A Peak Performance weblog

Western culture is sorely lacking in a vision of optimal work that can truly inspire people, that presents work as a meeting ground for personal fulfillment and corporate results during any kind of work.

Three problems can be addressed with a vision of optimal work. First, employees feel unfulfilled; they have trouble relating their personal goals and values with organizational goals. Second, they’re not highly motivated, and they tend to think management is most interested in profit. Third, management has trouble sustaining, much less optimizing, employee motivation.

Is there a balanced, general vision of Optimal Work? If so, it should balance productivity, quality, and well-being. If it’s general, applicable to any person, environment, and task, it cannot be defined in terms of organizational structures, management styles, employee habits, and best practices or processes. This aligns with the common-sense notion that “The best things in life aren’t things.” Defining such a vision is subtle, perhaps “the subtlest aspect of the learning organization—the new way individuals perceive themselves and their world.” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline) . . . If a vision didn’t tell us specifically what to do, perhaps it would tell us how to work best. Perhaps perspectives & qualities of experience can define vision.

Rather than try to motivate employees, a vision could lead people toward peak performance not by motivational or manipulative techniques, but by simply exploring the qualities of their experience during work activities. Employees can challenge habits that limit progress while participating in a naturally inspiring search for essential qualities of experience such as flow, ‘glow’, and openness. As a meeting ground for personal fulfillment and corporate results, such a vision can break through employee distrust of management’s motives.

What are the qualities of peak performance in the workplace? Are there some shared values or experiential qualities–not just common goals–that would naturally motivate people in any organization? What if we look for answers to these questions in the experience of geniuses, mystics, and athletes as well as highly effective businesspeople? The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) national web site used to state: “Although there is an intellectual construct called high performance work, it does not have a common definition.” However, a definition of optimal work can be drawn from common descriptions of peak experience. Maslow researched these qualities and presented the results in Toward a Psychology of Being and The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Murphy and White presented their research on the zone in a book called In the Zone. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi wrote about his research on flow, a word he used to very broadly define the most fulfilling and effective experiences of life. From all these works and many more by other researchers and writers we can piece together a vision of the zone. Yet nowhere in these works did I find a convincingly comprehensive depiction of the zone, nor did I find a clear and direct path to ‘find the zone’.

On the other hand, beginning with Time, Space, and Knowledge (TSK) in 1977, Tarthang Tulku offered a series of books (numbering six now in 2009) presenting “a new vision” in which one can readily find a great deal of material on self-actualization and enlightened experience and performance, as well as experiential exercises that not only discuss peak performance, but directly facilitate our progress toward ‘the zone.’ After working with these materials for over fifteen years I extracted a twelve-dimensional description of the ‘zone’ of peak performance, a kind of summary of a cross-cultural, shared vision of self-actualization. TSK–and perhaps to some small degree, this summary–can help provide the foundation for continuous improvement (moving toward the zone and increasing engagement/involvement whenever possible) and managing by values, no matter what the organizational mission.

(For information on the Time-Space-Knowledge vision, see Dharma Publishing (www.dharmapublishing.com or http://www.tska.info ). My research can be found at http://groups.google.com/group/playing-in-the-zone , which anyone can join. A Powerpoint file, named “Peak Performance and Zone.ppt” is included on this site–this presentation focuses on peak performance during work (though most of this is relevant for any activities). Corresponding articles on this material have been uploaded to this site, including an article published in the Jossey-Pfeiffer Bass Annual (for a training and development professional audience) named “Pfeiffer Zone article.pdf,” and “TheZone5.doc.” )

Once we have some clarity on the nature of peak performance in the workplace, we’ll have a natural meeting ground for personal values and corporate goals that will foster self-sustaining motivation on the part of the employee, gradually relieving management of the need to motivate employees, and decreasing the friction commonly experienced between employees and management. Unlike other sources of motivation . . . self-actualization continues to motivate people to ever higher levels of performance. (pp. 163-4, Andrew Grove, High Output Management)    Our role as managers is . . . to . . . bring them to the point where self-actualization motivates them [rather than Maslow’s lower needs, which demand repeated, yet temporary satisfaction]. (p. 168)

With a vision of peak performance, you can drive balanced, overall organizational progress via everyone focusing on increasing personal engagement/involvement (see “What Guarantees Optimal Productivity and Well-Being?” at http://www.manage-time.com/involve.html), not the scorecard, productivity, or the bottom line. Involvement in the current scenario is proportional to well-being, productivity, and quality of product and service: I ~ W*P*Q. We improve engagement/involvement by trying to be continually aware of limitations to complete involvement in the work scenario, and choosing a direction of greater absorption. There seem to be countless opportunities for improving the degree to which we are absorbed. As we deal with those that are obvious to us, before long we are presented with transition points that are more subtle. Recognize that your workplace is a kind of playing field where, in a sense, you are the only player. The object of the game is to approach peak performance by driving involvement as high as you can. See whether you can reach ever higher levels of performance by getting completely into the task at hand.

