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Performance Errors


By Karen Meager co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform. What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance’.

Ever wondered what the main blockers to performance are in your organisation? We’ve rarely met a leader who hasn’t pondered this issue. Finding a way to get more from your people would be like discovering the holy grail of performance. Even better if you could do this without any negative impact on their wellbeing.

We’ve long been interested in what contributes to sustainable performance. As organisational psychologists we are interested in behaviours that can be successfully adapted and adopted for the world of work. And now, after researching elite sports for our new book, ‘Rest, Practise, Perform.’ we’ve seen approaches that can help leaders avoid some of the errors that can damage performance. And what’s more, they can do it while actually enhancing employee wellbeing.

The challenge of defining performance

Organisations are complex systems of human dynamics and processes and therefore even defining performance in any meaningful way is tough. We set about researching sustainable performance many years ago, when CEOs and leaders were expressing frustration around how to find the right balance between employee wellbeing and delivery. It seemed that in order to be a good company, you had to prioritise the health of your employees, but did that mean giving up on your goals? 

Whilst we knew it was possible to achieve both, we wanted to find a practical approach that organisations could adopt.  We found that the world of organisational research was somewhat lacking. Performance was poorly defined; academics didn’t really agree on much and a lot of studies distilled organisational concepts to such a degree that they were of limited practical use to organisations. It was time to take inspiration from another area completely.

The ‘Rest, Practise, Perform.’ approach

In ‘Rest, Practise, Perform.’, we studied how elite sports professionals and teams are organised towards performance. We then tested the ‘Rest, Practise, Perform.’ approach with organisations, tailoring it to their needs and refining it over some years. There were some fascinating side effects to this work. By studying what elite sports people and teams do well, we identified some fundamental performance errors that organisations dismiss or overlook. 

Let’s look at each error and what organisations can do to remove these blocks:

Lack of clarity

In elite sports there is a ‘gameplan’. Teams know what they are called upon to do and who does what. Individual sportspeople have their race mapped out and F1 teams know when they are going to ‘pit’. Indeed, you won’t see a better example of a highly performing team than in the split seconds of the pit stop. Even when a game doesn’t go to plan, changes are made and subs enter the field with clarity on how their impact will improve performance.

In organisations, a lot of time and energy is wasted because people are unclear. Some of this comes from general lack of organisation, but a lot comes from an attempt to provide people with autonomy. How can autonomy be a bad thing? It’s all very well having freedom but how do you know if it will take you anywhere. In fact, research suggests that a high level of autonomy can actually increase the risk of burnout. Optimal autonomy comes when people are clear enough about what they are doing but have discretion and autonomy in working out how to do it.

If people are unclear, it can be very stressful, having a negative effect on their health. You probably know how demoralising it is to put a lot of work into something, only to see it go nowhere. If that happens a number of times, peoples’ health can deteriorate fast. As a leader, the more you can do to make sure that your team’s work will contribute to performance, the more likely you are to avoid this pitfall. Some key questions to ask yourself are:

  • Is everyone clear about how their work contributes to the overall business goals?
  • Is everyone clear about what good looks like in terms of their role?
  • Is everyone clear on where they have freedom and autonomy?

Lack of follow-up

Elite sportspeople always follow-up after a game or race. They analyse who did what, what went well and what could be improved. There is data on each team member and in F1, each engine and tyre. Nothing is left unexplained.  Whilst some organisations can over-engine follow-up processes, which can make them onerous and time-consuming, others really struggle with some basic follow-up. When you are working towards performance, it’s very easy for details and actions to get lost or out of sync, so having some way of tracking and following up can make all the difference. It’s not just a basic organisational process, lack of follow-up can lead to lack of clarity and cause unnecessary frustration and resentment – all emotions that consume energy and do not help with performance. 

You do not need to have the most up to date, all singing and dancing project management tool to create enough follow-up, even just consistently implementing the following can make a big difference:

  • Use tools and technology to keep track of key things you need to follow up and have a separate ‘follow-up list’ from your to do list.
  • Set clear expectations and give a ‘why’ for short deadlines. 
  • Avoid arbitrary or false deadlines.
  • Have conversations with others about why things haven’t been done, avoid going into blame mode.

Low levels of trust

Trust is essential in elite sports. Just as everyone has a role to play, the most effective and high performing teams instinctively know where their teammates will be on the track or pitch. The same goes for management. Coaches build trust with their players which helps them understand why decisions that they may not like have been made. 

Aside from the obvious benefits of creating trust in an organisation, if people do not trust each other, they will spend more time checking, questioning, trying to understand and challenging. This can be a huge waste of time and energy. Creating trust is not about being nice, or telling people what they want to hear. It’s about being honest and consistent. Trust is frequently eroded by well-meaning leaders who say all the right things but then never deliver them. Some key elements of building trust can be easily achieved by:

  • Do what you say you are going to do.
  • Don’t make too many promises, but make sure you deliver on the ones you commit to.
  • Keep people updated, don’t hide bad news (but don’t over dramatise it either).

Poor collaboration skills

When an elite team reaches the final stages of a tournament, they are there because they’ve already learnt how to collaborate. That’s what pre-season and training camps are for. It’s here that they learn how to understand each other and find their rhythm. In organisations collaboration sounds nice but is fraught with difficulties. People have competing priorities, complex interdependencies and their own personal needs, working with other people can be a drain. 

The problem is that you often need people to collaborate well at a key moment, usually when you are up against it – and these are times when human beings are rarely at their best. The good news is that you don’t need the whole team to be qualified psychologists to be effective. If you prioritise the development of key collaboration skills and have strong leadership in place, your team can thrive even when under pressure. Some key considerations are:

  • Prioritise team building as part of your team’s rhythm, the more people know each other the more easily they will create a shorthand, saving time later. They will also resolve more of their own tensions.
  • Make sure everyone is trained in negotiation skills and managing conflict. These are under taught but critical skills.
  • Make sure there is a clear process for the resolution of disagreements where there is a stalemate. This avoids people ruminating or making difficulties personal.

These errors are not easy to solve, but even marginal improvements in each of these areas will have a knock-on effect to your ability to improve and sustain performance.

In conclusion

Finding an effective way of enhancing performance is one of the biggest challenges a leader can face. Often tasked with doing exactly this, they understandably want to get there without any negative impact on their people. In our experience, the world of elite sport has some of the answers and uses them highly effectively. They’ve identified the errors made in the pursuit of performance and found solid and practical results that can easily be adapted and adopted in the world of work.


Karen Meager co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform. What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance’. Karen takes the latest scientific and

academic thinking and makes it useful and easy to apply. Her approach is grounded in research and professional practice that spans 20-plus years. Karen holds Masters degrees in psychology and health research, and her specialist research area is mental health and burnout in organisations. Karen’s goal with ‘Rest. Practise. Perform.’ is to help leaders and organisations find a working rhythm that delivers top performance whilst also prioritising people and their health. See: