3 Strategies Today's Leaders need to Optimize Performance and Avoid Burnout

Mar 15, 2023

Just a few years ago, my performance practices were more than adequate to support my success and that of my teams. But in recent years, the challenges we've encountered have had a significant impact on the performance of people and workplaces. Women, especially women leaders, have been disproportionately impacted by these challenges and are experiencing high levels of stress and burnout. 

I've identified, through significant research and learning, three really critical strategies leaders need to take action on right now to optimize the performance of their people and workplaces. Those leaders who fail optimize their performance and that of their people are more likely to experience extreme stress, overwhelm, exhaustion, and ultimately, burnout. If you are a leader of people, and either you or your people are struggling with stress and burnout, you need to read this article and watch the accompanying webinar! We will look at each of the three strategies and how they can help you to get on the path towards optimizing performance immediately.

My Story – A Brief Background

By all objective measures and outside appearances, I was a successful executive leader performing well and hitting my goals. I had all the training and resources I thought I would need to be successful. Then, I experienced burnout. And the experience of burnout was so bad that I didn't even recognize it was happening until almost a year later.

Burnout is never some massive explosion or major meltdown experience. Instead, burnout is like a slow burn; it builds up overtime, little by little, until one day you wake up and realize the whole forest has burned down. All you can think is, “How & when did this happen?” What I realized after my experience is that while I had all the knowledge I needed to be successful, I didn't have the resources or practices I needed to optimize my performance in a way that would prevent excess stress and burnout.

My method of peak performance in the past was work harder, longer, and push yourself beyond the boundaries to grow and succeed. Starting in law school, I learned to work excessively long days studying late into the night and sleeping only a few hours each night. My success in law school reinforced these behaviors and taught me that this method worked well for achieving results and recognition. I received many honors and awards in law school reinforcing the neuropathways of hard work, driven, and pushing through barriers.

What I have since discovered is that peak performance does not have to be this way. Rather, when we optimize our performance in ways that support our well-being, we are far better able to operate at peak performance consistently and enjoy our experiences along the journey. Additionally, when people truly optimize their performance, they are able to achieve more, create better results, live better, and experience less stress. Optimizing the performance of people truly benefits everyone individually and in the workplace.

 Why are today’s leaders struggling with this issue?

Today’s world is filled with increasing challenges; none greater than the rate at which things are changing and we are having to respond to those changes. With new technology requiring new processes and approaches to work be changed in months rather than years, people are experiencing tremendous stress. Add to that the constant barrage of news and notifications due to increased access to information and you start to see why there are record levels of stress and burnout. We have so much information coming at us, and as a result, much greater awareness of the many challenges in the world – mass shootings, wars, controversy, natural disasters, and more. All this awareness is creating much higher levels of stress as our bodies respond by going into fight or flight mode (whether we need to be or not!).

What was I (and many leaders) missing?  

I believe there were three strategies I was missing that would have made a huge difference in terms of optimizing my performance and preventing burnout. If I had paid more attention to these three strategies, I believe my results and outcomes would have been significantly different.

Strategy 1: Increase capacity by balancing beings with neuroscience-based practices and vertical development.

Instead of just working harder and longer, what if instead we increased the capacity of which are able to accomplish.

Have you heard of horizontal versus vertical development?

We need to incorporate more vertical development into our performance and development programs. Think of it like this: horizontal development is more knowledge information; it’s like filling up a cup. Once the cup is full, it just starts overflowing. Vertical development, which leads to transformational growth, is expanding the size of your cup. With horizontal development, the more we try to solve our challenges, the more our cup overflows - leading to stress and burnout. Instead, with vertical development, we are expanding our capacity and capabilities to be able to do more.

We expand this capacity by developing greater self-awareness and applying many of the principles of neuroscience to create transformational growth. By paying greater attention to our body’s messages and internal wisdom, we can identify the best ways to expand our capacity. As we learn more about our bodies’ reaction to our experiences, we can learn to better regulate our nervous system, listen to the messages our neurons are sending us, and take actions that will create better performance results.

Strategy 2: We must address root issues rather than surface-level behaviors with self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

I didn't have knowledge or awareness of the neuroscience principles and didn't know or recognize how much my past experiences were hindering my future development. My development didn't address the root issues. Instead, I was focused on trying to change the surface-level behaviors.

