100% effort never translates to an optimal performing team. Despite some companies’ attempts, we can’t fix today’s burnout culture with a wellness app. What it takes, instead, is a mindset and culture shift among managers and organisations everywhere.
The old management mindset
An outdated way of thinking about peak performance is “maximum effort = maximum results.” It doesn’t actually work that way in reality, but many managers still believe that it does. They might talk a good game about “practicing self-care,” but their core assumptions are often more akin to a bad 1980s motivational speaker. (Think: “No pain, no gain,” “No guts, no glory,” and “Give it 110%!”)
When managers expect 80+ hours a week from people while offering Friday yoga to combat stress, they unintentionally create a toxic contradiction. It’s a classic example of what we call in psychology a “double bind”: Employees can’t talk about the contradiction, and they can’t talk about not being able to talk about it.
As a result, many well-intended efforts to end the burnout epidemic don’t actually work. If you think individual overachievers are solely to blame for exhaustion, then you’ll only end up addressing the wrong problem. Consider McKinsey’s research on burnout, which showed that “in all 15 countries and across all dimensions assessed, toxic workplace behaviour was the biggest predictor of burnout symptoms and intent to leave by a large margin.”
Not only does this old mindset not produce high performance, it also creates a downward spiral of toxicity begetting burnout begetting toxicity. What we need instead is a new management mindset, supported by data, for how to really get the best out of our people. Instead of “maximum effort = maximum results,” a better formula is: “optimal effort = maximum results.” Less effort can actually lead to more success.
The new management mindset
Here’s what actually works: the 85% rule. The 85% rule counterintuitively suggests that to reach maximum output, you need to refrain from giving maximum effort. Operating at 100% effort all of the time will result in burnout and ultimately less-optimal results.
For example, when sprinters are told to accelerate to their 100% level too soon, they end up running a slower race overall. As Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic gold medals, explains, the notion of “no pain, no gain” is ridiculous. He says, “Your training should be sensible. In many cases it is more important to rest than it is to drive yourself to the point of pain.” Lewis’s coach, Tom Tellez, suggests that the peak performer in sprinting relax their jaw, face, and eyes. “Don’t grit your teeth,” he advises. “If you do, that tension will run all the way down your neck and trunk to your legs.”
How to build a high-performing team — without burning people out
Create a “done for the day” time
Where possible, managers should establish a “done for the day” time. When managers are ambiguous about the length of workdays, they risk introducing decision fatigue, diminishing returns, or even getting negative returns from their employees.
Toxic managers see setting a reasonable hard stop for the day as impossible. A colleague told me that their boss said in no uncertain terms: “You can’t get ahead here if you want to be home for dinner with your family.”
Transactional managers see employees having a done-for-the-day time as a necessary evil: “I suppose you need to do what you need to do.” They let people keep to the schedule begrudgingly.
Transformational managers insist upon a reasonable time for employees to leave work. For example, when a new employee at a private equity firm was eager to make a good impression, he stayed late. After all, he had been trained at previous companies to expect kudos for the extra effort. But this company and manager were different. When his manager saw him still sitting at his desk after everyone else had gone home, he said, “Why are you still here? We don’t stay late here unless there is an absolute emergency. We want you to be fresh tomorrow morning. Please go home.”
Ask for a little less than maximum capacity
Effort and fatigue can create confusion for people regarding the quality of their performance. People can mistake the perception of maximum effort with what actually produces maximum results. However, the highest effort doesn’t always equal the highest performance. Managers can take advantage of this by inviting team members to work a little below what they perceive to be their maximum capacity.
To help coach employees to get to and stay in this sweet spot, managers can ask, “What does it feel like to be at 100% intensity?” and then follow up with: “How can you keep this closer to the 85% level?” This type of perceived level of exertion is a concept used in physical rehab to prevent latent — or hidden — fatigue, but it can also be used by managers to help their employees stay in their sweet spot.
Ask “how am I making your work more stressful than it needs to be?”
Top performers are typically already self-motivated, so managing them like everyone else will only exhaust them, leading them to become a flight risk. A study at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Faas Foundation of over 1,000 U.S. employees found that 20% of employees reported being both highly engaged and having high burnout.
This “engaged-exhausted group” were passionate about their work, but also had a high level of stress and frustration. These were the employees with the highest risk of quitting their jobs — higher even than unengaged employees. This suggests that companies may lose their most capable employees not due to a lack of engagement, but rather because of their high stress and burnout levels.
To avoid this, managers can ask their top performers a simple but powerful question — “How am I making your work more stressful than it needs to be?” — and then take the necessary actions to improve upon the situation.
Encourage 85%-right decisions
When making decisions as a team, don’t push for “100% perfect.” Let people know when an 85%-right decision is acceptable.
Research has uncovered two distinct types of perfectionists. The first is “excellence-seeking” perfectionists: people who hold high standards for themselves and others. The second type is “failure-avoiding” perfectionists: people who are consistently anxious that their work is not sufficient or adequate, who fear losing the esteem of others if they fail to attain perfection.
Asking for 85%-right decisions takes unnecessary pressure off your highest-performing employees — and it keeps your team moving forward, rather than waiting for the 100%-right decision before they take action.
Watch out for high-pressure language
As a manager, it is vital to be mindful of the language you use when communicating with your team. The use of high-pressure terms such as “ASAP,” “NEED,” or “URGENT” in emails or meetings can create excessive stress and pressure for your team members.
To avoid this, it’s essential to foster open communication about genuine deadlines, the reasons behind them, and the potential trade-offs. Instead of expecting employees to always agree to every request, consider asking them, “What do you need to say no to in order to say yes to this?” By granting autonomy in choosing their projects, you can ensure that your star employees maintain high performance levels while also avoiding burnout.
End meetings 10 minutes early
A manager shared this with me recently: “If you can be any kind of manager, be the kind who ends the meeting early.” It struck me as both funny and true.
Many employees still feel like they live the “Zoom, eat, sleep, repeat” life that was so common during the pandemic. Certainly, far more meetings are now held on video than ever before. And we know that video “exhaust(s) the human mind and body” faster than in-person meetings or just being on the phone.
Research from Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab found that our brains work differently when we take 10-minute breaks between meetings. That small break stops stress from building up, while back-to-back meetings decrease people’s ability to focus and engage.
Set your own intensity level to 85%
It’s important that managers also set their own minds to 85% intensity to model to their team that it’s okay not to be stressed out of their minds all the time. When managers say that employees should not work late nights or on weekends, but then send emails at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, their actions speak louder than their words.
Research shows that employees look to their bosses for cues far more than many managers realize. In a curious finding, researchers found that baboons look to their alpha male “boss” every 20 to 30 seconds, and humans may not be so different. So, if you’re going to write emails late and on weekends, at least schedule them to be sent at 9 a.m. Monday morning.
The 85% rule may seem counterintuitive. However, in this time of ongoing, persistent burnout, it has the power of relevancy. As Dr. Stephen Ilardi, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, has written, “Human beings were never designed for the poorly nourished, sedentary, indoor, sleep-deprived, socially-isolated, frenzied pace of 21st-century life.”
Certainly, we can do better. Managers who adopt the 85% rule as their new mindset can help to reduce this frenzy while actually improving their team’s performance.
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