Performance is about wellbeing

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Written by Derek Mowbray on 1 December 2013 in Features

Derek Mowbray has a strategy to provoke wellbeing and performance

Incubating stress is easy. Create organisations with managers who have little experience, or training, in the management of people; experience an economic environment that imposes strain on the workplace, where holding onto a job is vital because there are few alternatives; create an intimidating working environment in which managers place impossible, and often illogical, demands on their staff, and you have the ingredients that render individuals feeling helpless in a turbulent world. This is a classic and common recipe for stress and under-performance for organisations, and misery for the individuals involved.

Organisations should be fabulous places to work. They are created and controlled by people to achieve great success. They should be places that are effective oases in a desert of ordinary life characterised by mistrust in major institutions, such as the Church, the police, the law, the politicians and the banks. Organisations should be safe havens where we derive personal satisfaction from challenges and being stretched, being valued and liked, having friends and role models, and earning money. They are places that should feed our personal success and happiness.

Instead, organisations seem incapable of preventing stress from occurring. They tackle the problem from the wrong end, waiting until people become stressed and then providing interventions that have no impact on its prevalence. They are willing to spend a fortune on coping with stress, not understanding that stress is the single biggest impediment to peak performance, and is largely preventable.

People who go to work but involuntarily cannot concentrate on their work fall into an expanding iceberg of those experiencing psycho-presenteeism - they are present but cannot concentrate and, therefore, under-perform. A recent estimate from the Parliamentary Information Office put the cost of psycho-presenteeism at £60bn per annum, or near to £1,000 per man, woman and child in the UK1. Generally, the estimated cost to organisations is twice the combined costs of sickness absence and attrition attributable to psychological distress. The costs are enormous.

Preventing stress is, also, easy. Create organisations with managers who know how to make the workforce feel psychologically well; how to motivate the workforce; how to share, with the workforce, responsibility for the future success of the organisation, and you have the ingredients of a fabulous workplace, one that is flexible and adaptable, resilient and hugely successful. It's common sense but not common practice.

Implementing change

All organisations are somewhere on a highway between being badly managed to being a 'fabulous place to work'. Finding out where your organisation is positioned can be done by completing a suitable questionnaire. Once you know where your organisation sits, you may wish to implement changes to help the organisation become a 'fabulous place to work'.

Going through change is stressful for many people. However, change is essential for survival, and organisations with workforces that adapt effectively and quickly to new situations are ones that produce both corporate and personal resilience. Such a workforce has to be psychologically well to be able to adapt effectively without any diminution in performance during the process.

Psychological wellbeing, adaptation and performance are all linked. As change is a series of constant events, people who adapt well to change are normally psychologically well, as they are in control of themselves. They are, also, people whose performance is unlikely to be impaired by the process of change.

Organisations that wish to eliminate psycho-presenteeism, become corporately resilient and achieve peak performance will need to introduce a number of elements that enable psychological wellbeing.

The steps to be taken to achieve this are set out below.

Wellbeing and performance

People who feel well perform better than people who feel unwell. Feeling well is, amazingly, all about how you feel. It has some link to physical health, but not necessarily very much. You can feel well but have a serious physical illness; conversely, you can feel rotten without having anything 'wrong' with you - a hangover, for example. If you feel unwell, you feel out of personal control; this is an awful sensation that most people seek to avoid. Some people are forced to feel unwell as there is no alternative, and they seek out coping strategies including medication. Others will eventually escape the situation if they cannot control themselves in it.

The ingredients for feeling well are clustered around having a purpose in life, feeling personal success and happiness in relation to a number of key elements - relationships, resources, the environment, personal growth, personal control and other items that individuals feel are important to them.

Performance is about being able to concentrate combined with motivation. People can acquire all the skills, knowledge and experience in the world but, if they cannot focus and concentrate on completing a task, they are not performing effectively. In order to achieve peak performance, it is necessary to remove the impediments to concentration.

There is no consensus on how long individuals can concentrate but a general rule of thumb might be for about 50 minutes in an hour, after which the brain needs a break. Shorter bursts of concentrated effort may be perfect. Some people can concentrate for longer. The emphasis, however, is on the ability to concentrate sufficiently long to complete bite sized tasks effectively, "without repetition, hesitation or deviation".

Motivation comes, mainly, from outside the individual. The person is, effectively, enticed by something, and the enticement triggers him to take action. In the workplace, the enticements are many but, for peak performance, they are around the elements that trigger social engagement, when the individual gets a buzz from completing tasks effectively, which, in turn, feeds a sensation of feeling psychologically well.

The link between wellbeing and performance is that people who feel well tend to feel in control of themselves and are then able to form attitudes that maintain the sensation of feeling well. It is attitude that determines the level of performance.

Organisations need to provoke strong attitudes to peak performance by nurturing psychological wellbeing, and providing psychological enticements that motivate the workforce to perform at its peak.

I have designed the Wellbeing and Performance Agenda to help organisations provoke strong attitudes and provide psychological enticements that motivate individuals to perform at their peak.

