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Why Performance Improvement is an Uphill Battle

By Paul Johnson

1,190 words. Abstract: Performance improvement can be easy when you avoid your uphill battles. Get past the three myths that are thwarting the success of you and your team.

Who doesn’t get frustrated once in awhile? Either we’re disappointed with our own failure to achieve a goal, or with the failure of someone else we were counting on to perform.

  • We work hard and achieve a deadline, but we know the quality of our work has fallen short.
  • We’re counting on someone to hit their sales target, but revenues will fall short… again.
  • We’ve shown someone over and over how to do something new, but they just don’t “get it.”

Many of us are challenged with the performance improvement of someone, whether that someone is someone else or ourselves. If you’re frustrated in your efforts to reach goals, perhaps you need a better plan for achieving results.

While many factors affect performance improvement, one subtle aspect is often overlooked. By recognizing and managing this aspect, you have an opportunity to avoid the frustration and wasted effort that otherwise occurs. This may be your chance to avoid repeating the same failure-inducing mistake over and over again.

Stop Mything Out

Three myths stand in the way of recognizing and applying a solution. The first myth is the common promotion of the idea that education and skill-building results in success. While those factors are important, we need to accept that learning a topic does not mean you’re assured of applying it successfully, especially in a competitive environment. Going to a training class will help you gain additional skills, but at some point performance improvement plateaus regardless of how much training is received. Yes, education and training support success, but there is more.

The second myth is that hard work is necessary for success. Instead, I contend that most people work too hard but don’t practice enough. If the work is hard, I suggest you may be wasting your efforts on the wrong work. On the other hand, when you find work that is fun and easy for you, continual practice will lead to higher and higher levels of performance improvement. Your practice must be focused on work that is right for you. Work easy and practice hard.

The third myth is that people assume that people who succeed in one area know how to succeed in them all. We see this all the time when people get promoted. Those that fail to achieve in their new roles are scrutinized for their failures. We wonder what’s wrong with them, when there may be nothing wrong with them at all. It’s silly to assume anyone can be good at everything we ask of them. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it IS hard to say “no” when presented with an “opportunity.”

Picture the Perfect Pachyderm

One key insight can help us resolve all these myths and help us understand where and how performance improvement is truly possible. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it really comes from nature. I guess we could call it a big idea, because I learned it from studying elephants.

These days you rarely hear the words “war” and “elephant” in the same sentence. Yet War Elephants were an important combat tool in Asia and the Mediterranean centuries ago. Armies would enlist elephants to participate in the charge against the enemy to instill fear and breakup their lines. And fearful the enemy should be. Unlike horses, elephants have no reservations about trampling humans. Their thick skins made them relatively difficult to wound with common weapons of the time, and their strength allowed them to carry armor to make that possibility even more remote. Then, to literally top things off, soldiers would strap a mini-fort, called a howdah, to the top of the elephant. Here, a handful of archers could reside with a birds-eye view of their opponents.

Many of us have heard of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He is noted for taking his army over the Alps to attack the Roman Empire from the north in a surprise attack. In addition to 40,000 troops, Hannibal brought several dozen War Elephants to Europe to traverse the Alps. Unfortunately, Hannibal wasn’t aware of a significant shortcoming of elephants.

Find the Fate-ful Flaw

We can’t really blame Hannibal for this knowledge shortfall, because he never had a chance to meet Professor Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University. Professor Vollrath’s research team did a study on African elephants, using global positioning system (GPS) devices to track elephants crossing the savannas. They discovered that elephants “don’t do hills.” Elephants routinely avoid any types of slopes and hills, as even minor hills make them really hungry. Elephants only eat vegetation, and they need lots of it. Climbing hills requires a significant boost in calorie consumption and that means finding lots more to eat. The researchers reported, “Climbing 100 meters [@300 ft] would burn [2,500 calories] which would have to be either replenished by an extra half hour of foraging or paid for by using up body reserves.”

Now imagine you’re Hannibal, trying to get dozens of elephants over mountains not hundreds, but thousands of feet high. The elephants see the slopes and their instincts tell them not to climb them, but their human handlers drive them forward. Then they get hungry because there’s not enough food growing on the mountain slopes. And a ticked-off elephant has no reservations about trampling people. THAT must have been a fun journey. Sadly, all but a handful of elephants died crossing the Alps.

Role with the Flow

The lesson that elephants (and other animals) can teach us is this: humans are versatile, but no one is good at everything. Performance improvement comes easiest when a human who is “wired” to succeed in a specific endeavor is placed in that role.

  • We know Michael Jordan as a phenomenal performer in basketball, yet he was much less impressive in a baseball uniform no matter how much hard work and practice he was willing to perform.
  • We saw Susan Boyle become an “overnight success” at the age of 47 on the “Britain’s Got Talent” contest. She owned the stage once given the opportunity to demonstrate the gifts and abilities she has owned all her life.
  • I bet we can all name our own examples of people who have taken advantage of every education and training opportunity presented to them, yet are still identified with mediocre performance and lackluster results.

Hopefully that’s not you. Or maybe it is.

Don’t Do Hills

Your uphill battle may not be going literally uphill as it is for elephants. Yet we each face our own challenges. Some of these challenges we were never designed to overcome. When a task seems like an uphill battle to you, consider that maybe, just maybe, you were never intended to do it. Instead, find those tasks which come easy to you, where learning is easy and practice is fun. Aim for performance improvement in those areas where you are “wired” to do well.

We each have our own unique set of gifts, talents and abilities. It may be hard to find them in yourself and in other people but, when you do, results will come fast and success will be easy.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About the author
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who describes his approach to transformational leadership at http://TroubleBreaker.com. He enables companies to achieve breakthrough growth and team performance improvement at http://ShortcutsToResults.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When did you say “Yes” to an “opportunity” when later you discovered you should have said “No, thanks”?

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