HR Management & Compliance

Redefining Performance as Mental Flexibility and Emotional Balance

If there’s one desire leaders have of others, it’s that they “perform.” But what is performance really? An online dictionary defines “perform” as “to carry out; execute, do.” While there’s nothing to dispute about the getting of results, the skill sets that underlie performance change with the times. Performance in this era of global disruption is defined as mental flexibility and emotional balance.

Source: Aleksandr Simonov / shutterstock

The idea of defining what performance looks like came to the fore over the past century with the advent of the management sciences, which endeavored to make leaders more rigorous, scientific, and quantitative with tools and research instead of guesswork, personal judgment, and personal experience. All this resulted in efficiency and cost savings in quality, inventory control, continuous improvement, and financial management.

Only later did the social sciences begin to garner the attention of CEOs, as evidence mounted that performance could be significantly enhanced by understanding human beings—the nature of individuals, groups, and social systems. Many stock-listed companies began to measure their intangible assets (i.e., people) such as rates of attraction (hiring), retention, motivation, and engagement.

Fast-forward to the present, and Yuval Harari, Israeli historian, philosopher, and professor and one of the great thinkers of today, concludes in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that “to survive and flourish … you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance.” Conscious leaders need look no further than their own lives in the last year to see the truth in it.

But what does this mean for leaders to develop more mental flexibility and emotional balance? Check how well you meet several criteria:

“I am a stabilizing force.” To stay focused and productive, people need workplaces where they feel they are in trusted hands and are on a positive path forward. For this to happen, people leaders need to invite employees to express themselves and be heard. In doing so, leaders will find opportunities to engage hearts and minds, resulting in employees who feel supported and steady, more focused, creative, and productive. Leaders must remember that finding out what motivates someone personally is critical in helping employees make the link between what they want and what their role/organization wants, resulting in a win-win. For example, a leader who wants his or her job to feel less frustrating might realize he or she wants to become a better influencer. When leaders help connect these dots, work becomes more meaningful and stabilizes both individuals and organizations.

“I create conditions that enable flexible thinking.” “Flexible thinking” starts with enhancing the diversity of the team itself. New teams should hire accordingly, and intact teams need to understand how to leverage the diversity they have. Diversity can provide novel thinking, distinct skills, and unique resources when reacting to disruptions and planning for the future. But leveraging diversity will set up a team to excel if members’ day-to-day experience of inclusion corresponds. Members must feel psychologically safe and that they can show up as themselves and be accepted. Only this will determine whether diversity yields business results. Note that when people leaders are unskilled in managing diversity, teams will underperform compared withhomogeneous teams (function, geography, life experience).

When sufficient psychological safety is felt in the team, differences and disagreement will emerge naturally. Leaders can provide support by not tamping it out. Encourage it with descriptive language, such as “We have different feelings on this topic, but each has its merit. Let’s keep discussing this” and prompt the group to continue on with curiosity and care for others. Helping team members express a conflict is counterintuitive for leaders uninformed in the topic of group dynamics but is essential in questioning assumptions and incorporating fresh perspectives.

“I take care of myself along the way.” Mental flexibility and emotional balance in teams are only fully possible with a leader who practices these. Tending to the whole self physically, spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively makes for a leader who does the same for his or her employees. Assess your current situation. Ask yourself: Do I want to move toward greater health? Gain clarity of purpose? Address and confront old habits that cause me pain? Remain curious and learn? The end game is building leaders who have range: compassionate but tough; able to speak to feelings, as well as to thoughts; thoughtful and able to move to action; and demonstrate leadership while engendering followership. Leaders must practice extending their range in order to adeptly meet the needs of the moment.

We’ve all heard “work smarter, not harder.” What working “smarter” looks like depends on the wider context. What the 21st century most certainly has in store is ongoing disruption and the acceleration of change. For people to enjoy their work experience, or perhaps simply to keep up, staying mindful of how the definition of performance corresponds to the era can be a guide to more happiness at work. Getting more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty requires developing oneself more holistically than ever before.

Lisa J. Koss is the cofounder of and a partner at Ontos Global. She has 25 years’ experience in global leadership, team development, talent management, executive coaching, and design and organizational change initiatives. Her proprietary coaching model has been taught in nine different languages across the globe. Her clients include Kaiser Permanente, ITT, Xylem, British Petroleum, Honeywell, Hewlett Packard, General Electric, Ernst & Young, and many more. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and her new book is Leading for Learning: How Managers Can Get Business Results through Developmental Coaching and Inspire Deep Employee Commitment. Learn more at

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