Nurturance and performance

A relatively common norm is the idea that we need to be quite disciplinarian and hard-lined if we want to bring the best out of people: clearly communicate expectations, set boundaries, evaluate performance with the goal of doing better next time, which includes criticising failures and punishing transgressions (as well as praising excellence).

A lot of this misguided work we (have learned to) do on ourselves. We tend to compare ourselves and our performance quite directly with the people we know, and it is not an idle contemplation: Who is better? Were we or our contribution good enough? Is better than John really good enough? Did we receive recognition from others or from ourselves? What do we feel as recognition?

The goal of this culture may be continual improvement, but I don’t think the cultural environments we’ve created and perpetuated are appropriate to that. I think our dynamic with improvement could do with some improvement.

Any teacher of mindfulness will agree that to the extent we have an improvement orientation to our experience, we overwrite things as they are with our personal vision for how they should be. We avoid seeing reality by seeing instead how we want it to be or fear it might be. An improvement orientation is interested in things only through fairly narrow criteria, which are often very personal.

Three observations:

Firstly, that narrowing of perspective excludes a lot of useful information.

Secondly, our adoption of improvement orientation is less a choice than a habit, and it precludes our taking other, more effective orientations.

Thirdly, when we or something precious to us is the object of an improvement orientation, we tend to become defensive.

Let me note at this point that I’m not anti-improvement. The very purpose of this post is to bring about an improvement. I’m not suggesting we stop making things better. Rather, I‘m suggesting noticing our dynamic with improvement. Is it urgent or spacious? Is it calm or tense? Do we feel it is a pretty big deal?

Urgency and tension about life and its challenges don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes than their opposites — spaciousness and calm, let’s say. The opposite is true: calm is more creative and more effective than tension. (The more we use our prefrontal cortex and the less we use our amygdala, the further our thinking and behaviour surpass our reptilian evolutionary ancestors.) This also feels better, which is not incidental: on the whole, teams who enjoy themselves should outperform teams who don’t.

If we’re interested in performance and high-quality output (i.e. improvement) then at the very least it’s worth cultivating a calm attitude. And — second major point — I think it’s worth doing much more than that: it’s worth cultivating caring.

To me, it seems likelier that people perform better when they feel highly valued, when they have a confidence that their contributions meet with appreciation, when they are inspired by a genuine relationship with their peers. I’d feel much better coming forward with an idea or a piece of work in an environment where my peers appreciate contribution, rather than one in which ideas first meet criticism and the culture is one of competition. I think almost everybody would. (I intentionally reached out before publishing this to an associate I was sure would greet it with appreciative feedback.)

As Nancy Kline’s Listening Environment suggests, creativity emerges in cultures of openness, acceptance and appreciation. Our culture mostly derides those values, mistakenly, as soft values, in which “soft” is not-so-subtly pejorative.

What I’m saying here is that softness is a genuine and effective positive value, while cultures of hardness, individualism and competition are less efficacious than we’ve come to believe. Our best thinking and our best actions emerge in cultures that are softer and warmer, which cultivate acceptance, trust and compassion. We need to be soft with each other, because we are soft entities at heart, and that is why we want to improve.

If there’s a neat corporate bottom line here, it is the need to create cultures of nurturance as means to organisational success. On a personal note, that also feels like something of a mission statement: nurturing coaching — giving people the experience of being deeply heard, at a minimum — is something I feel equipped to deliver. We can have mindfulness without caring, but not caring without mindfulness, so we should aim to cultivate caring first and mindfulness will automatically arise.

If this were a Serious Academic Project, subsequent inquiries might include:

  • how to distinguish genuine nurturance from its facsimiles
  • identifying the characteristics of nurturance in human interactions