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What is Performance?

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What is Performance?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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    Last Updated on November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

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    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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