What does healthy high-performance look like?

I started the year with this question in mind because I remember how tired, stressed and overwhelming it often felt to face the demands of my leadership (or product) role, and at the same time also wanting to be present, joyful and available to my partner, my friends, my family and my dance community. I know that I do my best work, when I have a sense of purpose, flow, and joy, when I experience progress and when I have supportive and kind people around me (all of these are true for all other parts of my life, too). I also genuinely believe, we all aim to approach our career, our client engagements or projects with an intention to create great outcomes. We want to make progress towards our goals and want to feel like we as humans, and our contributions matter. We obviously like (and want) those promotions, pay rises or bonus payments, especially when they come as reward for great performance at work.

And yet: I struggled with finding a good balance between my own aspirations for performance and success, AND actually feeling healthy, alive and full of energy. What I often experienced instead is: feeling tired, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious or pressured. It’s as if life was throwing me a succession of curveballs in the form of challenges, unexpected surprises, hurdles and roadblocks. I would rather move through life feeling safe, joyful, energetic, optimistic, appreciated, supported and empowered. So, I got curious about why is this so hard?

I came up with a number of reasons, if one of them rings true to you as well, maybe this post inspires you to explore and change something:

Not enough clarity on what we want and value

Be honest, could you – without having to do some serious thinking first – voice a statement about your true calling, and the values you treasure? The ones that are truly about who YOU are? If stating these does not come easy for you (and that certainly has been true for way too long in my life) it’s a bit like being dropped in the middle of the ocean on a raft without a map or knowing where you are. You know the next shore is somewhere, and shelter and food will likely be there too. You can definitely be moving, but you have no idea if the course you set will take you closer or further away from the shore. In our lives, things are rarely so dramatic, but one question becomes important: how do we prioritize and pick things to focus on, if were not clear on what we genuinely enjoy and want in life? Would it not be great to know, that the things you put on your schedule are actually in line with what you want, and that engaging with them brings you energy and joy?

For me, I’m thriving when there is newness and surprise, when there is an element of path finding, when there is creative expression, when there is openness and beauty and when I’m creating spaces for more openness, beauty, belonging and love. So obviously I love what I’m doing: I coach; I offer leadership workshops; I offer workshops on how to build more belonging, joy, equality and inclusion in team cultures; I’m writing this blog on these topics; I’m planning to host a retreat making all of this accessible to leaders who are curious about creating those kinds of spaces themselves. Are you clear on what you want to create? And how you want to go about it? What steps are you taking to make this very tangible and actionable for yourself?

With your team: are you working on what gets your team and organization closer to the impact you look to create? Do you have that vision, impact and strategy mapped out, aligned and visualized? And do you spend time to figure out how to work together in way that builds on the natural creativity, strengths and learning goals of your team members? If not: what hinders you from getting started in the right direction?

Too many balls to juggle – not putting one down

One of the very practical things leaders share with me all the time, is that they actually feel like they have no time. They feel tired and stressed, because they’re running all day. They struggle to get their kids to school or kindergarten in time to make it to their first meeting in the morning. They spend all day in meetings with others and wonder when to get their strategic work done. They run straight from their last meeting to the gym (or again to pick the kids up), make a hasty supermarket run, eat a quick dinner and then often sit back down to work a few more hours (because the day feels never long enough). Or they spend the evening packing for that next business trip that takes them on 18hour workdays, starting with 8am breakfast client meetings, and finishing the day at a networking event, that has them out drinking and socializing until midnight. They do this again and again, day after day, and wonder that they are completely exhausted and stressed on Friday evenings. They have a hard time being relaxed and joyful although everything in their life seems to say “success”.

Yet when I ask them to quit something to make space for some rest, or those things that would bring them energy, everything is too important to stop doing. They might even say “no” to the offer of coaching as a way to figure out their priorities, because fitting that into their busy schedule feels like yet another project to start in their already overly full schedule.

Often that is simply code for not knowing how to say “no” (sometimes in combination with not knowing what to say yes to), or not trusting the people on their team enough to delegate things off their own overly full plate. There will always be more work, more emails, more requests for their time, and yet another task to do. The art is to learn how to stop and choose: doing only as much as is sustainable to do over a very long time, while choosing those things that advance your life purpose and bring you joy. Are you making time for this reflection? If you need or want support with this, are you asking for help?

With your Team: Is there a safe way to say “no” to too much work? Is there clarity on how to choose and prioritize between different initiatives? How do you resolve conflict around these safely and respectfully? Are you role-modelling sane work hours, taking vacation time truly off, not working on weekends and trusting and delegating?

Normalizing is often not in our toolbox

If you just read that word “normalizing” and wonder what I mean, don’t worry, you are in very good company. We are often not being taught in school how important it is to feel our emotions, be able to name them, speak about them and process them. Neither are we taught how to listen to somebody who wants to do that without judgement, and without jumping to solutions. Yet this simple act of opening up, being vulnerable, sharing what you experience and being in company of somebody who listens with compassion and kindness is one of the most powerful ways to move through difficult emotions and return to a state of flow and ease. In the process we often realize, that an emotion we dislike and maybe feel guilt or shame around is completely normal. It allows us to relax, let go and move forward.

