Performance Barriers

Last week I spoke at my last two events for the year.  The Q&A and discussion for each event I speak at is unpredictable and at one of the events, I got several questions regarding this topic of performance barriers.

First, the context. I have argued that there are really two ways to enhance your performance:

  1. Learn a new skill
  2. Remove an existing barrier to your performance so that your skills can manifest themselves

To be perfectly clear, acquiring new skills is both very necessary and a life-long  journey.  No question about it. But I find that as we progress in age and through the ranks of an organization, most of what keeps us from performing at a high level are not a lack of skills or knowledge over how to do something, but in fact, a lack of awareness of what derails us on a daily basis, especially when the stakes are high.

I argue in my presentations at these events that after a certain stage, say after 15 years experience in the workplace (depending on the person of course), throwing more skills at a manager or leader reaches a point of diminishing returns. In other words, the kinds of learning that we just ate up earlier in our career, be it from a person, or a workshop/training event, don’t quite have the same “aha” factor that they once did. After a certain number of years in the workplace, most of us figure out how things get done, and adjust ourselves to that mold/framework. Cognitively, the “How to” books and information are all there for us to access.

For this and other reasons, I submit that most managers and leaders can learn and grow faster not by acquiring new skills or relearning old ones, but by removing many barriers to our performance, starting with the self-inflicted ones. Organizations, by the way, can do the same. By self-inflicted barriers, I am speaking of the abnormally low levels of emotional intelligence most of us have, and the resulting emotional hangover most of us are constantly in.

By being unable to monitor and label the ever-changing emotional temperature of ourselves, others, and the situations we are in, we rely on “cosmetic” leadership for success, which is deeply rooted in cognition. For example, a good manager will go to a very important meeting with an agenda (cognitive exercise), and will start the meeting with the perfunctory salutations (cosmetic leadership). Quickly, the meeting will progress to the topics at hand, and the outcome often times is arbitrary … could be good, or not so good. Juxtapose that to having a good agenda (necessary cognitive function), and as the meeting starts, making sure that everyone in the meeting is actually “present” …. What is the “mood” of the participants and what is the temperature of the team? If either are not positive, then the meeting is doomed to begin with.  If that meeting does not go well and the leader does a post-mortem on the meeting, he will find few things to change. Agenda? Check. Participants? Check? Right information? Check.  Discussion time? Check. Gave air time to all? Check.

When there is an unsatisfactory outcome, the leader might invest reading a book about organizing a meeting (learn a new skill). All these cognitive functions are very important to the success of the meeting, but a fundamental truth is missing. The participants in the room are human beings, not mechanical objects.  Human beings who had experiences just before the meeting, who have relationships, fears, and personal goals …. And leaders who ignore this do so at their own peril.  A leader today has no choice but to develop very high EQ so that he can be highly aware of the barriers to performance and success. I conclude that most leaders are capable of being significantly more successful by understanding what keeps themselves, as a human being,  and others from performing at high levels.

Photo credit to Harijs Stradins

3 responses to “Performance Barriers

  1. Hey Sam,

    I get it…and agree that leaders have a responsibility to be cautious and aware and respond to the emotional temperature of each employee. But how realistic is it to ask leaders to not only resolve the emotional ailments of those on their staff, but also make it specific to each individual. Employers create a mold, a way of doing things sort of speak, and it’s the employee’s responsibility to fit the mold and not ask the employer to adjust the mold to accommodate the employee? There are many variables that contribute an individual’s employability, and emotional maturity is one. Am I way out in left field with this thinking?


  2. Gerald … good to hear from you. First, I agree with you that it is not realistic for leaders to “solve” the emotional issues of their employees. This requires therapy and a level of exeprtise that is indeed unrealistic to expect leaders to have. I also agree that there are many vairables to performance – in our model ( we argue there are 4: EQ, IQ, Behavior and Skills (incidentally, they operate in that sequence). My point has always been that it is the leader’s responsibility to monitor the emotional temperature of the situation/person because the onus is clearly on the leader to orchestrate optimal performance of both an employee and a team that report to the leader. Changing the emotional temperature so that both a person and a team can perform at their best is NOT SOLVING their personal issues. This distinction is important…given the fact that it is emotions in most cases that hinder optimal performance. In some cases, it is lack of skills or poor behavior (which are easier to correct because they are much more visible and tangible). Hope this helps

  3. It is important to note that apart from lack of motivation in professional development, there are may more barriers that are experienced by people who would want professional advancement. The barriers include the attitudes of the management and those who might have been in the job longer than the aspirant. Attitudes of other people play a pivotal role in professional development of the lesser in the sense that they would always think that professional development is only for those elected by management and not for those who might have the motivation to do so.
    It is also clear that carrier advancement in a company links with professional development. For small companies whose career prospects are limited, the junior who might want to progress to higher [positions in the company may not be motivated beacuse there is actually nowhere to proceed to unless if they would want to venture outside the small company they work for.
    Financial constraints also are an attribute to profession al development.
    Ther are many more barriers to professional development in health and social care.

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