What is Human Performance Leadership… and why every organization should care

November 15, 2022

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
A leader stood at the point of a human pyramid

Many of us in the world of work face major challenges to wellbeing and mental health. Organizations are also, in the wake of a world-shaking pandemic, facing some huge economic influences that are likely to change the face of many societies. In many leading economies, significant shortfalls in productivity and employee engagement had already been recognised before our world was turned upside down by a virus.

These various challenges make very poor siblings. The typical response to economic pressures like these is to drive for higher outputs, seek greater efficiency, encourage increased economic activity and squeeze costs.

Consider the impact of that little collection on levels of engagement and wellbeing. Consider the combined impacts they might have on stress levels, anxiety, uncertainty and workloads. How well will everyone perform under those pressures?

The proposition behind Human Performance Leadership is that we need to cultivate a more balanced view of what ‘performance’ really looks like and what enables it.

Optimum, not more

It can’t just be about ‘more’ or about achieving the maximum. What we need is ‘better’ and ‘optimum’ – and with a focus on the human and the way our leadership encourages – or reduces – morale, motivation, creativity and alignment.

If leaders fail to recognize this, they will sacrifice the goodwill and engagement of their best people, face a plethora of absences and behavioural issues and ultimately lose their talent to other, more enlightened, employer competitors.

Some might think it must be one of those Human Resources initiatives, while others might brush it aside as just another collection of buzzwords. Some may even dismiss it as just another way of re-packaging the same old ideas in some new (Emperor’s) clothes. But we believe anyone thinking that will be making a mistake.

The most powerful form of motivation

Research over many years has shown that the relationship between anyone and their immediate manager is one of the most powerful levers that any organisation has available to them to enable optimum performance.

It has been proven over and over again that the most powerful form of motivation is intrinsic – you cannot force someone to be engaged or to give their absolute best efforts – they have to choose to do so. Their feelings about line manager and team will greatly influence that choice, as will organizational and local culture.

Many organizations respond to that realization by using simplistic levers such as an incentive scheme or bonus system – evidently believing that you can simply buy such motivation and commitment – despite the huge body of evidence that illustrates the negative impacts and short lifespan of such approaches.

Some leaders may employ coercive influences to highlight and punish those who do not meet the desired standards, even when they themselves are a major contributor to that underperformance. Neither of those approaches is sustainable and neither represents leadership good practice, particularly in a post-pandemic context.

Behaviour, capability and wellbeing: get the balance right

We’ve spent the last year or so researching and defining what we think is a better, more human and more contemporary approach. This is what we call Human Performance Leadership.

It revolves around understanding the correlation between three very significant influencing factors: Behaviour, Capability & Wellbeing. The impacts of getting the balance between those factors right will show up in the way people and efforts are aligned and engaged with strategic intent, the culture that is created, the mental health and performance-readiness of teams and individuals and the levels of capability that are present in everyone – but particularly in our leaders & managers.

Now, taken individually none of those factors is really new and it may all seem relatively normal.

The trouble is: these things are typically the province of different functions and are hardly ever considered together. Furthermore, they are typically poorly understood anyway and are often addressed piecemeal by broad-brush initiatives and policies.

The performance ‘waterfall effect’

What our work in the last year has identified is that the nuances of the inter-relationship between these factors are far more significant than was previously thought. It all has what is effectively a waterfall effect.

Behaviour – particularly leader and manager behaviour – has significant impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of those in the vicinity. Mental health and wellbeing in turn act as a handbrake on performance, limiting what can be achieved and diverting mental resources away from creative thinking and problem solving. Worry, anxiety and stress turn the person’s focus inwards, limiting their ability to function well and often causing damage to relationships… which then erodes capability, engagement, behaviour and performance even further.

The prevailing leadership approach at every level creates the culture in which people operate and function, dictating their sense of community, teamwork, inclusion and priorities – and therefore their morale and the levels of intrinsic motivation that enable performance.

And so it continues in a spiral that either goes downwards or if properly understood and considered, upwards.

A leadership issue

Many organisations seem to believe that they can address the challenges they face in wellbeing and poor mental health with box ticking – bike sheds, fruit bowls, muesli, bean bags. It is, of course, a start – but by some huge distance ignores the most crucial point.

How do your people actually feel? That is shaped by the culture, their line manager, the jobs they do, the sense of team they experience, the pride they feel in the organisation’s vision, impacts and intentions. So many factors that can’t be solved with a few bananas.

This is, in its absolute essence, a leadership issue. It isn’t an initiative, an HR objective or a side-project that can be dished out to a department, team or individual.

The leadership of Human Performance must be recognized as a strategic imperative by the very highest levels of management, who must establish it as a priority for every other level. It must inform strategic plans and goals. It must be measured and influenced by the shaping of leadership capability, approach and culture.

So the big questions are:

Where do you think your organization would stand if you were to analyse, evaluate and benchmark your HPL?

Would it be an exemplar? Would it score highly? Would results be good in every area of the organization?

In part 2 of this blog to be published next week, I will explore those final questions and look at how we believe an organization or team might practically evaluate their current position and identify development opportunities.


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