Commitment, trust, engagement and kinship

The hook on which the Wellbeing and Performance Agenda hangs is the creation of commitment, trust, engagement and kinship among all employees, including leaders and managers. They have been demonstrated to have a major impact on preventing stress and, therefore, need introducing as the foundation building blocks in the workplace.

Commitment is, potentially, a level of attachment to something or someone that can either result in action or no action. We can be committed to something without doing anything. However, it is a starting point and can develop into a strong attachment depending on motivation and other elements.

Trust is not second guessing others' motivations when they do something. We take what they do at face value and don' t spend any time questioning why they do what they do.

Engagement is a stronger sense of commitment. There are, generally, three types of engagement - economic, when the economic rewards keep the person engaged with his organisation and work; loyalty, when the person has a sense of duty towards his organisation and work; social engagement, when the person gets a buzz from being engaged with his organisation and work, and is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption. In this context we focus on social engagement.

Kinship is a relationship between people based on kindly attentiveness, mutual support, common goals, shared risks, shared successes and elastic tolerance.

All these elements form the ingredients that organisations need to mix together to produce a culture, approach to management, and working environment that provokes psychological wellbeing and peak performance in individuals.

Psychological responsibility

Commitment, trust, engagement and kinship are, also, the foundations of a psychological responsibility we all have for the psychological wellbeing of ourselves and everyone else. If we adopt an attitude of psychological responsibility, we start thinking about the behaviours that eliminate the risk of triggering stress in others. We become more attentive to others; more kindly towards them; more interested in what they say and do; more encouraging and more tolerant.

Psychological responsibility is a cultural value that workplaces can adopt, and feed into the expectations placed on managers and employees. Being mindful of your psychological responsibility to others has a dramatic effect on improving individual and corporate performance.

The wellbeing and performance strategic framework

Organisations may find it helpful to use a strategic framework as a map for development.

The framework above has five strategic purposes. Strategies one and five focus on preventing stress in the first place, and maintaining a stress-free working environment.

Strategies two, three and four are each reactive to people with stress. Strategy two prevents deterioration in those with stress.

Strategy three restores those with stress back to a normal level of independent life, and strategy four focuses on rehabilitating people with chronic stress.

The Wellbeing and Performance Agenda focuses on strategies one and five - preventing stress by implementing the cultures, leadership, management behaviours and styles, and the working environment that produce commitment, trust, engagement and kinship. These things all combine to provoke positive psychological wellbeing and performance.

The Wellbeing and Performance Agenda

I have developed the agenda (illustrated above) to help organisations achieve peak performance. There is a temptation to focus only on one or two aspects of it, but doing this will not achieve the desired results: eliminating psycho-presenteeism and achieving peak performance require a systemic approach in which all its aspects are implemented.

The agenda has five elements: discovery, the culture, the leadership, the working environment and the person.


The Discovery process seeks out the specific activities and items that individuals feel impede their own wellbeing and performance. It is more specific than most staff surveys, which, in general, provide high-level results that necessitate a more specific discovery process afterwards.

The culture - an adaptive culture

Culture influences everything. Picking up cultural nuances is something everyone does, and they help individuals position themselves as well as help them form attitudes towards the organisation and the work they are expected to complete.

An adaptive culture is one that is based on commitment, trust, engagement and kinship and, as the name suggests, provides corporate resilience against internal and external pressures for change. Corporate resilience is about the organisation, as a whole, having a robust attitude towards pressures, sufficient to enable the workforce to respond positively, effectively and fast.

Adaptive cultures perform more effectively than others, as they rapidly and effectively respond to the requirements to adapt and change - the key to survival and success.

Organisations can only be effectively adaptive if their workforces feel psychologically well, in control of themselves, and confident in their ability to adapt without any diminution in performance. Adaptive cultures do not require large amounts of time to be devoted to the fallout for the workforce of changes to the organisation: the workforce is already adaptable and flexible, anticipates changes and embraces them.

The ingredients of an adaptive culture are:

  • clarity of purpose
  • cultural values that achieve commitment, trust, engagement and kinship, and reflect psychological responsibility
  • a vision
  • corporate values that place the workforce at their centre, with customers, clients, partners and shareholders following on
  • a corporate strategy that places the workforce at its centre
  • a structure that is as flat as possible
  • the capability to use the workforce's skills, knowledge and experience to solve problems, rather than expecting certain positions to be capable of solving all problems
  • partnerships that reflect the same, or similar, cultural and corporate values
  • rules that enable commitment, trust, engagement and kinship to be implemented:
    • recruitment
    • job expectations
    • job challenges
    • pay
    • teams
    • involvement
    • openness
    • communication
    • career development
    • manager encouragement
    • performance appraisal and reverse appraisal
    • work-life balance
    • training and development
    • corporate citizenship2.

The leadership - adaptive leadership processes

The management process most likely to result in commitment, trust, engagement and kinship is adaptive leadership. The principles of this process are based on shared responsibility for the future success of the organisation.

This is a significant shift from the conventional oligarchical approach to management, with power vested in a few people, to a polyarchy that shares power among all. This approach means that the workforce considers the organisation primarily, and what it believes to be in the best interests of the organisation and its future. This leads to a number of expectations - that:

  • independent judgment is expected from the workforce
  • 'elephants in the room' are raised routinely and dealt with appropriately
  • leadership capacity is expanded
  • reflection and continuous learning is institutionalised.

