The Culture of Personal Best

The Culture of Personal Best

Table of Contents

7 Common Characteristics in the Workplace

Striving for personal best is far from new or novel. Yet it seems an underdeveloped practice in the workplace.  

Athletes strive for their personal best in training and competition. It’s the culture of sport. Becoming a champion is what happens along the way.

The same can apply to people in their jobs, the teams they collaborate with, and the organizations where they work.  But more often than not people, work groups and businesses have a tendency to compare themselves against others.

It’s intrinsically human to compare

Research reported in Psychology Today found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind. As children, we want the same portion of dessert as others at the table. Later in life, we compare what we have or haven’t acquired against our neighbors, family and friends. Call it the “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon.  Just look at the number of SUVs on the road. Even luxury brands like Porsche, Audi and BMW have entered the market. Yet how many people really need that kind of power, performance, or size when their travel is largely urban, rarely occurs in foul weather, typically includes few passengers, and pretty much means commuting to and from work?

In the work world, we slip into “keeping up” when we measure internal employee engagement survey scores against external benchmarks. A peer-reviewed paper published by the U.S. National Academies Press states clearly that “for performance measures to have meaning and provide useful information, it is necessary to make comparisons.”

While it’s true comparison with rivalries can be motivating, Theodore Roosevelt may have had a good point when surmising: “comparison is the thief of joy.”  But what if comparison was shifted inwards?

British Olympic athlete, Jenny Meadows, says, “There’s no better feeling, even if I’ve won a race, than recording a personal best.”  Hikers on the Appalachian Trail have the motto “Hike your own hike.” In other words, resist the urge to compare how many miles you cover in a day to how far other hikers are traveling; seek your personal best.

Siemens endorses the concept of personal best so sincerely, it’s described as an intrinsic part of the German multinational’s corporate culture. “Even the best strategy can’t succeed unless it’s supported by a strong culture. That’s why we at Siemens live and foster an Ownership Culture – a culture that encourages every individual in our Company to give his or her best.”

Harvard Business Review asked hundreds of executives in surveys and in seminars all over the world to describe their ideal organization. While there were lots of blue sky ideas, one description kept surfacing:  an organization that operates at its fullest potential by allowing people to do their best work.

Enable employee succes

The ideal company makes its best employees even better and the least of them better than they ever thought they could be by instilling a culture of personal best. What does that look like?

Social scientists, academia and other proponents identify a number of characteristics shared by excelling individuals, organizations (and athletes). Here are 7 of the most commonly reported attributes that define a culture of personal bests:

  1. The passion and sincere belief in the importance of what you’re doing. When investigating the ideal company, Harvard Business Review’s study found people “need a sense of moral authority, derived not from a focus on the efficiency of means but from the importance of the ends they produce.”
  2. The confidence to face fears and take risks.  As hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once quipped, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
  3. Being flexible and open to change even when it means changing direction. Resourcefulness and moving swiftly comes in handy whether playing hockey or meeting personal, team, and corporate goals.
  4. A stubborn persistence and sustained quest to keep improving. Born into poverty, American writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie followed his own advice in the 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that remains popular today. “Don’t be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger.  If you do little jobs well, the big ones will tend to take care of themselves”  
  5. Never giving up. As the saying goes, “You win some. You lose some.” Failures or losses can’t get in the way.  Great business leaders and athletes alike know that you have to be willing to make mistakes in order to grow and ultimately succeed. Six-time NBA all-star, Stephen Curry scores 43.6% of the shots he takes from behind the arc. This means he misses more than half of the time. In business, Richard Branson has started many companies and seen plenty of them fail. Everyone makes mistakes. The point is to learn from them and move on.
  6. Having a vision and setting a strategy to get there.  Arup Group, the creative engineering force responsible for iconic buildings such as Sydney’s Opera House and Beijing’s Water Cube, seems to have it figured out. Managers make their expectations clear, but individuals decide how to meet them. At Arup, self-determination and personal best means empowering people to set their own paths and be accountable for their own success. 
  7. Celebrating wins no matter how big or small and giving credit to those who helped make it happen. That’s the mark of people and organizations who understand that being your own best cheerleader supports and drives the individual and collective psyche to go for that next personal best.