For Maximum Performance, Lower Your Standards

Yes, you heard right. To achieve maximum performance, either personally or for your organization, often the wisest move you can make is to  lower your standards. “That can’t be right,” you say. “Everyone knows that to achieve the best results people need to raise their standards and work harder.” Sometimes this is what you need, but it ain’t always so. Consider the Law of Diminishing Returns.

I think the Greeks had it right when they said, “All things in moderation.” Perhaps you’ve noticed that the relationships between many things in life follow the pattern of a traditional bell-shaped curve. For example, let’s look at assertiveness. Assertiveness is a good thing, right? Right–up to a point. In general, as you become more assertive you get more of what you want in life. However, if you continue to be ever more assertive you will reach a point at which you become domineering. Then you’ll start to get less of what you want in life, because other people don’t particularly like folks who are domineering.

Okay, let’s apply this idea to standard setting (see the Figure 1 below). If you set the performance standard for your organization at “mediocrity,” you’ll get relatively low performance. Your team isn’t challenged, and they become bored. If instead you set your performance standard at “excellence,” your team will become more engaged, rise to the challenge, and you’ll get maximum performance.

However, if you continue to raise your performance standard to “perfection,” your team will begin to feel overstressed and overwhelmed, and performance will go back down. Perfection, by definition, is an unachievable ideal. I bet you’ve seen this happen somewhere (hopefully not on your watch).

It’s very popular to talk about “the relentless pursuit of perfection” and such as that, and it makes great TV and movie copy (remember that great scene in “Remember the Titans?”). In real life it doesn’t play all that well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Big Hairy Audacious Goals that stretch you to achieve your full potential as an organization, but I recommend that you balance that with the fact that your team needs to feel that it is winning by accomplishingachievable goals. If your team is chronically falling short of its goals, then morale, motivation, and performance will inevitably decline.

Technique #1: Once in a while it makes sense to swing for the fence, but overall you’ll get better results by taking a balanced approach to maximizing performance.
Technique #2: Choose “excellence” as the performance standard for your organization.
Technique #3: Avoid the doldrums of “mediocrity” and the inevitable failure of “perfection.”

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