You Want a Performing Team? 100% Effort Is Not The Answer

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An outdated way of thinking about peak performance is “maximum effort = maximum results.”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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Rethinking the Work Schedule

The coronavirus has changed the workplace in ways that will permanently transform the future of most organisations. Many leaders have been forced to craft new and improved strategies for successfully running an office remotely, building environments that help — not hurt – our immune systems, and developing guidelines to enforce safety measures like social distancing. Perhaps the most common change designed to address all of these areas is rethinking the employee work schedule, whether it is to support changes in work-life balance, to minimise social contact, or to meet wavering business demands. The traditional nine-to-five workday is no longer the gold standard.

Responsibility for gathering relevant information, identifying alternative schedule options, and implementing the new schedule is often given to the Human Resources (HR) manager. Since information on the subject is surprisingly scarce, this responsibility can be quite a challenge. It’s not something you do every day. Few people have the expertise to design a schedule for a group that works more than five days a week or more than one shift a day. Once you realize that schedule design is not the only step in changing schedules, nor the most difficult, you easily can be overwhelmed.

Despite the difficulty, this is a great opportunity for HR managers to orchestrate a significant change in the organisation. As an HR manager, you are uniquely qualified to do this. You tend to have a broader perspective than line functions such as production or maintenance. You have more experience in communicating with employees. Your on-going role as a company steward has trained you to protect organizational interests while addressing employee concerns.

Organisations change the work schedules of their non-exempt employees for a variety of reasons:

  • Change the hours/days of operation to match the demand for their products or services.
  • Fix problems such as high absenteeism, hiring/retention issues, or excessive overtime.
  • Improve efficiency (e.g., lean manufacturing) or lower the operating costs.
  • Respond to employee requests for change or complaints about the current schedule.

The Process of Change

In today’s tight labour market, organisations simply can’t afford to lose employees. Changing work schedules is an easy way to alienate the workforce and increase turnover. To ensure widespread support for the change, you need to have a plan for involving the key stakeholders and keeping them informed throughout the entire change process.

That sounds simple enough, but it’s actually the most difficult part of changing schedules. People are resistant to any kind of change. When it comes to work schedules, even a minor change can make a significant difference in employees’ lives. For example, changing the time that the work starts by 15 minutes may seem trivial, but it can have serious repercussions for people who commute in a carpool or use public transportation, parents with day-care requirements, and individuals with hundreds of other personal commitments built around their work schedules.

Availability of Resources

How many employees are needed to satisfy the coverage requirements? How many hours will they have to work each week? In addition to the base coverage, you need to consider absences such as vacations, illness, training, etc. Additional staff and / or overtime may be needed to cover these situations. Even though you think you have sufficient personnel, if a number of employees want to take a vacation at the same time, this could leave you short-handed. If someone takes a leave of absence due to health problems, pregnancy, or family care, you may not be able to replace them. The use of temporary employees may help, assuming you can find someone with the necessary skills.

Schedule Conflicts

Schedule constraints include legal considerations (e.g., state laws requiring overtime to be paid after 8 hours of work) and union agreements (e.g., limits on the number of consecutive days worked). There are also company policies to consider. For example, your company may require that all employees rotate so they spend an equal amount of time on every shift.

These are referred to as “constraints” because they limit the number of possible schedules. If you need an 8-hour fixed shift schedule with a maximum of 5 days worked in a row, you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a schedule that gives you a lot of weekends off or long breaks. Without the constraint on the number of consecutive days worked, you would have a lot more options to choose from. Without the fixed shift constraint, you would also have more choices. If there are too many constraints, it may be necessary to add more workers, increase overtime, or sacrifice some coverage.

Changing employee work schedules is not a simple task. There is a lot more involved than simply finding a work pattern that matches the new hours of operation or accommodates a preferred shift length. The six major considerations are the change process, coverage requirements, available resources, schedule constraints, employee preferences, and company policies. Skipping any one of these can result in implementation delays, unhappy employees, damage to your relationship with workers, poor business results, and higher costs. However, with proper planning, preparation, and communication, it is possible to produce a win-win result for employees and the organisation.

Changing your organisation’s work schedules may be one of the most important tasks you undertake in your career. Not only is the schedule vital to the performance of your company, but it is also an integral part of your employees’ lives. The time and effort you invest will increase the chances of achieving a positive outcome for everyone affected by the new schedule.

This pandemic has revealed that some jobs, such as healthcare, are truly essential, and employees in that sector have to work difficult hours. At the same time, the post-pandemic period may be a time for organizations and society to reconsider the definition of essential. For instance, moving forward, is it really necessary for workers to be available at all hours, year-round, to provide nonessential services at retail and fast food places?

The key will be finding a balance between short-term business needs and the long-term benefits that new scheduling strategies bring to both employees and the organisation.

To summarise, rather than being mechanistic, organisations can take a more organic approach and allow employees to play a bigger role in determining when they want to work. We have already seen considerable discussion lately about where (e.g., from home) and how (e.g., using video conferencing technology) people will work in a post-pandemic world, but additional thought should also be given to when everyone works. Managers are encouraged to thoughtfully consider the schedules that are right for them as they return to their places of work.

Given our current situation knowing that your colleagues or employees are best suited for this new scenario we find ourselves in. Finding the right talent, the best fit for the job and your organisation can be a very challenging task. It is now important to find out whether your managers or your team is well-equipped of working together from various locations. It requires deep knowledge of their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, work style and other characteristics. Our technology and solutions will do the work for you, helping you discover if your people are resilient during times of hardship, if they are autonomous, if they are team players, without actual human contact. Given that our platform is cloud-based, everyone can use it from home as well. Humanity finds itself at a crossroad for various reasons now, why not help people discover and develop themselves from the comfort of their own homes?

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