Performance and the Body Metaphor

Performance and the Body Metaphor

I have had a chance to work with nonprofit organizations, especially churches. Recently, I was interviewing a lay couple who were deeply invested in the volunteering and other engagements at this particular church. They were passionate about their faith, but were extremely frustrated with the way the staff of the church were handling volunteers. As they opened up about all the struggle, being blocked or controlled by staff, and not allowed to vary from the directions from these well-meaning leaders, I could not help thinking how many times I have been here before. Performance in volunteer roles was not only made extremely difficult, but the potential of these highly talented people was wasted on frustration, apathy, or even worse, simply withdrawing of any support for their church all together. What is the problem?

As we look at the history of organizations in the 20th century, they have gone through many transitions, each interestingly enough, resourcing different capabilities of the human body at different times. It began with what was called “Taylorism” where an engineer working with General Motors early in the 20th century, would clock exactly what movements, and what efficiencies in assembly line work that could maximize the individual performance of each person. When things were standard, and there were only hand held tools with no electricity, this engineering of human performance helped increase the results that factories were seeing per individual. As the 20th century unfolded, many people became the operators of machines, where Taylorism-type performance still captured most people’s attention.

In the 1960’s this began to switch when organizations realized they needed the minds of people, as well as their hands and feet, so a long season of setting goals, along with measurements and timelines began to incentivize performance, using money as the carrot, and the threat of firing as the stick.

Then came the team revolution in the 70’s and 80’s, where people discovered that people worked much better in teams to get higher performance rather than as individual workers. Groups of people were then typically organized in silos, asked to do a body of work together, that was measured by both individual and team performance. Early in this period, however, the specific goals, outcomes, and processes were still controlled by the higher up’s, which means a very small part of the brain was being utilized by the typical worker on teams.

With the pace of change speeding up, and the world becoming VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Changing, and Ambiguous) in nature as it is today, the team structure alone was not near responsive enough, diverse enough, or engaged enough to respond to the outside market realities.

A great image of this change in team thinking came from a popular movie called Twister. Two sets of wind chaser teams, trying to research and understand tornadoes, were depicted in this movie. The first team clearly has been given a big budget as a team to work on this research together. They all have the same color black vans, with a central leader giving orders and assignments that were then executed together as a team. The second team did not have much money at all, however they were a team with a heart. They had a rag tag bunch of trucks, vans, jeeps, etc. However the leaders of this team had lost relatives in tornadoes, and so were motivated intrinsically to help prevent this in the future. They were a great community with each other, caring and working to each of their talents. There were leaders, who had individual talents that helped them chase the wind. Lots of laughter, fun, and yet passion about solving this problem. As you would guess, the second team was able to make great progress toward their goal, while the first team was swallowed up and destroyed by the tornado. A tornado is a perfect metaphor for the VUCA environment we talked about earlier, and it can be organizationally fatal to not let the people in teams bring their whole selves (passion, diversity of talents and perspectives) to their work, allowing for openness and transparency each step of the way, as well as a commitment to the goals and the camaraderie of a team working with a sense of belonging. That combination of attributes is exactly what organizations today are finding are the highest performers in this environment.

Rather than controlling the team’s performance, great leaders give the group a challenge, with clear objectives and agreed upon timelines and allow the team to work. The team leader is much more about using what really drives people to performance, which is support, good team relationships, transparency on how the team is doing every step of the way, allowing for failure to be learning experiences rather than punitive measures employed each time a goal is missed.
The whole person is now needed to get engagement of employees. In fact, the organizations that follow this type of team performance see 40% higher engagement by team members than organizations that don’t. Put in the metaphor of the Body Christ in the New Testament we need to work together as a body with each doing their part, in an open, honest, supportive, forgiving community (yet passionate about the purpose) to accomplish high performing organizations today.

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Categories: Capability, Culture, Process, Structure

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