Drive Cutting-Edge Progress by Improving Inner Engagement
Chapter One: The Peak Performance Principle
What if a company supported its employees focusing on increasing their experiential involvement in their current work scenario instead of being preoccupied with the bottom line? The likely outcome is that productivity, well-being, and quality in all parts and processes of the company would gradually and simultaneously increase.
In the games of life, where should we focus?
Most businesses these days proudly state that they are "results-driven." The primary emphasis is on productivity and financial goals. Sometimes there is a secondary emphasis on quality. There is very seldom any emphasis on the fulfillment, health, and well-being of employees.
However, emphasizing results or the bottom-line scoreboard can adversely affect employee well-being. By focusing on results without a balanced attention to well-being, employees may produce a great deal during a long work crunch, yet burn out in the process. So focusing on results, frequently touted by organizations as a kind of overall 'best practice', does not guarantee optimal employee well-being or even long-term productivity.
Moreover, focusing on productivity, or the bottom line, as a measure of what was completed during some previous period of time such as a quarter of a year, is actually a lagging indicator. It provides some limited feedback on how well previous work was done, but actually distracts us from immediate feedback on how work is currently being done. Focusing on results might be likened to driving by looking in the rear-view mirror. Being preoccupied with previous results leaves us out of touch with what's happening right now--information and perceptions that are essential for real-time improvement of performance. As Kenneth Blanchard asked in Managing By Values, when you're playing tennis, what kind of results can you expect if you keep focused on the scoreboard--measuring profit or ‘results’--rather than the ball? (Blanchard, p. 49)
To improve our performance in real time, we obviously need a real-time, instant-by-instant connection with what's going on around us. How else can we immediately and continuously adjust to change? And what can possibly provide this feedback except our own immediate experience? But oddly enough, our immediate experience seems to be the last 'place' where people focus when trying to improve their performance, let alone being valued as a field rich with opportunity, or even the best place to focus.
Is this because our cultures teach us to be externally oriented rather than making full use of our inner resources? Because work environments still foster a policy of “check your personal life at the door?” Because people don’t understand how important it is for our productivity and our sense of fulfillment and well-being to be absorbed in what we’re doing? Because people don’t know the full range of experience culminating in complete involvement? Because we don’t know the methods or techniques needed to "get into the zone of peak performance?”
Even among those who are interested in the currently popular concept of engagement as a means of improving well-being and productivity, little value is put on what Peter Senge calls "the subtlest aspect of the learning organization—the new way individuals perceive themselves and their world." (Senge, p. 12) We tend to 'look past' our role in modeling and interpreting what's happening in our lives, presuming that what we see and think is just a 'faithful' or accurate representation of what's actually happening. However, our minds and senses prejudice and 'filter' reality, so our changing experiential field may hold tremendous opportunity for improvement.
Despite our preoccupation with the bottom line and other kinds of conventional measures, almost everyone knows that focusing on increasing inner engagement or involvement (see the definitions in the Introduction) is the natural way we 'buckle down' and 'get into it' when we have to get something done. By improving inner engagement, or involvement, you can very predictably move from one to the next of seven experiential states, representing increasing engagement: (1) avoiding the task, (2) holding back, (3) being resigned to doing it, (4) getting into it, (5) being involved, (6) being absorbed, and (7) being completely engrossed. Everyone this has been discussed with experiences progress the same way, in this natural progression from detachment toward peak experience and peak performance.
This way of ‘getting into’ one’s activities is a matter of common sense, but we may not be aware of the numerous (particularly nonpsychological) possibilities available in approaching the zone. So let's take a close look at the following example of some of the steps one can take to successfully improve involvement and productivity.
What are we naturally doing when we make progress?
Suppose you’re preparing a speech, and you’re really into it, very involved. You write down a few key ideas that you want to present, visualize yourself giving the speech, and check the list of ideas to see what is missing. You realize a few points are missing and write them down.
Then you feel a little puzzled about the order of the ideas. There’s some momentum to write more ideas down, and there’s also some motivation to feel the confusion. You are stuck and don’t know how to proceed. You look at the clock and wonder if you should take a break. You feel your involvement in the task decreasing, and consider ways to completely avoid the task.
You’ve reached what can be called a transition point where your productivity can either stop completely, or continue gradually and maybe even improve. You know that taking a break now would waste time. You’d still have to face things when you came back.
So you drop the distracting thinking about escapes and concentrate on the task again. You remember that you were confused about the order of ideas. You realize it was actually the confusion that you wanted to avoid. But this time you let yourself get confused. Your thoughts go back and forth about how to proceed, and then you get some insight on rearranging the ideas to be presented.
