High performance is everywhere. We see it advertised on sports clothes, in training programs, its all-over social media including LinkedIn, and it’s rife in our workplaces. “We’re a high performing organisation.” “I lead a high performing team.” “Our focus is on building on a high performance mindset.”

I was first introduced to high performance many moons ago by a former employer. It was launched as our future business strategy with huge fan fare. This new approach was exciting given the benefits it promised to bring. But I remember at the time questioning exactly what it was we were trying to achieve? What would success look and feel like? How would we go about it? Did it mean that we were currently low performing? And what happens after you reach high performance? Even higher performance?

Fast forward to today and I still don’t have many answers to my questions… So, I find high performance a confusing and nebulous concept. It also doesn’t particularly inspire me as it doesn’t connect with all that I’m trying to achieve. It feels narrow, and I think there’s more we can aim for than just simply high performance.

What is high performance and why do we want it?

High performance refers to a constant exceeding of expectations or delivery of exceptional results. To be achieved, it typically requires a lot of hard work, focus and dedication. And when it’s reached, it can have a positive impact on the bottom line. Because revenue targets have been surpassed, customer satisfaction has increased or productivity and efficiencies have been gained. So no wonder it’s a desirable strategy for organisations.

For some workers, it’s exciting to be part of a high performing organisation. And it might even be a characteristic that quality talent seeks from an employer, which gives them a competitive advantage.

Is there a dark side to high performance?

High performance can be harmful even if that’s not its intention.

The term brings up for me past images of over-worked employees, who are physically and mentally exhausted, and sacrificing what’s important to them in the pursuit of excellence.

They appear to be consistently running on a treadmill, trying to achieve their next target, and then the even higher one, waiting for a sense of fulfilment that never comes. They’re typically under a lot of pressure to excel whether that stems from above or themselves for fear of failure.

They’re at risk of burnout from working long hours, failing to switch off and to take regular breaks or holidays. Neglecting their wellbeing has a negative impact not only on their physical and mental health but on their team, their workplace and of course their loved ones too.

Research has also shown that those who just work, work, work, eventually see lower performance in the long-term.

When workplaces pursue high performance, it can intensify competition even amongst colleagues, which can destroy relationships. If unhealthy behaviours are adopted to become a top performer, this can create a toxic culture which has disastrous effects on workplaces. And if the goals or KPIs are continuously set ridiculously high, it can be counterproductive and demotivating for employees and lead to people feeling frustrated and like they’re continuously failing.

What could we pursue instead?

There’s no denying that performance needs to be one of the outcomes that workplaces prioritise. But perhaps it’s more about “optimal” or “sustainable” performance, where the aim is to maximise outcomes without negative consequences (optimal) or minimising depletion over the long-term (sustainable).

I haven’t heard of many workplaces using either of these terms as a replacement for high performance. Perhaps by doing so that will be their competitive advantage.

Given a growing number of employees these days are looking for organisations that prioritise their wellbeing whilst also achieving an ideal level of achievement, this change in language should be welcomed.

But I think we can take it even further than just changing our language. We should go beyond just performance and aim for thriving instead.

What’s thriving?

It’s time for our measurement of success to change. There’s more to value and achieve than just simply high performance.

For me, I’m obsessed with empowering individuals, teams and workplaces to thrive. Thriving is when workers are engaged and able to be at their best each day, they’re resilient and cope well with stressors, setbacks and change, and they’re physically and mentally well. And because of those things, research has shown that they’ll be more productive and able to perform at their optimum.

Each of these elements can be measured both subjectively and objectively, and we know the evidence-backed strategies that can boost resilience, engagement, wellbeing and therefore performance including:

  • Playing to strengths
  • Building trust & psychological safety
  • Strengthening connections
  • Learning optimism
  • Being clear on purpose and goals
  • Offering ongoing learning and development
  • Celebrating success regularly
  • Teaching strategies to deal with challenges and setbacks.

And the list goes on.

Aiming for thriving will improve the wellbeing of your workers, increase performance, boost job satisfaction, and foster loyalty and commitment so you will retain your best talent for longer and attract others to join you too.  And that’s what we should equate with winning. It’s time we change our definition of success and stretch ourselves on what we’re aiming for. High performance isn’t enough, let’s go for thriving instead!