Creating High Performance: The First Principle

If you ask people what makes them satisfied, the answers will group into six categories. These categories are in fact principles of satisfaction. When these principles are put to use, satisfaction follows.

Since we, in our process, ask these questions of people at work, we get a specific set of responses that relates to the appropriateness of these six principles in a work situation. Three of these principles are of dominant importance, two are of some importance, and one is of no importance. Yet they are all of equal importance in life.

Let’s take a look at the most frequently mentioned principle of satisfaction at work: Achievement and Recognition (33.7% of all responses). The key driver of satisfaction at work is to achieve and to be recognized for the achievement.

It never fails in a project when people are asked to do uncommon, backbreaking and impossible tasks, just the very challenge excites and motivates them. Asking people to "become 5% or more productive" neither stimulates nor motivates them. In fact, it just places another burden on them that, if repeated, eventually leads to burnout, absenteeism and resignation.

But ask them to become 50% more productive!? Now the old ways are no longer possible. Ingenuity is called for. Cooperation, new skills, new ways of doing things, all appear.

I remember how Regence Blue Shield in Seattle achieved miraculous performance improvements in just six weeks by coming together as one team in early morning meetings. Whoever fell behind in processing claims was helped by those who were ahead, with full backing from Cam Strong, a key leader in that division of Regence.

The results were there for all to see. And when the backlog of claims went from worst to first in the industry, we celebrated! And what a celebration! The powerful Superintendent of Schools in Seattle, General John Stanford, attended the gathering. Representing one of Regence Blue Shield’s largest customers, Seattle’s public schools, he personally thanked the team for their phenomenal increase in productivity. We asked General Stanford himself about what brought him the most satisfaction in his work, to which he answered:

"The other day, a father stopped me while I was out driving. He reached across and put his hand on mine and said, "I am so excited about what you are doing. You are my child’s destiny." It’s so powerful. How do you measure that? You can’t measure it; you can only feel it. It is love."

John Stanford realized that before anything could happen in school performance, children had to learn to read. So he had schools compete for a prize for doing the most reading in a year. The winning school was asked what they would most like to have as a reward. They said they wanted the General to lower himself by rope from a helicopter in their schoolyard.

He did so. The superbly conditioned military man showed his skills in front of hundreds of cheering children. Their achievement was given a very personal – yet very public – recognition. They could not have been more pleased.

The same children grieved when John Stanford passed away a year later of acute myeloginous leukemia. The whole city of Seattle shared in their grief for a man who had dared set impossible goals, and then set out to achieve them. John Stanford’s goal was to have Seattle become the best urban school system in the nation. That vision galvanized the students, the teachers and the parents. The satisfaction of reaching such a noble goal was exceeded only by the sorrow of seeing their General fall in battle. It was a battle he could not win – his disease is invariably fatal. But he outlived the doctor’s prognosis by almost a year, and finished the book that was to be his living legacy for his beloved schools.

Why would a dying man spend his precious dwindling hours writing a book?

Because that would be an enormous achievement. And the satisfaction of knowing that he had given it his all is the deepest source of human happiness. To give your all in a cause that is worthy, that you believe in, and that you cherish, is an internal form of recognition. It does not depend on any external factor - the joy of the work itself is reward enough. Can you imagine a job that makes you feel like that every hour of the day? I can!

I have seen people cleaning hospital rooms who knew that their passion for doing as good a job as is humanly possible would save lives.

I had a car mechanic for many years whose pride in his work and professional ethic made me trust him with any service or repair that I needed.

When Harold Krohnemeyer at Hydro Aluminum Bohn took charge of a dirty, messy and poorly functioning part of the plant, within mere days you could eat off the shiny floor, work in progress never piled up between stations, and the plant won the biggest contract in its history.

As a teacher, the highest recognition I can possibly receive is that my students succeed. And when they do – and they take a moment or two to tell me about it – my stoic, Norwegian nature sometimes yields to tears. High performance is emotional. John Stanford knew that, and that’s why his name brings both smiles and tears to those who worked endless hours with him against impossible odds.

It is interesting to note that no one ever mentions money as the prime source of satisfaction of work. People do not work for money. They work for a cause, a quest, a great goal, and a great contribution. Those who work for money will leave whenever a better offer comes around. Their satisfaction must necessarily be tied to something external: money, material things, titles, and status symbols. The most satisfying jobs are jobs that offer opportunities to be embraced by the principles of human satisfaction. We’ll examine them, one by one, such as they are engraved in our memories, and in our souls.

Is this not true, General John Stanford, my brave and unforgettable friend?


© 2002 Tor Dahl & Associates