Sustaining optimum performance through Personal Mastery

September 11, 2015


This article is about exploring an answer to a question commonly asked by many executive teams around the world, how can we sustain optimum performance for our companies?  Achieving optimum performance is not that difficult.  Companies achieve this all the time.  However, what remains elusive to many companies is sustaining that level of performance over an extended period of time.  We all know the saying, it is easy to reach the top, but it is hard to stay there.


 For companies to operate at optimum performance level certain factors must be addressed.  Generally, these factors are grouped into two major categories: system and human.  System factors include: clarity of company objectives, effectiveness of business processes, soundness of policies, suitability of the physical environment, and availability of effective tools, to name a few.  Some of the human factors are knowledge and skills of the workforce, effectiveness of leadership and level of motivation.


The Problem:


Of all these factors, employees’ motivation has been identified as having the most direct impact on company’s performance.  Many leadership books have addressed this subject in great detail.  However, the principles described in these books are seldom applied in an effective manner.  Sadly, most companies still resort to applying the punishment and reward system as the primary tool for motivating their employees, even though its ineffectiveness has been demonstrated time and again.  


The fact  is that companies are living organisms yearning to thrive and wanting to live and grow, and what brings life to companies are the employees who serve them. These employees are human beings driven to satisfy certain emotional needs, not a mere collection of people whose behavior can be manipulated by applying external forces.  One of the powerful forces that motivate people is the need to grow. To the vast majority of us, a career job is not just a means to generate income, but more importantly a means to learn, grow and fulfill our dreams. Since we were children, we were encouraged to dream. The sky is the limit, we were told by our parents and teachers.  We were encouraged to choose a profession that gives us fulfillment and allows us to express ourselves.  But, when our jobs do not seem to provide us the opportunity to fulfill our dreams, our motivation level drops and consequently our performance drops along with it.  We become occupied with the thoughts that this job is trapping us, and after a period of time, we start contemplating leaving the company for another that promises better opportunities for growth. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found  that the number one reason employees leave their jobs is “better career opportunity,” which is a code word for “my company is limiting my personal growth.” 


The impact of employees’ turnover:


The direct impact of employees’ turnover on companies’ finances is obvious, but what is not obvious is the severity of the impact on the performance.  The impact on performance becomes obvious when we trace the consequences of each of the chain of events that normally follow. System thinking teaches that events are connected to each other as part of a larger system.  Each event will impose some effect on other parts of the system, and that certainly applies to the events triggered by employees’ turnover. 


When an employee resigns from a job, the company takes action to find a replacement.  But, since the process of hiring a replacement takes a long period of time, companies tend to reassign the responsibilities of the resigning employee to others on either a temporary or permanent basis.  This action increases the workload of these employees, many of whom may already be feeling that their in-trays are already full.   Consequently, their level of focus becomes scattered between the old and newly assigned tasks, and the result is a delay in completing the work, a drop in the quality of the finished products, or a combination of both.  This alone is a strike against the company performance, which is likely to negatively impact the bottom line.


Furthermore, the slightest remark by the employees’ supervisors about the drop in the quality of their work would make the employees feel defensive and starts a demoralizing vicious cycle of finger pointing and blame.  Feeling that their supervisors’ remark is unjust, these employees will start complaining among themselves, pointing fingers at the company management, accusing them that they are disconnected from their needs.  The mere discussion of this subject will create negative energy and will further compound frustration. Employees become discouraged and demotivated, and the consequence of this is a lower level of performance.  Bingo, the company performance has suffered another blow.  But the story does not end here.


The process of finding a replacement diverts precious time and energy that could have otherwise been spent focusing on important performance improvement tasks, such as improving customer satisfaction.  Furthermore, the customers who were being served by the resigning employees will now have to endure the inconvenience of adjusting to new employees handling their accounts, and that, of course, creates a feeling of resentment among the customers which translates to lower customers’ satisfaction.  Hence, for at least that period of time, the company performance takes yet another hit.


Reducing employees’ turnover has rarely been viewed by companies as a lucrative performance improvement opportunity.  Some companies review employees’ turnover statistics periodically, but conclude that this is just part of the nature of doing business; nothing that can be done about it.  Other companies use these numbers as a measure of employee’s satisfaction, but when the numbers do not show improvement, they get puzzled about why their efforts are not making any significant impact on improving employee’s satisfaction.  “We tried everything,” they comment with frustration, “we increased the number of meetings we hold with our employees, we gave generous recognition to their contribution, we offered them flexible working hours, and we even rewarded them with bonuses.”   All these standard approaches companies employ to tackle this issue are not going to work, because none of them address the root cause of the problem.  Yet, we find that companies keep going back to them again and again hoping that they will eventually work.

 The root cause of the problem is not a mystery. Employees have been stating it repeatedly during their exit interviews (this company is limiting my growth).  Therefore, it stands to reason that if companies want to eliminate the root cause, they must learn to harness this powerful intrinsic motivational force all employees hold in their hearts.  But how can companies do that?


The solution:


In his book, the Fifth Discipline, Dr. Peter Senge introduced Personal Mastery as a core learning discipline that addresses the root cause of this stubborn problem, detailing the benefits as well as the implementation process. 


The idea of adopting Personal Mastery at the workplace does not seem alien or strange for “A striking number of business people tell us that of all the learning disciplines, they are most drawn to personal mastery” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, p.193).  Further, “managers often turn to Personal Mastery because they are weary of traditional forms of motivation” (ibid., p.199).   I have been involved in a number of performance improvement initiatives, none of which had more lasting positive effect on employees’ performance as the implementation of “Personal Mastery”.


