EXPECTING HIGHER PERFORMANCE?
LOWER YOUR TOLERANCE FOR ANYTHING LESS.
By James McPartland
“Remember: we all get what we tolerate.”
One thing that my clients frequently hear me say is that “businesses don’t grow; people do”. What I mean by my statement is that business growth is really a reflection of the growth of the people within the organization. Real change starts from the inside on an individual level.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that most of us, no matter what position we hold, are highly unaware of our own incredible capabilities and capacity for change. We create self-limiting beliefs almost unconsciously, often blaming exterior factors for many shortcomings in our own performance. We then defend this condition as “just the way it is”, the upper ceiling of what’s possible in the status quo. Just as the saying, “what you see is what you get”, what you fight for is what you get to keep.
Another way of putting it is that we all get what we tolerate. And quite often, what we tolerate in business are mediocre results. “This is as good as it’s going to get… We tried.” This is an attitude that starts at the top. It is those of us in positions of leadership who are 100% responsible for anything less than desirable results.
As business leaders, it’s imperative for us to recognize that to create any real, long-lasting change within our organizations, we must first take a hard look in the mirror and see what needs to change within ourselves. Often, it’s the tolerance level in ourselves that must be lowered before the performance level of our organization can be raised.
This means paying attention to the little things, setting a high standard, assuming the best of our people, and modeling the same conduct we expect to see from others.
WHAT ARE YOU TOLERATING?
Recently I was reminded of what happens when those of us at the top fail to hold ourselves accountable for the poor performance of the organization.
A long-term successful client, a CEO I’ll call “Charles”, has a sales team that ordinarily met or exceeded their goals every month. But this time they were struggling to meet their numbers. At first glance, it wasn’t obvious as to why this was occurring. Had the team suddenly experienced a dip in their capabilities? Had their competitors seized more of the market share? Was there some other external factor they had not anticipated impacting their bottom line?
What was going on here?
After examining the books going back several months, a pattern arose that would have been clear to anyone looking closely enough at the numbers. Rather than telling him outright, I asked him, “Have you thought about tightening your tolerances?”
When he reviewed the numbers over time, Charles suddenly saw the bigger picture. A small portion of the team was made up of rockstar sellers, consistently exceeding their quotas and making enough extra sales to cover the numbers for the rest. But this meant that the vast majority was practically riding on the coattails of these top producers from month to month. No one was holding the lesser performers accountable for their individually missed quotas because the sales division as a whole generally met their goals.
Now, I wasn't trying to make him feel bad, but ultimately this was a failure from the top, because the leadership neglected to hold everyone accountable. What his team was doing was a reflection of what he was doing himself. When things would get out of hand, he’d often take over or cover for other people, rather than remind them to rise and accomplish what they said they would. Granted, sometimes this is a difficult conversation. But as Harvard Business Review writer Gary P. Pisano asserts in The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, “When it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time.”
Left unchecked, the long-term ramifications of this type of tolerance will ripple outward. If we don’t do what we say we’re going to do, all the stakeholders involved are impacted — shareholders, suppliers, and customers. It’s a cascading chain reaction. And while it may seem like a “little thing” for Charles to have overlooked at the time, if tolerance of this behavior continued, it would chip away at the health of the company and everyone involved in their business relationships.
THE “LITTLE THINGS” MATTER
Charles couldn’t just blame matters on his sales staff. It was he and the other company leaders who had let their sellers underperform for months without stepping in. And it all started with letting the “little things” go by without intervention.
In the Inc.com article, Want to Build a High-Performing Team? Focus on Nurturing This One Aspect of Your Culture, marketing strategist Sonya Thompson discusses the importance of not letting the “little things” go by. She describes her experience taking tango lessons at Buenos Aires’s DNI Tango, whose instructors took it upon themselves to correct even the smallest deviations from perfect form. Thompson points out, “their instructors take such great pride in their students' success, that they don't just teach and correct major concepts that will bring the biggest results. They care enough to address the minuscule details as well that enable their students to perform at a higher level. When you create a culture that raises the standard of excellence, you set the stage for everyone on the team to elevate their performance to align with that standard.”
The Work That Gets Done When No One is Watching
But of course, it’s not just tango that this concept applies to. Thompson goes on to describe how mega-success, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expresses a similar sentiment in regard to the corporate world. In a shareholder’s letter in 2017, Bezos characterizes the high-performance culture at Amazon as follows: “… a culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company. I'm talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward - it's part of what it means to be a professional.”