Now you’re really involved again. The work’s momentum picks up again and gradually accelerates beyond your productivity before the confusion arose. Now the writing really takes on a life of its own. Ideas come easily, and insights are frequent, surprising you again and again. The material seems completely original, coming out of thin air. You wonder at the spontaneity of the writing process and the value of the content written, and feel satisfied as you participate in this process.
Little bits of pride arise, and then, full of confidence, you congratulate yourself on your improved progress. You notice, however, that this self-congratulatory narrative has decreased your involvement and slowed down your work. The self-talk could continue, but you know the flow of the work would diminish. You also realize that congratulating yourself on “your” progress doesn’t make much sense, since it didn’t feel like “you” were the source of the flow when it was going so well. So you relax and let go of the pride, which clears your mind.
What facilitated these instances of improved work flow? Could we simplify and say that increasing productivity resulted from noticing the transition points where your experiential involvement could either increase or decrease, and from choosing a direction of increasing involvement? Isn’t this the natural, common sense way that we use to improve productivity without even thinking about it?
Increasing involvement is the secret of increasing productivity
In projects like this there seem to be countless opportunities for improving the degree to which we are absorbed in the current work scenario. As we deal with those that are obvious to us, before long we are presented with transition points that are more subtle.
Most books on time management and productivity improvement don't identify any particular 'best practice', and don't propose anything like what might be called a "peak performance principle." However, a strong case can be made that increasing involvement is the secret of increasing productivity. “Caring for our work, being really involved in it, is the secret of doing things well and of deriving satisfaction from whatever we do.” (Tarthang Tulku, Skillful Means, pp. 13-14.)
The object of the game: Approach peak performance by driving experiential involvement as high as you can
Is there a limit to how much our productivity can be improved in this way? Who knows? You can take this question as a challenge, and recognize that your workplace is a kind of playing field where, in a sense, you are the only player. As the object of the game, you can try to approach peak performance by driving involvement as high as you can. See whether you can reach ever higher levels of performance by getting completely into the task at hand. Improving inner, or experiential involvement (see the definition in the Introduction) seems to directly and immediately improve productivity.
At work, or afterwards, you can periodically recall your recent experience as if you were viewing a videotape replay, and look for ways in which you weren’t completely involved, just as tennis players look for ways to improve their stroke. If you felt any separation from work or the objects being worked on, if you weren’t completely swept up in the flow of work, or if your work space felt a bit emotional or heavy, you have identified a way to improve your game. This way of reviewing your recent experience and noting your level of involvement provides self-actualizing feedback (see the definition of self-actualization in the Introduction) useful in directly improving performance.
A high degree of experiential engagement implies (1) glow or awareness: a melding or identification of worker and objects worked on, (2) flow or unobstructed energy: an effortless flow of events, and (3) zero or spaciousness: an unrestricted sense of openness pervading the entire scenario (see Chapter Six on "The Zone"). At this high level of engagement you are approaching peak performance.
As we'll see in Chapter Two, many people find it helpful to graph their percentage of involvement over time. You can estimate the current percentage by comparing your involvement in the current scenario with the full range of your involvement in past experiences, work and otherwise. One hundred percent involvement means that you have been as absorbed in the current scenario as much as you had been in past experiences of greatest absorption in a situation. Fifty percent involvement means you have been half as involved as when you were most involved in something. Estimates are fine for the purpose of charting--don't try to somehow get the numbers 'right' or 'exact'. The real value of this kind of graphing is to become aware of opportunities for improvement and to be able to track the trend of involvement, rather than trying to identify some presumably accurate figure for the degree of involvement.
(continued in next column)
Table of Contents
Click on a heading to go to that part of the book.
Introduction: Definitions and Principles
Chapter 1: The Peak Performance Principle
Chapter 2: Case History--Monitoring a Transformational Variable
Chapter 3: A lab exercise--Sorting Cards into Books for Time
Chapter 4: Case History--Monitoring an Emotional Intelligence Variable
Chapter 5: General Four-step Approach to Accomplishment, Creativity, and Change
Chapter 6: What’s the Zone of Peak Experience and Performance?
Chapter 7: Building An Engagement Playing Field
Chapter 8: The Full Range of Our Engagement, or, "Who Are We, Anyway?"
Bibliography and References
(Chapter One continued from previous column)
Increasing involvement improves productivity and also well-being
At this point there may be a voice in the background asking “My company would benefit greatly from this, but what would I get out of it?” The answer to this is: your health and level of well-being should gradually, yet significantly improve.
