6 Scientifically Proven Steps to High Performance

Marc Effron, President, Talent Strategy Group

6 Scientifically Proven Steps to High Performance

It may seem challenging to extract even higher performance from your already driven and overworked team, but science suggests that even hard-working leaders leave significant performance “on the table.” The good news is higher performance doesn’t require that you embrace another new management fad. The boost happens when you apply what’s already scientifically-proven to improve performance at work.

We’re fortunate that thousands of scientists have studied human performance at work for more than a hundred years and they’ve identified the few factors that are proven performance boosters. While some of their findings are blindingly obvious (although still poorly executed in many companies) and others are counterintuitive. The challenge is that these insights are scattered across hundreds of obtuse academic articles in journals that the typical CEO will never see. So, what does a CEO need to know about the science of individual high performance?

In reviewing thousands of academic articles on individual performance, eight factors emerged as the most conclusive and powerful. I’ll highlight three that may sound familiar and three that may surprise you.

  1. Focus, then stretch, your goals: The most conclusive science on human performance says that goals matter and that fewer, more challenging goals deliver bigger results. Your team members should each make three big promises (or less) to the CEO about what they will deliver next year. Their focus on a few goals will ensure they deliver on what’s most important and those larger goals will increase their motivation and learning.
  2. Optimize your behaviors: There’s not an ideal set of behaviors that drive higher performance but the science suggests two proven approaches that leaders can take, each with benefits and drawbacks. The first approach is transformational leadership, which combines a focus on leading and inspiring your team with attention to getting things done. The second approach is performance driver, and it’s squarely focused on setting high standards and clear direction to get results. The science says they both work well when applied to the right challenges.
  3. Connect and Influence: High performers actively manage up and across to build the strong relationships that help them get more done. Those relationships give them more access to information, more influence in decisions and the informal network that can cut through company bureaucracy to boost their performance. Ask your team to kick-start their connect strategy by ranking the quality of their relationships with their manager, their key colleagues and their high performing peers. Invite the weakest relationship to coffee or lunch to strengthen the connection. The next week, select the next weakest relationship and repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

While goals, behaviors and connecting are time-proven high-performance strategies, what may be more surprising is how much factors like flexing your fit, sleep and faking it can help to improve your team’s performance.   

  1. Flex Your Fit: When a leader fits with their company’s strategy they’re likely to be more engaged and a higher performer. But when that strategy shifts, today’s high performer may struggle to fit with the new company reality. Your team needs to understand which two or three capabilities will support high performance in the future, independent of what they’ve done in the past. If those capabilities aren’t their natural style, they’ll need to learn how to flex and “fake” them (see below) until the strategy swings to be closer to their natural style.
  2. Sleep to Success: It may seem that the heart-pumping, endorphin-releasing effects of exercise would lead the list of ways that your body can contribute to high performance. In reality, the only body-management strategy that supports better performance is to get high quality sleep. The bigger surprise? Getting high quality sleep matters more than the number of hours. Six hours of quality sleep is better than ten hours of low-REM and low deep sleep. The advice here isn’t surprising but it’s powerful: sleep in a cool, dark room; don’t read devices before sleep and no caffeine after 2PM.
  3. Fake It: There’s a reason that books about “authentic leadership” sell so well. Most of us like to hear that the best way to manage is to just let the wonderful person that we are to shine through. The challenge is we need to show others different faces as our careers evolve. That means that high performance will sometimes require us to fake behaviors that go against our core preferences. For example, a humble leader who doesn’t call attention to herself is likely a great colleague, but she won’t be noticed just because she does good quality work. Even if it feels fake to her, she needs to actively point out to others the quality of the work and results that she delivers.

The good news is that the path to higher individual performance is shorter and more direct than you may imagine. Let’s call it simple but not easy. It doesn’t require that you master any new management fads, buzzwords or technology. In fact, it’s best to ignore them. Instead, let the work of thousands of scientists guide you along the few scientifically-proven steps to high performance.

About the Author

Marc Effron founded and leads The Talent Strategy Group and consults globally to the world’s largest and most successful corporations. He co-founded the Talent Management Institute and created and publishes Talent Quarterlymagazine. He co-authored the Harvard Business Review Publishing best-seller One Page Talent Management and 8 Steps to High Performance. His prior corporate experience includes senior talent management roles at Bank of America and Avon Products. His prior consulting experience includes starting and leading the Global Leadership Consulting practice at Hewitt Associates.