Outstanding performance? It’s all in the mind

How would you define “performance”? Getting stuff done according to plan, cost and time is usually the answer. Management theory used to be based on the practical, measurable outcomes of a job – getting people to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible and with as little expense and as much accuracy as possible.

But today we make greater demands on people’s creativity. The routine roles have been delegated to machines with a far greater capacity for repetition and accuracy than humans. We now constantly ask people to be imaginative, to think outside the square to be innovative and agile. We expect them to dig deep and to perform at their maximum whenever they are at work. Problem solving, creative thinking, critical analysis are on-going activities in the workplace and they place high demands on people.

But what does it take to perform at maximum capacity? How can leaders support their teams to deliver consistently above expectations? Massey’s Dr Patricia Bossons explains that research into the workings of the brain have revealed some interesting facts. “The brain, though not a muscle, has the ability to develop through use. For example, in order to improve one’s memory, one can train the brain to develop its memory zone (the hippocampus).” Repetition helps to carve out neural pathways and extension exercises helps to define new pathways. Most areas of the brain can be trained to improve, or to shut down, as needed.

Although the brain is a wonderfully flexible instrument that can adapt and grow, it also has some very primitive functions and in many cases these functions still have an impact on human behavior. We still refer to “fight, flight or freeze” reactions when faced with a threatening situation. Although there may no longer be sabre-toothed tigers on the prowl the brain initiates such reactions when faced with highly stressful situations from any source – even in the workplace, even from your boss or your colleagues.  Bossons explains that the “panic reaction”, in neuroscientific terms, occurs when one’s amygdala lurches into action and overpower the activity of other parts of the brain. Under such circumstances people revert to the most primitive instincts, and none of “fight, flight or freeze” encourage productive workplace performance. Those three instincts have subsequently expanded to include “tend and befriend” which is a more typical female reaction to external stressors. Either way the person in a state of stress needs someone who can help them to put their amygdala into neutral and work with them to contextualise the situation and re-focus on the solution, not the problem.

Only when the amygdala is under control and the person has access to their whole brain can they be expected to perform optimally. They need to be in a position of psychological safety, they need to feel a sense of well-being and confidence. Agility comes from a base of stability.

The brain, though wonderful, cannot simultaneously tolerate activity in its emotional and its task-focused areas. We have to prioritise one or the other, we cannot pay attention to both at the same time. But this does not mean we need to be victims of our socio-emotional cortex or be slaves to a task-focused orientation, convenient though that may be. Agility in action requires agility in mind, where people can switch quickly and frequently between the task and the emotional content of a situation in order to maintain a perfect balance and to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Leaders have an important role to play in ensuring that their demands for innovation and excellence are matched by an environment in which people feel confident, secure and able to perform at their best. Executive coaching is one of the best techniques for identifying and solving performance challenges in the workplace. Through coaching (and in particular through creating a coaching culture) we can help people to become unstuck in tricky situations, to feel that they are able to perform well and to give them the tools to better use the power of their whole brain to excel at what they do.

Listen to Dr Patricia Bossons discussing Neuroscience and Coaching, a user’s manual to the brain.

Well Formed Outcomes Use this tool to help define better outcomes for yourself. Outcomes help you think beyond goals to the ultimate ahcievement.

Patricia Bossons is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and has worked in Executive Education as a leadership development specialist, business psychologist and executive coach throughout her career.

She has recently taken up the role of Director of Executive Qualifications at Massey Business School, Massey University, NZ. Before this, she was the founder, and Director, of the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School, UK.

Patricia is currently designing and developing qualification programmes in this field at the professional master’s level for delivery in New Zealand through Massey Business School.



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