Peak Performance Strategies

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On the Spot Resilience for when your experience is "The wheels are coming off"

(Published in SERVAMUS Safety & Security Magazine, May 2002)

Anyone can feel good, confident and satisfied in their work when things go well and according to plan. If all the people are as smart as you think they should be, and they do their job so that you can get your work done to the best of your abilities, it is a pleasure to be at work. It is even better when things at home, and with your superior officers, are ticking along they way you would want them to.

The challenge occurs when things are not going so well. Stress, problems, anger, being sabotaged by fellow police, grumpy superior officers and setbacks preventing you from reaching the job outcomes you aim for and an increasing workload hounding you, are the things that put your work genius to the test. These are the times when you need some additional or different thought patterns that will support your spirit and enable you to win in these situations.

When things go really bad the difference comes between those who stay down, and those who display the resilience which will be described in this article. Reaction to bad or unwholesome circumstances in itself holds many options for people.

Option 1: You can experience it as a catastrophe which is simply more than you can handle, because it is insurmountable, it is exactly what you expected to happen and this is anyway more than you can stand or are willing to try to deal with.

Option 2: It is serious but not deadly. Things have changed, and there are aspects that don't fit with how you know the workplace, or how you thought things would/should be. There are things that one clearly has learnt and still has to learn, and one has to learn quickly. There were things that worked and some that did not, and from these come the lessons for the future.

The first option would characterize the pessimists. and the second option, the optimists. Option 1 would contribute to a very painful experience, with a strong feeling of hopelessness, leading on to an experience of learned helplessness (described by Martin E P Seligman [1990] in his book Learned Optimism published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, NY). With this attitude it is highly unlikely that the person will rise to the challenge and not only cope at work but become a peak performer. On the other hand, one seldom learns or gets told that peak performers "don't get permission' from their organization to become smart, but that they learn to become so sometimes in spite of their work environment. This is a well-known fact, but instead of seeing a lesson in it, the "failures" will ignore it. In their despair they will not find solace in the fact that there are lessons to learn, and that sometimes they are painful, bin that they are only lessons to be learned from. A useful one-liner which summarises this idea is: "There is no failure, only feedback".
Lest the pessimists think that what follows is pie in the sky, and that they have the edge on the true definition of reality, let's look at the thought viruses that they expose themselves to. Furthermore, let's raise the awareness that there are things to learn and adapt to from the optimists, coined by Clem Sunter as "the foxes" (Succeed, Aug/Sept 2001, p.1Off).

Thought Viruses
Thought viruses act like frames of reference which determine what and how you pay attention to information. The frame of reference is the meaning one gives to a particular experience, or highlights ft with a decision of what is the most important. Depending on the most important aspect of the experience, or the "what it really means" definition, the same information gets a different 'colour" or "emphasis", or the background/foreground of information gets a particular definition. The same experience is mapped differently depending on the frame of reference a person uses to give it a particular meaning. For example: as a police person you must have had this experience many, many times: the same event seen through the eyes of two people is completely different, even from your assessment of the facts. The way people see and tell is totally dependent on their definition of what things mean, and what is most important, it marks the same information in a different way and the "facts" come in fine with the frame of reference.

Whatever the definition is of "the meaning", in a sense wipes out all the other and alternative ways of thinking about an event, ergo, the name thought viruses (borrowed from the book of the same title by Donald Lofland [1997). Pessimists have certain thought viruses which make them (brace yourself for the surprise!) less than realistic, and therefore less resilient.

Here are some of the thought viruses that pessimists use which make them give up:

1. This is a catastrophe.
Not being able to operate as one would like to or think is best is a decidedly unpleasant and serious event, and attaching more importance to the event than ft deserves, deprives one of the hope and courage to "fix it". If one's definition of the event is "ft's the end of the world," this frame of reference cannot but reduce one to hopelessness and despair. An addition that goes with this extreme definition is that the person generalises and decides that all of policing (if not life) is like this, e.g. “everything in the whole of SAPS is like this, nowhere is there a difference". Note that even if positive information should stare such a person in the face, they would translate it into "bad" as the thought virus wipes out the significance of the difference.

