There’s a positive mirroring effect when individuals grab hold of something to pursue because it’s important to them. People act, move and think in concert about ways to overcome obstacles and propel themselves forward towards this future. Even when they fight, they do so out of concern for the cause.

If you’ve been a part of a group that accomplished something remarkable, you know what this feels like. If you haven’t, well, there’s still hope.

I’ve been in this zone with groups twice in my 30-year corporate career. I feel fortunate to have caught this lightning in a bottle even once. The second time was a bonus. It was also the best because I understood the rarity and value at the moment more than those around me. I got to secretly savor the experience while others were living it for the first time.

In the fading view in the rear-view mirror, it’s easy to generalize about what created high-performance in those situations. No matter how hard you attempt to duplicate the ingredients in different settings, the outcome is never quite the same. It’s like making your Mom’s best coffee cake recipe from your childhood—it tastes good—but it’s never the same. Somewhere, there’s a missing ingredient.

4 Things that Don’t Generate High Performance:

1. Numbers don’t motivate. No one ever did anything genuinely extraordinary to make quarterly numbers or strengthen key performance indicators. Sure, there are occasional heroic efforts, but those are exceptions. In the case I’m describing, we’re talking about sustained heroic efforts, not one-offs.

2. Logical arguments or pleas fail to register. It’s reasonable to process on a big opportunity in a new market, but there’s nothing that tugs at the heartstrings here to motivate extraordinary performance.

3. Emotional pleas fall on deaf ears. Unless you hit an emotion that’s important to group members, it’s just a sad noise.

4. Command and control approaches don’t produce sustained high-performance. This approach might generate grudging good performance, but there’s a big gulf between good and great here.

The Basic Ingredients Essential for High Performance:

There are certainly some base ingredients that must be present for high performance to emerge. These include:

  • The right leadership for the situation
  • Values that mean something to people and are visible in the environment
  • The right agglomeration of personalities and skills
  • Absence of toxicity

All of these are essential, just like the primary ingredients in Mom’s coffee cake. Yet, without one—a cause that means something to everyone—success remains elusive.

The Cause Doesn’t Have to Be Life Altering

And while cause or clear and compelling purpose as it is often described sounds easy, it’s hard to bring to life.

Most might think that cause must be something profound. Save the planet. Save the whales. Save the pets.

Those are all wonderful causes. Yet, in our organizational settings, we’re often operating somewhere lower on the lofty scale than saving planets or even lives.

What’s interesting to me is that cause can be the spark of success even in environments or with products or services that are seemingly pedestrian. Roughly translated: your product or service doesn’t matter. I’ve observed teams sustain high performance while delivering software to manage data or hardware and software to manage restaurants.

It’s the people believing in the pursuit—whatever it is—that allows the cause to emerge as the final ingredient that promotes mirroring and the pursuit of success. Mom made her coffee cake to show her love for the family, not for the glory of making the world’s greatest coffee cake.

Everyone must agree that what they are doing in aggregate and as individuals matters.

No one does it for company glory. The logo on the business card doesn’t matter. Except when the logo means something to individuals united around a cause important to them.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m regularly asked how to create high-performance. The answer is simple. Get the right people, bake in the right values and provide the right leadership. Then, mix in the right cause and stir and support for a few years. It’s simple. Just not easy.

Art's Signature