And where does this culture come from? As always, it starts at the top. If we haven’t set the stage for peak performance, or properly defined the benchmarks and tools for success to our team members, it’s a failure of leadership. As Thompson urges, “Set a clear vision for the performance standards you want your team to live into. Show them what good looks like, then train and support them on developing the skills needed to operate at that level.”
Yes. Ultimately, it’s the leadership who tightens tolerances by setting high expectations – but that can only happen if a large degree of trust exists in that very leadership.
CREATING TRUST BY SETTING A HIGH STANDARD
So how does leadership create that trust?
First of all, it's not just a platitude to say that there is a direct correlation between organizational trust and organizational performance. Sue Bingham writes extensively about this in her Harvard Business Review article, If Employees Don’t Trust You, It’s Up To You to Fix It. She references The Speed of Trust author Stephen M.R. Covey, who asserts, “When trust goes down (in a relationship, on a team, in an organization, or with a partner or customer), speed goes down and cost goes up…The inverse is equally true: When trust goes up, cost goes down, and speed goes up.”
Bingham argues that as leaders, to win trust we must assume the best of people. Part of modeling that is to refrain from micromanaging, yet still set clear expectations. She says teams perform better when leaders “give challenging assignments with the clear and confident belief that your expectations will be met. And promote transparency. Don’t hide information based on the assumption that people will mishandle it.”
Had Charles expected the best of everyone, not just the top performers on the sales team, things might have turned out differently. In this case, transparency can go both ways. A component of the leadership’s transparency should have been to make the numbers of each team member part of the bigger conversation about sales goals, rather than allow the lesser performers to fly under the radar by only looking at the results of the team as a whole. And those who didn’t meet the benchmark should have then taken steps to bring themselves back into integrity and restore trust by getting back on course.
We don’t do anyone any favors by expecting less from ourselves or our teams. As Bingham concludes, “When managers demonstrate positive assumptions, employees respond in kind.”
Expect to Move Mountains
Now let me clarify by saying that I’m not talking about “cracking the whip” or being a micromanager. As the only behavior you have absolute control over is your own, I’m talking about modeling the change you wish to see in your people and assuming the best of them. Assume that they are capable of growing and meeting the challenge.
I think it’s important to swing for the fences here. What are we really all capable of? “Tightening a tolerance” can sometimes feel like stretching outside their comfort zone for those who are asked to perform at a higher level. Are we brave enough to aim for a result that may seem out of reach? If we truly believe we have hired the best and the brightest, shouldn’t we expect them to excel? Can we not move mountains?
Ph.D. Jim Taylor puts it perfectly in his Psychology Today article Business: Change Your Performance Mindset, stating that “the benefits of raising the bar on your performance mindset are significant. If you fully embrace a performance mindset that aims for unreasonable growth and spectacular success, you will be motivated to do the extra work necessary to realize that mindset. As your efforts are rewarded, your confidence will soar and you will experience the emotional rewards of reaching beyond your grasp: inspiration, excitement, pride.”
Clear expectations coupled with a strong belief in your staff’s capabilities pay off every time. As I always say, businesses don’t get stuck; people do. A company cannot grow without progressing its people. And if we’ve hired people based on the unique gifts we see they can bring to the world, shouldn’t we give them every opportunity to grow and do so?
Shouldn’t we also expect this from ourselves?
SETTING THE EXAMPLE YOURSELF
I believe in personal responsibility at all levels. I wouldn’t expect of anyone on my team anything that I’m not prepared to expect of myself. And that starts with an unforgiving look in the mirror.
Anything you are confronted by is worth studying. That mirror is a tough judge of character, and if there is anything in that reflection I don’t like, I know there’s something to be learned. If I ever catch myself defending certain aspects of myself or my organization, it’s typically a clear sign that there’s an opportunity here to grow and become better.
But as most things in life, this takes consistent practice. In my own personal pursuit to be the very best I can be, I have to ask myself difficult questions like, what things in my life do I find myself complaining about? In my relationships? My career? My community? I’ve come to learn the hard truth that if I find myself constantly griping about something and not doing anything about it, then I get to own it. In life and in business, I get to keep what I tolerate, and so do all of us.
We as leaders should regard ourselves as 100% responsible for everything that happens in our business. But trust that there’s enormous power in that, because if we don’t like what we see, we are indeed capable of changing it at any step of the way.