Anders Nordmark, Senior Partner at Agerus, on the term performance and its importance in worklife.
I entertained myself by googling the term “Performance at work” the other day. It gives you some 178 million hits! This is of course a crude measurement but it does say a lot about the popularity of the term within working life.
I first came in close contact with the term “Performance at work” in the mid-1990s. In those days, it was often a negative term in the eyes of the public.
It was therefore exciting to join the discussion by working with worklife researcher within the psychology department at Stockholm University.
The researchers had started studying humans at work from a perspective of “having prerequisites to perform the job” rather than the theory of employee satisfaction which was popular at the time. The discussion was then centred on how you get people to experience positive emotions in relation to their work rather than creating good prerequisites to be able to do the job. The newer definition of “performance” as a concept for these researchers simply became: to manage and to execute your job.
To challenge the prevalent notion, the researchers asked whether the purpose of going to work was to execute a job to the benefit of the organisation, or if you go to work to feel satisfaction?
The focus of this newer perspective was on what the necessary prerequisites in an organisation and work situation for people to perform well are. Not so much on how to create positive emotions and loyalties to the organisation and, for example, its managers.
Something that surprised me when we started talking about this, to us a more logical perspective, with managers in various organisations was that we often met massive resistance against the term “Performance”. The word had negative associations both for management and employees. When we meant “execute”, “manage” and “complete” they seemed to hear “demands and coercion” or “higher performance with fewer resources”.
The connotation of the word performance has since transformed into something much more positive, and within the “management industry” it is one of the most used terms of today. The question is whether it has come to mean “manage your work” or whether it has become more acceptable to demand higher performance with fewer resources and bad prerequisites?
Let me briefly list some of the most important conclusions we drew and lessons we learned from these studies in to 90s. And why you should still focus on prerequisites for performance at work rather than any other factor.
1. Employees’ performance create organisations’ results. There are of course a lot of other factors that affect an organisation’s efficiency and result which is out of the individual employee’s control. I’m thinking of interest rates, currency fluctuations, trade conditions etc., but in my opinion it is of utmost importance to remember that the sum and the interplay of people’s everyday work, ie performance, becomes the organisation’s efficiency and result! The organisations where its humans perform better, individually and with others, generally reach their goals and create better results. This may sound obvious but I believe this simple truth is worth repeating. Employees’ performance is the driving force in the organisation.
2. People feel good when they perform. Studies by my research colleagues clearly show that people, as bio-psycho-social beings interpret the experience of executing their work well as something extremely positive. The experience of being able to perform created positive emotions such as joy, happiness, relief etc. And these emotions were found to be a consequence of performance rather than conditions for performance. Additionally, the experience of performing created a more positive self-image. The more you experience that you can execute your job, the more you see yourself as competent. Last but not least, a strong correlation was found between experiencing performance and health. Individuals who felt that they could perform at work also defined themselves as being in good health. And vice-versa. In the groups that experienced obstacles for performance at work sick leave was several times higher than those who felt that they could manage their work. Performance is simply beneficial for the individual too.
3. Work groups become more efficient if you perform together. One of the most basic human needs is to be part of and contribute to a social context. It is by coming together with other people that you can “calibrate” your performance to contribute positively in a broader context. It is in the common exchange and cooperation between people that performance can develop and improve. The work groups that focus on the common assignment and that support each other with creating good prerequisites for performance are also the groups that become the most efficient. Modern studies support this by showing that good dialogue within the work group seems to be one of the most important factors that lead to the most efficient teams. Performance is therefore also beneficial for work groups.
These conclusions still stand. Maintain a focus on creating good performance. Talk about the common assignment and help each other perform well. This benefits people, groups and organisations. Where you manage to create good prerequisites for performance, is also where you build long-term sustainable organisational culture – which is of benefit to everyone.