Understanding adaptive leadership principles more deeply requires an appreciation of two types of decision - authoritative decisions, which are technical and for which solutions are known, and adaptive decisions, for which the solutions are speculative and, possibly, ambiguous.

Most organisations face adaptive challenges for which solutions are speculative. Too often, in conventional management processes, adaptive decisions are treated as though there are technical solutions, leading, often, to check-list management with procedures and protocols covering complex adaptive issues. This can cause psychological distress in people required to follow a particular procedure that ill fits the situation they face.

The adaptive leadership approach is complemented by manager behaviours that provoke commitment, trust, engagement and kinship. The behaviours can be summed up as those that 'persuade others to do things they may not wish to do, without causing any stress' - seduction.

The key attributes that lead to these behaviours are:

  • attentiveness
  • trustworthiness
  • wisdom
  • assertiveness
  • intelligence with humour
  • passion
  • direction with committed ambition
  • addressing individual needs
  • nurturing.

If managers can build the attributes above into their thinking, they will produce the behaviours that will result in commitment, trust, engagement and kinship.

The environment - the adaptive working environment

The working environment is about the physical, as well as the psychological, environment.

At home, most people are able to choose the furniture, carpets, paint colour, machines, layout of rooms, what to eat, and when to meet others. The working environment is built around the same principles.

There are six elements that constitute the adaptive working environment. They are:

  • nutrition - providing appropriately nutritious food that aids concentration
  • exercise - giving people the opportunity to exercise during the day, not to get fit but to ensure that blood circulates effectively
  • ergonomics - designing offices and equipment to enhance people's opportunity to concentrate on completing tasks
  • information technology - using it to enhance concentration and facilitate the completion of tasks
  • technology - applying it to facilitate people's concentration on, and completion of, tasks
  • manager practices - ones that enhance people's ability to concentrate and eliminates the risks of psychological distress.

The essential feature of this element of the agenda is adapting the environment to the psychological wellbeing of the individual, and the workforce.

The person - the adaptive and resilient person

The previous elements of the agenda have focused on the context within which people are expected to work. This element focuses on the person.

The adaptive person is also a resilient person. Resilience is about maintaining personal control so that attitudes may be formed which enable the person to cope with events and people without any diminution in their performance.

Resilience is a choice. The choice to be resilient is determined largely by the context in which the challenging event or poor behaviour occurs, and an evaluation by the individual about whether one attitude or another maintains his personal psychological wellbeing.

It can be strengthened by experiences and by specific training. The resilience development framework shown above sets out eight elements that form a personal programme:

  • self-awareness People who know themselves well are more likely to understand other people, and respond to them in a flexible and adaptable manner, thereby maintaining personal control in situations
  • determination People who understand their core values will know they drive them. People who align their tasks in life with their core values are more likely to be determined to complete them
  • vision People who know what they want out of life are more likely to feel well, and will find short-term diversions from their vision as being less intrusive psychologically
  • self-confidence People who can control their own anxiety are more likely to be able to tackle anything they wish
  • organisation People who can organise themselves in situations of chaos are likely to be more resilient in such situations
  • problem-solving People who can solve problems are likely to be more flexible and adaptable that others, and be able to maintain personal control in situations that need working out
  • interaction People who can control an interaction without causing distress are resilient against others' poor behaviours
  • relationships People who have important and strong relationships are more resilient against events and people3.


The incidence of stress is rising, and most organisations tackle this challenge from the wrong end.

A strategy for preventing stress occurring in the first place involves adopting psychological responsibility for the psychological wellbeing of oneself and others. It also involves implementing the Wellbeing and Performance Agenda, a systemic approach to the prevention of stress by promoting elements in organisations and their management that entice individuals to perform at their peak without experiencing stress.

Implementing the agenda is a relatively cheap option as it entails the training of managers and organisation development specialists in the triggers that provoke psychological wellbeing, many of which have been set out in this article.



2 Mowbray D Derek Mowbray’s Guide to Corporate Resilience MAS Publishing (2012)

3 ibid

About the author

Derek Mowbray BA, MSc, MSc(Econ), PhD, DipPsych, CPsychol, CSci, FIHM is a director of the Management Advisory Service, visiting professor of psychology at the universities of Northumbria and Gloucestershire, chairman of the Wellbeing and Performance Group, director of the National Centre for Applied Psychology and a trustee of the International Stress Management Association. He can be contacted via


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Submitted on 11 March, 2014 - 10:13
Derek, Excellent article and framework. I couldn't agree more, resilience is now extremely important in business and life. We can even hear the Football Managers of Premier league clubs talking about resilience in their comments about the performance of the teams. Resilience is a skill that we can all learn and develop in order to be better at it. It takes commitment, a positive outlook and willingness to learn. But the results are extremely rewarding, specially in our current working culture of " busyness ", where burnouts are more and more frequent. Thanks for sharing your expertise. Resilient Regards Joao Bocas

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