Typically, when we want to improve or change a person’s results or outcomes, we start by trying to change their behaviors. Behaviors are easy to observe as they are the actions a person is taking that create their results. When we try to change or create new behaviors, we are focused on steps, strategies, practices, or habits. These techniques are typically defined or recommended by someone else based upon what worked for them. Unfortunately, rarely do these changes work in the long term. This is why so many struggle to change their eating or exercising routines. They focus on the behavior “eating well” or “exercising” rather than the root cause of the issue.

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The issue preventing long-term behavior change is actually many layers below this level. Below behaviors are our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physiology. We have to get down to our emotions and physiology in order to achieve transformational growth and expand our capacity with long-term lasting changes in behaviors and performance.

For example, have you ever taken a course and never done anything with the knowledge and information you acquired?

Or maybe you were only able to implement one small thing you learned?

I see this often with Emotional Intelligence courses, especially those required in the workplace. Many people can know what emotional intelligence is but do not actually know how to do it effectively, how well they are doing at it, or how to improve it. Even if I shift my awareness or mindset (thoughts) a little bit, it doesn’t change the embodied practice.

 Instead, leaders must learn how to truly understand emotions and physiology if they want to truly optimize their performance and that of their teams. They must become more aware of their emotions using objective measures (such as our Vibeonix Emotional Intelligence voice recognition assessment tool). They must also learn how behaviors are rooted in our bodies (embodied), or physiology, and if we want to make lasting change, we must re-wire these patterns.

Strategy 3: We must evolve to peak performance with a partner applying the elements of transformational growth.

As a leader in talent management before my burnout experience, I had studied, researched, and trained on performance practices for many years. I knew everything about the 4 Keys to Peak Performance (Expectations, Feedback, Development, & Accountability) but I was missing a few very key elements. I missed some of the elements of transformational growth required to truly re-wire our neuropathways and change our past behavior patterns to optimize performance.

I hadn't fully incorporated the elements that lead to transformational growth to help me not just develop, but expand my capacity and capabilities related to these skills. Transformational growth or learning requires that we do more than know and understand the concept or practice.

  • First, we must take time for reflection so we can relate the concepts and connect them to our experiences.
  • Then, we can translate our reflection into key insights that align with our own unique internal wisdom for what we should do next or take action on.
  • Then, we must actually take action incorporating defined practices into our life experience as we cultivate this new capability.
  • We must also do them consistently to develop new neuropathways.
  • And we must take personal accountability for following through on what we identify as the actions we will take.
  • And finally, the best way to accomplish all of this is with the support of performance partner who can provide us regular feedback, check in on our progress, reinforce our actions, and help us identify root issues. By having a performance partner, we can be challenged and supported through the process of transformational growth.

Think of a performance partner as a driving instructor. You are the driver; you are the one choosing what to do and making the decisions. The partner is next to you by your side correcting and encouraging you and making sure you stay on track and don't run off the road. Once you learn to drive, it becomes second nature to you - you can do it without thinking. Ever driven to work and not remembered driving there? In the beginning, we had to think about every little thing until we expanded our capacity, and it became something we didn’t even have to consciously think about.

How many people struggle with all or some of these elements?

  • Here are some of the excuses we often hear or give for not doing them:
  • Never finding the time for reflection.
  • Trying what others suggest vs. identifying your own insights.
  • Too busy to take action, let alone do it consistently.
  • Unable to commit to the action or take accountability for long-term change.

If you want to truly create lasting transformational growth, we need a performance partner who will help us be successful. Leaders need this resource to help them so that ultimately, they can become the performance partner for those they lead and help them to optimize their performance as well.

Closing Remarks: Start now or risk falling behind.

If you’re a leader today and not expanding your capacity, you are going to be in trouble. The challenges we outlined at the beginning are only going to keep coming at you and your people. Overtime, inevitably, your cup will overflow and either you or your people will experience burnout. Likely you and your people are already being impacted negatively today and could benefit from these strategies greatly.

Want to learn more about these strategies and an approach for how to address them successfully?

Check out this free webinar where I go much deeper into this topic: https://www.evolvingtoexceptional.com/3STRATEGIESWEBINAR

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