2. I can never succeed or be effective.
Rather than claiming that the event belongs to a certain time and space as a finite happening, pessimists project the incident over time as representing all of the future, e.g. "never ever will there be another opportunity, and this current event will never come to an end'.

3. This "failure" is a statement of me as a person; it is the total definition of who I am
"My efforts do not seem to pay off, therefore I am a failure as reflected by my failed efforts." Some people even go so far as to label themselves as someone who deserves to fail rather than succeed. Punishing oneself like this is an effective way of shooting oneself in the foot by preventing whatever resiliency one has available to oneself, to be utilised. If you are deserving of the "punishment" then you would not give yourself permission to deal with the event by changing the outcomes and/or parameters of the experience.

4. Playing the "Blame Game"
People skilled at playing the blame game are very skilled at finding the causes exclusively external to themselves. The extent to which they do not do their homework about what their own contribution is, is also the extent to which they cannot think of alternatives which are under their control. Change and solutions have just been removed from their hands into the hands of "fortune," "chance" etc. I have beard Gary Player once say the opposite: 'With lots of practice I create my own luck. This is typical of how an optimist would think, but if you insist on being a pessimist, this is definitely not for you!

How do optimists and peak performers think?
Here are some characteristics of their thought patterns based on research done by the author over 4 years of interviewing more than 100 peak performers, both in corporations as well as entrepreneurs. These thought patterns form the groundwork for resiliency, and they can be learned.

1. Optimists never use the word "fail"
One outstanding discovery is. that peak performers never consider events as failures but rather see them as learning opportunities. Irrespective of the seriousness of the situation, their first question is: "What is there to learn from this?" The frames of reference that they use about learning are: learning from one's mistakes, paying attention, talking to the right people, learning quicker, learning, in less painful ways etc.

    The benefit of not labeling something as a failure but as a learning opportunity, allows the mind to go into "solution mode" rather than "I am dead” mode. The beginning of lateral thinking is the presupposition and hope that there is an answer and an alternative.

2. They team from considering/assessing their own contribution.
Just as one succeeds by design, one fails by design. Based on this mistake or ineffective way of doing my policing, what could 1 have done in the same way, and differently, knowing what I know now? What did I not consider, or do, or think which would have made the difference? What did do right that I don't have to learn from? If I don't know, who does? Who has already learnt the lessons that I will have to learn? How did they get themselves over/through it?

3. They contextualise the event.
Peak performers put the event where it belongs in time and space. It is a here-and-now event, serious and painful, but not a statement of the meaning of life." The steps needed to address this will happen in a particular sequence, at such and such time and place, with certain people, for the duration of a specific period.
It is characteristic that at this point they remember the bigger picture and what their highest intention and outcome are: "I am a police person because ... (my intention is/I want to/because the right thing to do is/etc".

4. Step out/above and view from the top
Resilience means not giving up on the vision, but reconsidering the map of the journey. From this "higher" perspective they view the current event as a step towards where they fully intend to end up.
Both the pessimist and the optimist do this "stepping back" exercise -they both judge the event from the 11 outside" to come to a conclusion. But, it is the content of the meaning we give that forms our frame of reference and influences the stance we take about/in our experiences. The difference between the pessimist's and the optimist's approach is what they pay attention to.

5. My Intention and outcome are valuable and worth pursuing.
When things go bad, peak performers think like optimists. They contextualise the event, they keep it at arm's length so that it does not become the total definition of their competence or identity, and tie it down in terms of time rather than extend it as the complete definition of the future. When things go well, they do the opposite: they live in the expectation that this is what life is about, that nothing says it cannot be like this for a very long time, and this is the proof that it is a worthwhile pursuit.

Summary
Optimists are the most realistic thinkers around, and have the best chance therefore to be successful and to make the comebacks required.

They don't catastrophise by overgeneralising, they don't create bleak futures, and they don't wipe themselves out with negative labels. They do assess each event or component separately, giving it the realistic significance it has in the current context, asking themselves what there is to learn from it, and to maintain the importance and value of the original outcome. Thus, they do have patterns of resilience because of the way in which they frame negative events.. They unlock the mind's capacity to deal with trauma and setbacks.