Involvement can be defined in many different ways, and how you define engagement or involvement will determine what your suggestions are for improving them. Nevertheless, a high degree of involvement means a melding of objects and individuals, an effortless yet powerful flow of events, and a sense of openness pervading the entire work scenario. A low degree of involvement means that individuals and objects are strongly felt to be separate, intense effort is required to get small things done, or the work scenario has a heavy or inert feeling.

So to optimize progress, do not start with your organization’s mission. That just limits possibilities at the outset. Instead of trying to increase one’s engagement and performance within the confines of one’s organization and its mission and projects, realize that the organization is just a part of a much larger whole. Then try to improve your performance in life in general, using the grandest and deepest vision of the ‘zone’ of peak performance that you can come up with. This will drive well-being, fulfillment, quality of product and service, and productivity all at once. This means seeking the deeper values of the ‘zone’. And the deeper values we focus on, the better. By doing this, we manage by values.

It will probably take some convincing for management to believe that this general self-actualization emphasis will produce specific results for your particular organization. But as Blanchard asked, when playing tennis, what kind of results can you expect if you keep focused on the scoreboard (profit, ‘results’) rather than the ball? “When people are in the zone, all of their attention is on what they’re doing . . . . The results just seem to flow from this focus of energy . . . . Lots of companies seem to watch only their scoreboard–the bottom line. In doing so, they take their eyes off the ball . . . . That gets them out of the zone . . . .” (p. 3, Managing By Values, by Ken Blanchard)

In a typical company the primary concern is on productivity and the bottom line. However, besides losing touch with the actual work process, this emphasis on results can negatively affect employee well-being. By focusing on results without a balanced attention to their well-being, employees may produce a great deal during a long work crunch, yet burn out in the process. Optimizing results does not guarantee optimal employee well-being.

Improving involvement is both an indicator and driver of increasing productivity and well-being. Tracking involvement in the current scenario is a powerful working principle. This natural practice has the important benefit that it can be used while focusing on any task, as you switch between tasks, or even when there is no apparent task at hand.

How does one measure engagement? Many ways are possible. (1) People often find it helpful to graph the percentage of involvement over time. You can estimate the percentage by comparing involvement in the current scenario with the full range of your involvement in past experiences, work and otherwise. One hundred percent involvement means that you were as absorbed in the current scenario as much as you had been in past experiences of greatest absorption in a situation. Fifty percent involvement means you were half as involved as you were when you were most involved in something. The real value of this kind of graphing is to become aware of opportunities for improvement and to be able to track the trend of involvement, so don’t be overly concerned about getting an exact figure for the involvement indicator.

(2) A second way to track engagement: define it as a combined measure of awareness (A), concentration (C), and energy (E) (see pp. 120-129 of Mastering Successful Work, Dharma Publishing, by Tarthang Tulku), and then chart the rise and fall of ACE at least three times a day, assign each factor a value between one and ten. Make notes on the interplay of A, C, and E.

(3) For more granularity and precision, and to foster optimal involvement, define engagement as a combined measure of the twelve dimensions defined in the Pfeiffer Zone article.pdf (mentioned above). Then as in the second way to track engagement, chart the rise and fall of these twelve factors throughout the day by periodically considering the following questions that contrast various aspects of ordinary work from peak performance:
1. Are you applying effort or control to something that feels separate from you, or does your activity seem to flow effortlessly ‘by itself’?
2. Do things feel familiar, somewhat predictable, or even habitual, or does each new moment, along with all that appears in the momentary scenario, seem spontaneous and fresh?
3. Are you looking forward to being done with the work, or are you currently fulfilled within your work-in-progress?
4. Do objects and events take up space and appear to be separate and dispersed, or are do they seem intimately connected in and even as one space?
5. Is there a private space or personal world that feels separate from everything outside, or do inner and outer, subjective and objective appear to be inseparable facets of the same undivided space?
6. Is there a sense of self that stands apart from experience and externals, or do you feel identified with, or absorbed in, what is happening?
7. Is knowledge simply something that you or others possess or lack, or is there a sense of being intimately part of what’s around you, knowing things that are happening ‘from inside’ them?
8. Is knowledge only identification, categorization, judgment, and detached observation, or also an illuminating clarity merged with the subject being explored?
9. Are there divisions among your self, mind, body, and personality, or is there a natural sense of wholeness, fulfillment, and satisfaction?
10. Are you driven by a need or a desire for pleasure, or is everything being found to be immediately and inherently fulfilling?
11. Do you notice a feeling of time flowing in the background, or are you timelessly involved in something?
12. Does reality seem solid, fixed, and substantial, or does everything seem somewhat fluid or dreamlike?
(These questions correspond to the twelve dimensions of the zone described in “Peak Performance and Zone.ppt” mentioned above.)

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