If Personal Mastery holds such a great potential for improving performance, why then do we not  see companies rushing to adopt it?  The answer can be found when we examine some of the prevailing mental models.


  • Personal Mastery is soft:

The saying “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is often echoed in strategy planning meetings companies hold, and as a result, a suggestion to include Personal Mastery as a strategic performance improvement initiative gets silenced quickly.  Personal Mastery is viewed as something “soft …..  No one will ever be able to measure to three decimal places…” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline, p.146).  Though this might be true, so are customer and employee satisfaction.  In fact, there are many other performance improvement initiatives undertaken by companies that can also be classified as “soft”—training is just one example—yet, we find ways to measure them.  Admittedly, some of the measures we use may not accurately reflects the true effectiveness of these initiative, nonetheless we dedicate considerable resources to these initiatives and use these measures even though they are imperfect. Why then do we not do  the same with Personal Mastery?  Is it, perhaps, because companies don’t believe that Personal Mastery adds value to the performance of the company?


  • Personal Mastery can’t survive Cynicism:


The second form of resistance to Personal Mastery is “cynicism” (ibid., p.146).   Indeed, cynicism is a destructive force that threatens the very survival of companies who are plagued by it.  But like all other emotions, both cynicism and its counter-part, optimism, are natural human reactions to external events when they are perceived as having some sort of an impact on our lives.  When an event such as the launching of a new performance improvement initiative is announced, each employee will go through a quick mental evaluation as to its effect on his or her personal well-being, and will emotionally respond differently. Those who have gone through previous failed attempts to implement similar initiatives will certainly react with cynicism.  Others who have experienced previous successes will respond with excitement and optimism.


To succeed in implementing Personal Mastery, we must first accept that cynicism is a legitimate force of resistance to change.  Any implementation plan for a Personal Mastery initiative must include action steps to win the buy-in of the employees who hold cynical attitudes towards such initiatives.  Most implementation plans shy away from confronting cynicism.  Ignoring or trying to marginalize the cynics will undoubtedly result in hardening their attitude even further; they might even take active steps to undermine the initiative, thus increasing the likely hood of its failure.  And of course, the failure of the initiative will reinforce the belief among the cynics that triggered their cynicism in the first place—a self-fulfilling prophecy.


  • Personal Mastery is a threat to the established order:


The third form of resistance comes from some who fear that “personal mastery will threaten the established order of a well-managed company” (ibid., p.146).  I suggest that this fear is unwarranted, yet it must not be ignored.  


Encouraging employees to develop and pursue their own personal vision will unlikely result in any act of disruption or insubordination.  Employees who possess deep aspirations to learn and grow will not want to violate the established order of the company for they are sensible enough to know that any such act will hinder their career growth opportunities and may even result in their dismissal from the company.  On the contrary, these employees will develop stronger desire and deeper commitment to help their companies to achieve their goals because they know that the success of the company will reflect  their own personal success.


Nonetheless, like in the case of cynicism, the Personal Mastery implementation plan must also include action steps to guide employees to ensure that their personal visions align with the company shared vision.


My Personal experience with Personal Mastery Implementation


Perhaps one of the successes I enjoyed during my 27 year career journey with my previous company was the implementation of Personal Mastery.  My passion for Personal Mastery started around 2004 after my first exposure to personal development—when I first read The Seven Habits of highly successful people, by Steven Covey.   When the Learning Organization initiative was launched in the company, I was among the first who jumped to join the implementation team.   Finally, Personal Mastery was no longer something you practice when you are not at  work.  The upper management support to the Learning Organization initiative gave legitimacy to my efforts to promote Personal Mastery. 


Previously, the young professionals were totally relying on their supervisors to develop their career plans, partly because they did not know how to do it, and partly because they had the limiting belief that they had no say in designing their career.  The prevailing mental model was that this is a job of the supervisors.  The process of developing the career plans was done halfheartedly.  Mostly, it was an exercise of cut and paste from readily developed templates, or from copies of previously developed plans.   The whole exercise was performed in a mechanical way, and the objective became just to satisfy the company requirement that each employee must have a development plan.  Unfortunately, the exercise produced nothing more than a piece of paper that was placed in the employees’ personal files and in many cases were not even shared with them.


I started conducting short presentations to our young professionals summarizing the key concept of the discipline.  Later, I developed a three day workshop to help our young professionals craft a vision for their personal and professional life.  I used the creative tension model as the primary guide for the course content. The workshop walked the young professionals through a step-by-step process to create their vision, describe their current reality, define their career goals, identify their limiting beliefs, and develop an action plan.  Part of the workshop was to help them find alignment opportunities between what they hoped to accomplish in their vision and their department goals and objectives.


When the Career Development Department noticed the positive impact of the workshop on the attitude and performance of the young professionals, they requested that I conduct the workshop for all young professionals throughout the company.  The results were spectacular to say the least.  For the first time, the young professionals felt they had a say in designing their own career plans.   They became more involved in shaping their own career, and took personal responsibility for their own development.  Their belief that they can have a bright career in the company soared.


Concluding Statement


Companies are living organisms, not mere structures erected solely to produce products or offer services.  It is not the infrastructure of the company that gives greatness to the company.  The greatness of companies stems from the greatness of the people who are employed within them.  Once we acknowledge that employees are people—mind, body and spirit—driven by their own aspirations, dreams, and irresistible desires to grow and flourish,  then we realize that a sustained optimum performance for companies can only be achieved through focusing on the growth of their people.


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