February 14, 2012

Right effort

I was recently talking to someone who really needed to start putting more effort into their job, and it got me thinking about the concept of how much effort is enough. I thought back to my dad, whom I both give credit to and blame for making me as competitive as I am. In my childhood, whether it was school or sports, he was always asking me, "Did you try your best?" As an adult, when I coached youth sports, I would ask the kids on my team this same question. When they invariably answered "yes," I would tell them that they then were winners. I did this for two reasons: one, I wanted them to try their hardest (heck, I wanted to win), and two, I wanted them to feel good about themselves and avoid measuring success solely based on whether our team won or lost.

So, trying your best implies that more effort is always better, right? Well ... I’m not so sure. I had believed that most of my life until I read a book called The Four Agreements. One of the referenced agreements is “Always Do Your Best.” As you would expect, doing your best involves trying hard, but this agreement also says you shouldn’t try to do more than your best. That was a tough concept for me to fully get my head around until recently when I had a chance to practice with a famous yoga instructor, Rolf Gates. During the practice, he talked a lot about "right effort." From a physical standpoint, I understood right effort to be the balance between putting in enough effort to accomplish your goals, but not so much that you strain and potentially hurt yourself – similar to not trying to do more than your best.

In endurance sports, there had long been the concept of "more is better." Marathoners would put in tons of miles as they trained. But over time, people came to understand that you could do too much and overtrain. The results would be suboptimal, and would also often lead to overuse injuries. In team sports, you’ll often hear the announcers talk about a star performer "trying too hard." In basketball, a star player may be forcing bad shots and the announcers will talk about how the player needs to “let the game come to them” and play their role.

There are similar effects in business – more effort isn’t necessarily always better. Like the overtrained athlete, you can try too hard by simply taking on too much work. You become overwhelmed, work quality suffers, deadlines get missed, and stress builds. Furthermore, in trying to get 100 little things done, none of the bigger strategic initiatives gets accomplished and no transformative progress is made.

Analogous to the team athlete who is forcing things and not playing his or her role, you can try too hard by doing others’ work for them (often a supervisor). I’m not saying you shouldn’t pitch in and help someone as part of a team effort, but sometimes this can go too far. This scenario happens a lot to control freaks (like me?) who want things done right, and by that they mean their way. I believe people also fall into this trap for more altruistic reasons. They don’t want to see someone fail, so they step in and do the work for them. The problem is by not allowing someone to fail, you are also not allowing them the opportunity to succeed.

So what should we expect of ourselves and our employees? We should expect everyone to do their best, but also understand that it is possible to try too hard. I know it’s a subtle distinction, but finding “right effort” will lead to sustainable and long-lasting success.

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