Recall a time when you significantly improved your involvement in a work project by breaking through strong emotional resistance. When you broke through, wasn’t there an immediate change in the sense of well-being and satisfaction that you experienced? Was there a decrease in the feeling of being at the effect of things, or an increase in confidence? Did the breakthrough boost your overall outlook on life? The increase in well-being we experience during such breakthroughs seems proportional to the amount of emotional resistance transformed.
So measuring and tracking involvement in the current scenario is a powerful working principle that improves both productivity and well-being. This natural practice has the added benefit that it can be used while focusing on any task, as you switch between tasks, or even when there is no apparent task at hand.
Improving involvement improves quality of services and products
What if a company supported its employees focusing on increasing their experiential involvement in the current work scenario? The likely outcome is that productivity and well-being in all parts and processes of the company would gradually and simultaneously increase. But there’s another benefit: increasing quality.
Noticing your decreasing experiential involvement is the foundation for continuous quality improvement. What else triggers improving a work process except a transition point—conflict, unnecessary complexity, confusion, or wasted energy or effort? These disruptions in work flow are what draw attention to something that can be changed for the better. When something 'slows the flow', involvement in the work process is lessened in a particular way that can serve as a focus for inquiry into the nature of the blockage.
Similarly, defects in a product are discernible only by means of a decrease in our involvement when we are using or perceiving them. For example, a car is a high quality product when the driver can feel one with it. (Some years ago Volkswagen advertised that in contrast to other auto manufacturers that distinguished the driver from the auto, Volkswagen’s distinction as an auto manufacturer was that they considered the auto and the driver to be one.) If the steering mechanism of a race car is designed so that the driver usually feels somewhat out of control when making high-speed turns, this decrease in involvement indicates an opportunity for increasing quality. Whenever a product does not meet a customer’s need or expectation, the customer is upset, and cannot be 100% engrossed or appreciative when using the product.
Improving involvement improves productivity, well-being, and quality of services and products
So if a company encourages its employees to focus on increasing their involvement, the likelihood of continuous improvement of quality, well-being, and productivity is heightened. The practice of tracking involvement can be used anywhere and anytime, whereas conventional measures of productivity and quality are usually task- or process-specific. Conventional measures can and probably should still be used to measure progress, but if they are used along with the practice of tracking involvement, the tendency of employees to ignore their own well-being would be played out less frequently.
Management might fear that people would take advantage of this approach and use it as license to focus on self-improvement and personal satisfaction, causing a decrease in productivity. However, this objection, while natural, seems unfounded.
First of all, efforts to increase involvement often require letting go of personal desires and preferences. But more to the point, these efforts do not "improve the self," they require that we go beyond individual boundaries and merge with the work process. It seems we cannot reach this satisfaction we desire by approaching it as separate individuals. Any efforts along these lines would be frustrated, since the level of fulfillment in work seems to correspond precisely to the degree of freedom from boundaries.
Second, the objection that tracking involvement might cause a decrease in productivity may simply reflect business’s tactical rather than strategic approach to progress. Business seems to be in such a hurry to produce, to improve this quarter’s financial results, it can hardly see the possibility or importance of increasing employees’ work capacity, the average rate at which tasks can be accomplished while maintaining one’s level of well-being. Employees tend to be viewed mechanically, as if able to produce only at a certain fixed rate. However, it may be that at this point in history, significant changes in our productivity will result primarily from improving the work capacity of individuals. The quick technological fix may not be sufficient.
Work capacity can be increased by increasing experiential involvement in whatever we’re doing. If we confront conflict at transition points, work through the conflicts, and choose productive directions, we change. We gradually remove the resistance, emotional reactions, and habitual ways of acting that we carried from task to task. Our energy is no longer so divided, so we are more available for whatever we approach.
While it may be true that in the short run, focusing on improving involvement could lead to lower productivity, eventually whatever conflict preoccupied us at the transition points would be cleared up, and our work capacity would be greater, allowing us to accomplish everything thereafter at a faster rate. So it pays to adequately handle our conflicts and know that both we and the company will benefit in the long run. In this way we improve our quality as workers.
This peak performance principle works: Improving involvement improves productivity, well-being, work capacity, and quality of services and products. And employees don’t need to wait for management to create this kind of playing field. Although the results are probably more powerful when backed by management, employees can focus on tracking and improving involvement (an experiential goal, defined in Chapter One) and still be in the same ballpark as management focusing on conventional goals and measures of productivity and quality, since there is no contradiction between conventional and experiential measures.
So how can we best improve our productivity? This point in time seems to be challenging us as individuals to become aware of our limitations and discover new levels of involvement. By doing this, we can increase productivity, well-being, quality, and our work capacity all at once.