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The Secret to Sustaining High Job Performance

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How do you drive sustainably high job performance in an era of relentlessly rising demand?

Understandably, this question keeps countless leaders and managers up at night. It is also a challenge for any of us who feel compelled to become ever more accomplished without sacrificing excellence or our well-being.

The typical solution – put in more hours – won’t work anymore. The vast majority of salaried employees are already doing that, and many of them are paying a price that they are finding less and less acceptable. They are exhausted and often overwhelmed, and they deeply want to invest time in their families and the rest of their lives.

But what if people could simply be more efficient and productive during the time they are at work? What if there’s a win-win solution for employers and employees?

Being Your Best

The unspoken secret is that we show up at work each day with at least two selves. One serves us far better than the other, both as individual performers and as managers and leaders trying to get the highest productivity from our teams.

How you feel profoundly influences how well you perform at work. Think for a moment about the way you feel when you’re at your best. Take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, write “Best” at the top left column, and list a series of adjectives.

Next, on the right side of the page, write “Worst” at the top. What are the adjectives that describe how you feel under those circumstances?

With rare exceptions, clients tell us they perform best – and manage others more effectively — when they are feeling the adjectives in the left column. With remarkable consistency, they use the same words to describe this state: energized but also calm, enthusiastic, confident, optimistic and passionate.

Based on your two lists, is there any doubt that you perform better when those left-column adjectives describe the way you feel? Unfortunately, that’s not the way we feel all the time. Instead, we move along a spectrum between our two selves, depending on the demands we face on any given day and the interactions we have with others.

The Science of High Performance

The self that typically serves us best is regulated through our parasympathetic nervous system. That is when our prefrontal cortex – our thinking mind – runs the show. In this state, we’re capable of making choices logically and reflectively, and we tend to feel in reasonable control of our destiny.

Our second self is regulated by our sympathetic nervous system. The amygdala – a more primitive part of the brain — takes charge. This self is characterized by fight or flight. It takes over reactively and automatically when we’re feeling a sense of vulnerability and threat, most commonly to our sense of value and worthiness rather than to our actual survival.

In fight or flight, we focus narrowly on the threat at hand, seeking to restore safety at any cost. The more intense the threat, the more our prefrontal cortex shuts down, and the less we can think clearly and make intentional choices.

Most companies invest in building the skills of their employees. Few of them systematically invest in building people’s capacity to perform at their best.

The first step is learning to observe and recognize how we’re feeling at any given time, and then how to shift from the self that undermines our performance to the one that enhances it. This capacity is essential to all great performers, whether they’re athletes, musicians, surgeons or managers and leaders.

Meeting Core Needs

We feel better and perform better when four core energy needs are met: sufficient rest, including the opportunity for intermittent renewal during the work day; feeling valued and appreciated; having the freedom to focus in an absorbed way on the highest priorities; and feeling connected to a mission or a cause greater than ourselves.

Hard numbers confirm how powerful this can be. Working with The Harvard Business Review, we studied more than 20,000 employees around the world to find out:

– At the most basic physical level, employees who took intermittent breaks through the day reported 28 percent better focus and a 30 percent higher level of health and well-being.

– Feeling treated with respect made employees feel 55 percent more engaged and 110 percent more likely to stay at the company.

– Employees who felt the most recognized and appreciated were 100 percent more likely to stay with their organizations.

– Only one-fifth of respondents said they were consistently able to focus on one thing at a time at work, but those who did reported that they were 29 percent more engaged at work – and far more productive during the day.

– Employees with a leader who communicated a clear and inspiring vision were 70 percent more satisfied with their jobs and 100 percent more likely to stay at their organizations.

– Nearly 60 percent of employees we surveyed reported that not a single one of their four core needs was met at work.

– By contrast, employees who felt that all four needs were met were nearly twice as engaged and 200 percent less likely to leave their employers. 

At a time when nearly every company is looking for a way to get more out of fewer people, a huge reservoir of untapped capacity, loyalty, focus, engagement and higher performance is there for the taking. Systematically seek to meet the basic needs of employees, and they will bring vastly more of their potential and productivity to the job every day.

This post originally appeared on The New York Times DealBook.

Image Credit: Loeonardo Pallotta

Tony Schwartz  is the CEO and founder of  The Energy Project and bestselling author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, published in 2010. A frequent keynote speaker, Tony has also trained and coached CEOs and senior leaders at organizations including Apple, Google, Sony, the LAPD, and the Cleveland Clinic.

Check out 15Five’s latest eBook, The Uncertain Future of the Annual Performance Review: A Guide for your Company