How many of us have worked in organisations where workloads are high and we feel under continuous pressure to perform, yet there seems to be little consideration of us as people?
Many organisations faced with pressures from their shareholders for quick results end up by default with an extreme performance culture. Extremely ambitious non-negotiable targets are set from the top, with high rewards for success and correspondingly high penalties for failure.
Across the organisation there are tight deadlines and relentless time pressures. Immediate results are all that seem to matter.
The best leaders find ways to use these pressures positively to stimulate, energise and inspire those who work with them. They are focused and driven to achieve results, but at the same time respect their people and take their personal circumstances into account. They listen to their staff knowing this will help get sustainable results.
Unfortunately, not all leaders are that enlightened. Some people are primarily attracted to the power and status associated with leadership roles. The pressures of an ‘extreme performance culture’ to get immediate results can reinforce any tendencies they have to be arrogant, manipulative, and bullying. It can also encourage them to cut corners and engage in dubious business practices.
This is the dark side of performance management. In circumstances like these, many employees may not dare to challenge or speak out. Some feel that they don’t have the power to effect change. Some may be afraid, preferring to keep their heads down for career reasons. Others will have low self-esteem.
And there are always those who secretly admire their dysfunctional leaders for appearing certain and confident – and go along with them whatever they say.
The ‘toxic triangle’ of susceptible followers, over-the top leadership and extreme performance culture is a very dangerous combination. It leads to stress, burnout, inflexibility, lack of innovation, and suboptimal, non-sustainable performance. Enron provides a classic example where it ultimately resulted in the failure of an entire corporation.
How can it be avoided? All three sides of the toxic triangle need to be addressed:
- Develop an ethical culture where how things are done matters as well as what is achieved. Use balanced scorecards to measure performance and encourage open dialogue.
- Keep leaders’ feet on the ground. Watch out for signs of hubristic behaviour and ensure leaders are held to account. Ensure governance checks and balances are in place.
- Develop courageous followers. Encourage people to be brave, forthright and speak out where necessary – and develop their mental toughness and resilience.
As Anatole France said: “It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.”