A Dogma Called High Performance Culture: When Anxiety Trumps Accountability - Part 1

K. Ramkumar
Updated: Apr 10, 2013 08:43:36 AM UTC

K Ramkumar, Executive Director and Head of Operations & Human Resources at ICICI Bank, loves examining the other side of the traditionally accepted views. He examines everything that comes in his way. That has helped him to broaden his perspectives, something that he would have otherwise never done. Even while reading, he debates with the author by writing on the margins. Ram, as he’s popularly known to his colleagues and friends, believes that there is nothing more joyous than having an open debate with an equally passionate and experimental individual. The outcome is not important. What matters is a counter point - the other perspective to every viewpoint. A science graduate and a post graduate in Personnel management and Industrial relations, Ram is an ardent sports fan. He prefers to be in the game as it keeps him engaged with others. He also enjoys making short documentary films.

Over the last one decade, I have witnessed from close quarters, the evolution of a dogma called 'High Performance Culture'. The term performance is not proprietary to commercial organisations only. Education, sports, liberal arts, science or for that matter every human effort which is goal-oriented, culminates in what we call performance. So, anything which has a pre-set standard or a preferred outcome is what we call performance.

But there are huge problems with our current approach and I intend to challenge them in this five-part series: When standards are set and outcomes defined, are there any parametres that place a premium on the quality of execution?

The thing about outcomes is that it is always in the future, whether it be a few minutes, months or years away. Anything that is in the future has 'uncertainty' built into it. The more distant the outcome, the more difficult it is to foresee what can happen in the interim. That makes it doubly difficult to intervene and either facilitate a favourable outcome or avert a bad one. In turn, what this does is, induce anxiety and 'fear of failure'.

There's a thin line between anxiety and pressure. Anxiety paralyses people. Pressure mobilises them. Anyone who takes an exam and the one who participates in sport knows the difference. It lies in the intensity of the emotion, the fears that accompany it and the consequences of failure, all of which can be personally damaging. Very few people I know of, manage it with equanimity.

To understand what goes on in the minds of these people who manage such pressures well, I thought it may make sense if we first understood what are the various elements that we believe characterises high performance culture, and examine them closely for all that it's worth. To my mind, these include:

•  Clarity of outcomes or goals that can be measured •  Stretch and differentiated performance rankings
•  Highly differentiated rewards, closely calibrated to the level of outcomes
•  Clinical consequence management, which is nothing but a euphemism for sacking people

Clarity of Outcomes

Certainly, there cannot be any argument around this. When outcomes are clear, the choice of actions become easier, and hence execution. However we should be conscious that heightened clarity, with low control over the means and stern consequences cause severe anxiety. This is especially true when stretch targets reach absurd proportions.

Victor Vroom, who proposed the expectancy theory on motivation, established this point through a series of experiments. He established that when people do not have, or are not in control of the means, they give up fast or have no preference for such outcomes or even rewards.

The clarity of outcome cannot substitute the significance of the human who should direct and support the performer. I see many bosses becoming prisoners of KRA sheets and abdicating their responsibility to help teams perform. When bosses confuse clarity with numbers and not actions, they end up driving the numbers, and not human performance. This creates conditions, which, Vroom argues, will deter performance and induce anxiety.

To draw an analogy, this is like a classical music teacher who is more focussed on approval scores at the concert as opposed to supporting the singer during practice with inputs. Or think of a science teacher who tries to drive examination scores without providing students assistance in the form of the right kind of lessons or notes.

Clinical Consequence Management

I don’t think there are any arguments on whether anybody can abdicate themselves from the consequences of outcomes that are below par or poor. The question that ought to be asked here is: How soon should these consequences be deployed and how harsh ought they be?

If there are no consequences for any action, what motivation can anybody possibly have to reach the intended goal? Would a sportsperson who does not face the prospect of being knocked out of a tournament or dropped from a team for poor performance, ever train, or be focussed on what he does? If an artist does not face the prospect of rejection by the audience, will she dig in deep to give it her best shot?

Thus, we can logically conclude that in the absence of consequences, many of us may turn up to 'do our best' [what we think is best] and not more than that. A generation of Indian Olympians, PSUs and a few private firms have epitomised this spirit, courting humiliating consequences. So, the pressure to perform can be the dose people need to overcome complacency.

But that said, can someone turn up at a playing field or a work place with the sword of Damocles constantly hanging over their head? Worse still, what if they are reminded of it all the time by those in authority? Have you thought about what kind of anxiety it can create in a young person?

Doctors and sports psychologists have established that when anxiety boils over, it stiffens muscles, increases blood pressure, and creates confusion. In turn, that leads to poor choices, an unresponsive body, and induces a fight or flight syndrome. So, does it come as a surprise that the more pervasive a hire-and-fire culture is, the higher the flight to safety? In modern management theory, it is called attrition.

Like in sports, if the fear of being sacked is induced, we would never have seen a Viv Richards, Sachin Tendulkar or Lionel Messi at their peak. It took 74 games for Sachin Tendulkar to score his first one day hundred. Messi had only only 31 goals in his first 76 games for Argentina. And, it took Richards three years to be an established player. Even a new born takes 10 months to find her feet. But corporate teams are expected to take to flight in a month, and in some cases, even faster.

Many corporates are trigger-happy with newcomers and reluctant to even put on notice, seniors who over long periods, do not deliver. If an audit is ever done by an independent person, he will find that barring odd exceptions, the seniors' club protects each other for long periods of time and targets hapless juniors on the altar of 'high performance culture'. No governance structure ever credibly challenges this.

The more influential and senior an individual is, chances are, they would have protected themselves with a golden parachute or stock options that may run into a few millions of dollars. Seniors are also adept at blaming their own poor performance in the context of some mitigating circumstance. But the young debutante, in most cases, is thrown into the deep end with no support. In an economy that offers endless opportunities, it is easier to choose the flight option as opposed to the fight one.

We will have fewer early career vagabonds and will sow the right seeds for a high performance culture, if we focus more on managing performance support than being clinical about consequences and creating anxiety.

In conclusion, the choice is not between a culture that breeds fear or complacency but one which demands accountability even as it supports and nurtures delivery, without a daily reminder of the consequences. While death is very real, I think it is futile to remind anybody of it every day. It makes life sound worthless with little to look forward to the next day.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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