To decode high performance, watch closely

My admittedly outlandish take on how practising managers can understand what makes high performers tick.

What does high-performance look like?

For someone who is already a high performer, the question is largely academic.

But what about those who aren’t at the top of the heap? The majority, I mean. For them, the answer is critical. Without it, how do they “up” their game? Some will use their imagination to decide what to do differently (work longer hours, drive their teams harder, put results over process, put process over results …). Others will stay frozen in current habits, thinking that high performance is the preserve of the naturally gifted. Both sound sub-optimal to me. Depressing even.

In an organisation, it is very hard to get an answer to this question. Say you wanted to know what a high-performing team leader does differently. Will you…
– Look at her achievements? That will tell you what “outcome” a high performer produces, not what a high performer does. It generates awe, not understanding.
– Ask her directly? She is likely to shrug and say “It’s hard for me to explain. I just go out there and do what I do”. Dead end, again.
– Ask to shadow her, so you can “see” how its done? Possible, if she doesn’t mind revealing her secret sauce. But it will involve long periods of waiting for “high performance” to occur. Very time consuming and irritating for both parties involved, as I discovered during some shadowing assignments.
– Study the competency model for this role? Could be a starting point, but chances are that your eyes will glaze over, after a few minutes. The long list of competencies can daunt anyone.

Could the answer be outside the organisation? In a forum supportive of your efforts to find the answer. Where high performers are doing what they do, and you get ringside seats to the action. Where you can press the pause button when you wish, and ask them “Wait Ms. High Performer… why did you do it that way?” Think intimate theatre taken to an extreme. Think after-match-press-conferences.

A strange possibility

Such a forum exists, but has been hiding in plain sight. It is the humble and much reviled Outbound Experiential program.

In the usual program, you are the “performer” and your actions are being “watched”. A facilitator does the “watching” initially and later helps you reflect upon (“watch”) whatever you did. An excellent tool for self-awareness. Only, the limitation is that you get to see your “current” level of performance.

To see “high” performance, we will need to tweak the program. What if you become the “watcher”; while the facilitator and his team of support staff turn into “performers”? You see, this bunch of people often functions like a well-oiled machine. I’ve seen it happen so many times and I found it very instructive to watch them.

I’m going to take names now. Shantanu Pandit is a facilitator I admire a lot. If he is conducting an outbound program, he is usually the public face of the team and interacts with the learners. His support team works unobtrusively in the background to make all the logistics possible. In fact, the smoother the program (from logistical point of view), the less the learners notice them.

Now, I’m proposing that a group of learners (that’s you!) watch Shantanu and his team, as they conduct a weekend outbound program. Only this time, not just what they usually show you, but also everything that goes on “behind the scenes”. Just think of the possibilities…


You would see Shantanu in action as a leader. There would be complexities of varying skill & will of different team members. He would face the usual leadership dilemmas: “getting work done” versus “developing my team”, “democratically inviting opinions” versus “deciding what’s right”. And he would resolve those dilemmas right there, as you watch.

You would eaves-drop on late night “review of the day” sessions where he and his team share feedback, review how the day went and plan for the next day.

You would see the support team plan their work meticulously, and then re-plan it in a hurry, whenever Shantanu changed his mind about an activity he wants to run. You see, outbound programs tend to be quite free-flowing; facilitators change activities at the drop of a hat. They change things around to benefit program participants, but each such change is a crisis situation for the support team. So, you would be witness to meticulous planning, contingency plans, followership and being open to sudden changes.

About that Pause button… you would not only see a “live performance”, you would get a chance to interview the performers too. You could ask…
“Shantanu, what made you do this?”
“Would you have acted differently if…”
“Were you always this way? Or is this style something you’ve developed over time?”
“What went through your mind when…”
“Support Team, how do you prepare for sudden changes? May we see your planning checklist?”

Of course, you would have a chance to reflect upon yourselves too. If you attend as an intact team, you would ask yourselves:
“What can our team realistically borrow from Shantanu’s team? What can we change about our way of functioning?
“How is it that they can discuss sensitive issues threadbare, but we tend to avoid them?”
“After seeing this example, can we reset the “terms of engagement” between our leader and our team?”

How does this fare as a learning tool?

Where does this tweak to the traditional outbound program fit in? As far as the larger learning objective goes, this only solves the “knowledge” problem. You come to “know” what high performance looks like. It doesn’t solve the “skill” problem (it doesn’t ensure you can “do” it too, back at the office).

Within that limited objective, I see some advantages of this approach:
It is up close and personal. It allows you to see the nuts and bolts of the high performer’s methods, warts and all. It makes high performance tangible… turns it from an amorphous concept into concrete thoughts and actions. In doing so, it makes it easier to grasp.

As the performer is accessible, you can ask questions, and get to the “why” behind his actions. It’s like a case study discussion, made richer by the presence of the protagonist in the classroom.

It is very engaging. Like a virtual-reality experience where there’s a story going on and you can actively interact with the performers. Only, there’s nothing virtual about it. You’re watching a real person / team doing their real jobs.

Does this really exist?

This mode of learning by watching closely has always existed. It is prevalent where the work is either very visible or very codified/standardised. Examples are artisanal work like woodcarving, factory work like welding and various performing arts. In each of these, learning “at the feet of the master” is the norm. Psychologists even have a term for it: Observational Learning.

But look at service jobs or supervisory jobs, where work involves much more behind-the-scenes thinking, decision making and use of discretion. Observational learning is difficult to arrange in these areas. Shadowing comes close, but suffers from practical issues of scheduling, loss of confidentiality and disturbing the “shadowed” person at work. As a workaround, organisations have sought to study traits of high performers, codify them into competencies and then train others in these competencies. But such training, done “out of context” loses effectiveness.

I am arguing for a return to a more direct way of learning, even for complex jobs. Where one learns by watching a master. And where that master is eager, nay, happy to be analysed by the learner.

Who is game for this?

Photo Credit: Maarten Van den Heuvel on Unsplash