Maybe this sounds a silly question, but it’s not. We live in a business society dominated by demands for ever greater performance. Yet until we’re clear what performance is, focusing on it will produce only confusion and frustration.

“Simple,” some people say. “Performance is getting the job done. Producing the result that you aimed at. Nothing else matters. There are no prizes for coming second.”

Of course, there are such prizes, but we’ll let that pass. It’s still worth thinking carefully about the prevalent idea that only delivering results counts as acceptable performance. If you don’t reach the objectives, may be you haven’t performed well enough.

This is a seductive way of thinking. It sounds tough and practical. After all, if you don’t achieve what you want, what have you done? And in today’s ultra-macho business culture, sounding tough is important, even if the reality is rather different.

Looking a little closer, however, this approach to performance is simplistic and bound to cause trouble. No one can ensure a favorable outcome from their efforts. There are too many chance events to intervene between what someone does and what happens as a result. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns remarked more than two centuries ago: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” That’s Scots for “often go awry.” The future is full of unexpected events. Near impossible chances happen all the time. You do the best you can, then something unpredictable happens to frustrate your efforts. Are you responsible for this? Or for other people who mess up, or fail to deliver on their promises? Or the weather? The gyrations of the stock market? Wars and terrorist attacks?

Obviously not. So treating performance as unsatisfactory based on the outcome alone is neither reasonable nor fair. Management by objectives may be a useful way to focus effort towards a needed result, but appraisal by results is a poor strategy. There are too many variable left unaccounted for; too many areas that have major impacts on results ignored.

It doesn’t work well in the rest of life either. If you set your heart on a particular outcome, and can find no satisfaction in anything else, you’re taking a notable gamble. Try as you may, the result can still be negative.

Responsibility versus Control

People constantly confuse responsibility with control. You may accept responsibility for running some part of a business, but that doesn’t mean that you can control exactly what happens in it. You can try to make things turn out as you want. You can work hard and use your best efforts. But you cannot control the outcome, whatever you do. Those who must work through others soon learn that they cannot control people, however draconian their leadership style. You can influence, attempt to persuade or motivate, but never control absolutely. Nor can you control external events. That’s the reality. Again, you can work, plan, strive, hope and worry, but you cannot control the result, whatever you do.

To be responsible for something is to take on an obligation to do your very best to make that thing happen. It cannot be more. To pretend that failure is always down to the individuals responsible—that they should have controlled events as you wanted—is just macho nonsense. Incompetence may be punishable, but the inability to control the world is not.

Results affect us, even though they’re outside our control, but they’re no basis for judging performance—or for setting your life’s purpose. Far better to focus on the actions involved in seeking that result. They are within your control. You have to take the credit or the blame for what you do. So you might as well take the satisfaction available from doing something well, even if the eventual result was not what you wanted.

Forget judging people by results. Don’t base judgments of performance on something outside that person’s control. Judge by actions and inputs. Everyone is fully responsible for their actions. A failure that came about by chance after much purposeful hard work clearly shows higher performance than a chance success for someone who made little effort. Finding satisfaction and purpose in the action itself is far better than fixating on an outcome that lies mostly in the hands of chance. If doing something well increases the odds on success, that’s a pleasant bonus.

Still not convinced? Winning is rarely as important as we assume, but if winning is all that counts, as in war, remember Napoleon. When someone asked him what kind of people he looked for to be generals, he replied: “Lucky ones.”

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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