To build a unicorn, your people need to perform at their best — even in the heat of battle
Almost by definition, the conversations that matter the most to both the company’s performance (productivity) and each individual’s experience (positivity) are the super-stressful ones… and it’s a lot harder to learn to maintain high productivity and positivity in these situations. A high-performance organization is one that has high productivity and high positivity — people crushing their work and feeling great about it. Naturally that happens some of the time for some people, but you don’t have a high-performance org until your people can maintain these two elements across all kinds of situations: strategy sessions, budget meetings, feedback conversations, team meetings, one-to-ones, project reviews…. all these interactions need to generate both productivity and positivity.
For example, your managers might think they know how to give feedback, but can they do it so the other person bounces out of the office and actually changes their behavior instead of just grumbling? Can your execs run a budgeting or goal-setting session so that everyone walks away truly committed to the outcome? Can your team leads hold weekly meetings that focus on issues instead of updates, where everyone feels heard and walks away with clarity and enthusiasm about the job to be done?
For that to happen, a lot of people have to develop new skills.
So the answer is… training?
Training has a certain undeniable appeal. It promises to make you better in a short time, and who doesn’t want that?
Businesses spend untold dollars to train their people to sell more effectively, lead more effectively, manage their time, and on and on. As startups mature and come to terms with the fact that “getting s**t done” isn’t enough, and that they need to invest in helping their people to level up, training is what they naturally think of.
The problem is that training doesn’t work. We’ve always known that, but it’s even more true for a fast-moving startup than for a giant corporation.
Performing in the heat of battle
The problem is simple: business is stressful. Working in a rapidly growing startup is even more stressful. And critical conversations, whether they’re about strategy or feedback or setting OKRs, are particularly stressful.
So, while it’s relatively easy for us to be both productive and positive when the stakes are low — for example, when we’re deciding where to hold the company picnic — those aren’t the conversations that matter. Almost by definition, the conversations that matter the most to both the company’s performance (productivity) and the individual experience (positivity) are the super-stressful ones… and it’s a lot harder to learn to maintain high productivity and positivity in these situations.
Training isn’t enough to produce the skill levels we’re talking about here. To understand why, consider Martin Broadwell’s four stages of competence.
- Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know that something is important or that you’re doing it poorly.
- Conscious incompetence: You know that it’s important and that you’re doing it poorly.
- Conscious competence: You do it well when you’re focused on it, but it doesn’t come naturally.
- Unconscious competence: You do it well without thinking.
Training can only ever get someone to level three. But in the heat of battle — when you’re rushed, tempers are flaring, and things aren’t going according to plan — conscious competence falls apart.
Blame the amygdala. When it senses a threat, it floods your body with stress hormones, which can overwhelm the logical thinking happening in your frontal cortex. If the stress is minor, your logical self will probably win out, but as stress levels rise, you can forget about rationality, as well as all those skills you were “trained” in.
That’s why the military drills basic procedures over and over every day. They know that when the first shot flies, thinking goes out the window. If you’re in mortal danger and can’t think how to load your weapon, what good was all that training? “Knowing” how to do it right isn’t worth much until it becomes reflexive.
It’s the same — albeit less life-threatening — in business. It’s easy to have a productive and positive feedback session with a receptive employee who’s doing a good job, but what about delivering tough feedback to your super-star employee who is also super defensive? That’s harder, and at the same time, it matters more because the consequences of doing it poorly are much worse.
The missing ingredient: ritual
Maintaining high productivity and positivity even in the heat of battle can only happen if the skills and behaviors that produce them are a matter of unconscious competence for your people.
How does that happen? Practice.
No, I’m not talking about instituting military-style drills to teach your employees better ways to interact with each other. But I am talking about creating rituals: commitments to regular practice.
To get an idea of what this looks like, imagine that you’re a member of a competitive soccer team. Multiple times each week, you come together to rehearse and perfect the skills you need to win. Much of the time is focused on basics: passing, dribbling, tackling. On match day, you have rituals too. You warm up and stretch, do some passing drills with a partner and run a few plays with the team. Finally, you do the team huddle and cheer before taking the field for the match.
Those rituals reinforce the skills you’ve learned in training and bring them to the forefront of your mind so you can use them during the match — the heat of battle.
It’s tempting to get excited about the intensive week-long soccer camp with star coaches, thinking it will make you a better player. But if you go to that camp in June and do nothing else for the rest of the summer, will you really be any better when the season starts in September?
Doubtful. Training is only as good as the rituals that follow it.
The power of a nudge
So, building a high-performance organization requires a lot of people to learn new skills, and rituals are the key to embedding those skills so they’re available to us in the heat of battle. Sounds simple enough.
But once you have developed your rituals, how do you get people to do them?
The answer comes from the science of building habits. Let’s say that you want to lose weight, and as part of your exercise plan, you commit to go for a run twice a week, even though you don’t really like running. If that’s all you have — a personal desire to lose weight and a commitment to yourself to run — what are the chances that you’ll follow through?
If you’re like most people, you’ll do it for a week or two…and then start falling off the wagon. The commitment won’t last, and you won’t lose the weight.
On the other hand, let’s say you put your running clothes on your nightstand on Friday night and set your alarm for 7:00 the next morning. You make a chart and ask your daughter to put a big smiley face on the weeks that you run and a frowny face on the weeks you skip. Plus, you call up your neighbor and ask him to run with you every week.
That’s a totally different story. Now, you’re very likely to follow through consistently, and if you do it enough times, running on Saturday morning will become a habit. You won’t think twice or moan and groan about it — you’ll just do it. Even better, you’ll enjoy it because it gets you the results you want for your body.
Self-sustaining habits aren’t built on willpower, nagging, or forced compliance. They’re built on nudges: small environmental cues that gently push you to engage in the ritual you’ve committed to.
That’s good news for you because you can build nudges into your company’s work environment and processes. No need to rely on the memory or willpower of dozens or hundreds of people (that would never work), and definitely no need to turn the place into a military base. Just like your smartwatch reminds you to walk ten thousand steps a day, you can create little reminders to help your people practice the skills that produce productivity and creativity.
For example, one of the rituals that leads to more productive and positive meetings is holding a round, where each person gets to speak in turn about an important issue with no interruptions allowed. To nudge people into doing that, you could use round meeting tables, put a talking stick on every meeting table, or put posters on conference room walls. You’re only limited by your creativity.
Customizable and scalable
I’m busy this year codifying the skills that drive Productivity and Positivity and designing Rituals (and the nudges that get people to do them) that support them. But ultimately these rituals can look different at every company. Exactly how they manifest is less important than the fact that they exist and people engage in them consciously, with an understanding of their purpose. Only that consistent, deliberate practice will get people across your company to interact in ways that generate high productivity and positivity.
The most important thing about rituals is that they’re scalable. They embody your organization’s culture and drive its performance, and if you keep them strong, they’ll spread those things for you, no matter how big the company gets. When new people join, the rituals will teach them how to become part of the team and contribute in the best possible way.