skill than extrinsic motivation.

Focusing on individual needs and creating a supportive environment will not by itself create high performance. If it isn’t combined with a shared understanding of what it takes to win, translated into high standards and a culture of accepting candid feedback, what you will get is a Laissez-Faire culture. One of the issues we’re seeing in elite sport right now, is that coaches have become so afraid of being accused of bullying, they are shying away from candid feedback conversations which are critical to giving individuals a realistic benchmark of where they are against a world class standard. The best coaches do challenge, but they have the skills to first light a fire in the individual to be exceptional, and they are able to deliver the challenge in a way that maintains psychological safety.

If we misunderstand this as a choice between a focus on high standards and looking after individual welfare, the environment which focuses on high standards will perform better. The key is not to choose. By combining both, we will create a performance culture that is unbeatable. The key insight here is though is that this takes skill. Skills in motivation, skills in feedback, and skills in coaching.

We explore these ideas in more detail in our Little Book of High Performance.

Lesson 2: The limitations of anonymous questionnaires in opening up a constructive conversation about your performance culture.

If we want to create a positive performance culture, we have to figure out an effective way to assess it and to track our progress.

The traditional approach to this has been to use anonymous questionnaires. This is how UK Sport approached this in their first year of consciously assessing culture in sport. On the face of it, the use of questionnaires makes a lot of sense. What these first round of culture health checks did achieve is they gave a fairly simple and efficient way of taking a pulse check in each of the environments. It also did surface some really important conversations that needed to happen.

The downside of the questionnaire approach though is that it provides no opportunity to draw out the reasoning and context behind people’s responses – whether positive or negative.

In the second round of culture health checks, which we’ve had the opportunity to be involved in, UK Sport has moved to a very different approach called ‘walk the floor’. The questionnaires have been replaced by 1-to-1 interviews and observation of the environment in operation. The positive impact of this shift in the quality of insight and the buy-in of leaders to those insights has been phenomenal. It has also given much more scope for good environments to identify some big opportunities for improvement. We are now using this approach with a number of our corporate clients to complement or replace traditional staff surveys.

Lesson 3: Moving the discussion from diversity to inclusion and psychological safety.

As with other organisations, most sports begin this conversation with the firm belief they have an open door to all talent, irrespective of individual circumstance. While it is generally true they are keen to attract anyone who has the talent to be a high performer, they are often unaware of unintended blocks to getting the best out of the full talent pool.

There is a massive difference between having an open door to anyone, and having an environment in which any individual will thrive. The reality is, people who consider themselves different to the majority in some way will feel ‘outside’ of the group, irrespective of what the intent is. This affects performance – massively. Just being aware of this is helpful in prompting leaders to put additional effort into ensuring everyone feels psychologically safe and included.

The other insight from sport in this area, is that current performance (particularly in new starters) is not as great a predictor of potential as we might think. Opportunities to develop our talents early in life are not particularly equal. Too many approaches to identifying and recruiting for talents are biased towards these opportunities as opposed to raw potential.

Here is a short and very powerful video which highlights this point:


Our aim is to help leaders develop their ability to create the conditions we see at the heart of high performing organisations and teams – like everyone being united behind a compelling purpose, people feeling valued, a commitment to high standards, and a culture of more candid conversations.

If you have an ambition to achieve something special, contact us today on info@managementfutures.co.uk or +44 (0)20 7928 4841.

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