Take a look at this image:

Who can you talk to, when you experience an unpleasant emotion? Do you have tools and practices to process these yourself? Or are you potentially sitting on a pile of stuck emotional experiences that kept on building over time? That in itself could be a reason you are so tired. Unprocessed emotions take energy to ignore, compartmentalize or suppress. Which might be the exact right strategy to follow in the moment. We don’t want to act out our rage, disgust or frustration when something goes wrong. We do want to acknowledge that we are experiencing the emotion and learn what it wants to signal to us (it’s often about one of our values not being honored).

Our own self-regulation can be as simple as recognizing what emotion we feel, asking ourselves what the function of it is in the moment (what does it want to tell me?), allowing the feeling for a moment and then taking a deep breath and moving on. Sometimes we need more than that though, we need the open ear of a friend, colleague or coach, or the help of a therapist. If you are not speaking about your emotions with anybody, ask yourself what story you are telling yourself about allowing yourself to express your emotions.

Through the course of our lives, we will very likely experience almost everything on this image at times. Having tools and compassionate people to be with, when we are processing the not so pleasant experiences, might just be the best path to a much more joyful and happy life. This is what normalizing emotions is all about. If you want some inspiration: Brene Brown’s “Atlas of the Heart” is a beautifully illustrated book about creating more of a relationship with, and understanding for, our emotions.

With your teams: do you have a culture that allows team members to be open and vulnerable with each other around how issues at work make them feel? Is asking for help, ok? Can your team move through shame, guilt and defensiveness and arrive at the curiosity, in order to learn how to improve something that has gone wrong? How might humor help?

Telling ourselves stories about why taking breaks is not ok, or taking care of ourselves is not that important

For some of us, it feels selfish or silly to do something we enjoy while there is a giant (and seemingly never ending) To Do List waiting for us. Like sitting in the sun doing nothing. Like going out dancing. Like taking a random day off and doing “nothing special”. Like meeting a friend for an extended lunch. Like taking a two-week vacation without checking emails even once. What is the story we are telling ourselves about why this is not ok? Who are we, when we do allow ourselves to take those breaks? Would we be mad if our best friend took these breaks for themselves? So why are we not allowing ourselves to do it?

We compromise with (and therefore de-prioritize) basic things like:

  • sleeping enough,
  • eating and drinking what our bodies like to consume,
  • paying attention to the content we engage our mind with,
  • paying attention to how those we choose to have around us impact our emotions,
  • fostering kind, trusting, supportive relationships
  • exercising too much or not moving our bodies enough,
  • paying attention to whether there is tension or pain in our bodies or whether our body feels relaxed, rested and energetic. Or as women paying attention to how our monthly cycle impacts our strengths at different times of the month.

If those seem like the absolute basics of self-care, this is actually true. Yet are we actually taking care of these things for ourselves? Do we even know about the science behind all of these?

Be honest: how many times have we all chosen to stay up late repeatedly (and I’m not talking about parenting here, I’m talking about going straight from a red-eye to meetings, rather than making time to arrive a day early, or staying up later than would allow us a full night’s sleep to binge watch some show, etc…). How many times have we just eaten a quick, but unhealthy bite because taking a proper lunch break seemed to not fit into the busy schedule? How many times have we not stood up for ourselves (or others) to ask for a kinder way to be treated? How much quality time do we choose to spend with our key relationships? How many times did we choose to keep exercising although there was clearly pain in our body? And when was the last time you truly stopped to pay attention to how your body feels right now? Are you in that sense actually practicing taking care of that precious body, mind and spirit that moves with you through life?

I keep being inspired by how little kids approach their day. They’re tired, they take a break. They’re curious about something, they ask. They need something, they make themselves heard. They try stuff and playfully figure out what they enjoy. And they’re not shy about voicing their complete excitement and thrill when something works out or brings them joy. They would never think twice about choosing what they like, they simply do it. As parents we make sure they sleep enough, eat well, and get encouraged to build on what they enjoy.

What is one thing you can learn from kids in your life about joy, health and a sustainably learning and growing way to go through life? Kids are naturals at learning a lot of new skills and never seem to get tired of it. Who are you at your most playful, curious and alive?

With your teams: How might playfulness, curiosity, joy, belonging, inclusivity and flow be fostered? Healthy high performance at work is about sustainably having access to energy, creativity, focus, presence, collaboration, trust, appreciation and joy. Do you stop, reflect and prioritize these? And if not, what story are you telling yourself about why these are not important? All research points to the fact that these factors are at the core of innovation and performance. What stands in the way of your team being like this at work?

Title image by Sylvain Mauroux on Unsplash

If you would like to explore this more: reach out for a free discovery session with me.
I coach, speak, do workshops and blog about #leadership, #product leadership, #innovation, the #importance of creating a culture of belonging and how to succeed with your #hybrid or #remote teams.

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