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Visiting Pity City (and Other Surprising Strategies for Performance)

I love surprises. Not the kind that involve pranks, embarrassment, or someone jumping out to yell SURPRISE! Rather, I really love unexpected benefits or counter intuitive approaches to meet a goal.

Like the advantages to complaining. Most of us believe that complaining at work is inappropriate. If someone complains about something, it is often quickly shut down or dismissed as unprofessional. Complaining is often seen as unhelpful and unproductive.

But here’s the surprise - high performing teams not only engage in complaining, cursing, and sarcasm, but they find it is one of the contributors to their positive performance. It has to do with the safety they feel with each other and how these behaviors build relatedness within the team, an important psychological need for motivation.

Context is important, however. This is negative talk that is done in a controlled sense (it’s time limited) and it is balanced with positive talk. (If the complaining becomes excessive, however, it can be destructive and if you need tips for that, read here.)

This is what the quip, “Visit Pity City, just don’t move there” means. Allow a team some time to vent with no expectation to fix or problem solve. Just complain. Then, get back to work. Teams who do this tend to perform better than those who quash negative emotion.

I first read about this strategy almost 20 years ago in Jeannie Duck’s book and the concept has been proven to be effective in plenty of teaming research before that and since.

It’s a bit of surprise though, right?

These kinds of surprises are fun. Here are a few more.

Mistakes Can Be Indicators of High Performance

Some believe that those who perform at the highest levels must be closer to perfection and that perfection is the only acceptable outcome to get to high performance. Similarly, some believe it’s acceptable to hide mistakes or imperfections and lead others to believe there are none. The proverbial, “fake it ‘til you make it” mantra.

These beliefs are outdated and off-base. Mistakes, imperfections, and the openness to discuss them without judgement or punishment is exactly the behavior high performing leaders and teams engage in.

Amy Edmondson pioneered the research on team psychological safety (or the sense that it is safe to take interpersonal risks like admitting mistakes and uncertainty). She often tells the story of how she uncovered it as a PhD candidate.

She set out to study the relationship between errors and teamwork in hospitals. She thought that those teams who worked best together also made the fewest errors. Instead, her research found that higher performing teams reported more mistakes. She said, “That forced me to think: Maybe better teams don’t make more mistakes. Maybe they’re more willing and able to talk about them.”

Openness to discuss errors and uncertainty as well as the willingness to hear it from others without judgement are precisely the behaviors that lead to high performance.

Talking to Yourself (the right way) Builds Resilience

Often when we are stressed, scared, uncertain, or worried we talk to ourselves. It’s natural. This voice-track takes over saying things like “I really should do this.” or “Why did I say that?” It leads to rumination, which is a repetitive focus on past negative experiences and emotion.

Research has found that this first-person self-talk, using the word “I”, isn’t the best approach.

Ethan Kross’s research has found that using “distanced self-talk”, or speaking to ourselves in the third person, creates emotional space. This space promotes rational thinking and wise reasoning. It is as though we stand outside ourselves to experience and feel the situation as it might happen to someone else. It enables us to bounce back more productively from whatever knocked us down. We become more resilient.

Try it on. The next time you feel stressed or distracted, address the situation using third-person language. It might sound like “Amy, you’re letting this issue rent too much space in your head. What can you do right now to refocus on what matters most?”

It’s likely you’ll find this approach to be more effective.

Working Less Leads to Getting More Done

After decades of research, the Human Performance Institute (HPI) has confirmed one of the ways to maximize time and productivity. It is a process by which we strategically recover from stress, called oscillation. This is to shift between energy expenditure (stress) and restoring energy (recovery).

In the simplest terms, take breaks.

It sounds elementary but the research is undeniable. Taking short, intermitted breaks throughout the day enables our body and mind to recover from this energy expenditure. As a result, we make better decisions, think more critically, and prioritize effectively. We are more productive when we take breaks.

Ideally, take one every 60-90 minutes. Make it physical and better yet, go outside or at least look out a window. (Read more about the power of nature here.) Get up, walk around, march, stretch, breathe deep, channel Richard Simmons and dance to some oldies. It doesn’t matter but remaining seated behind a screen (handheld or desktop) does not count.

Instead of working non-stop, straight through your day, find periodic moments to refresh yourself. This means to stop working. It will make you more productive in the long run.

Counter-intuitive approaches to advancing performance are sometimes the ones that stick. The surprise effect is fun, interesting, and sparks curiosity to try. Give one a go and see what happens. It’s likely you and your team will find a new opportunity to grow.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.


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