When Is Performance not a Competition?


When we have some time to take a breath, read a newspaper, watch a TV show, and relax, we find a continuation of what is common in the work place. A lot of what is presented and written about is describing how well – or not so well – others did, organizations did, sports teams did, – in a nutshell, how well they performed.

Every walk of life seems to be inundated with competition. We feel we constantly have to compete with others, show that we are worthy and that we deserve to advance based on our performance.

As you have seen in many articles and writings, I call myself a Performance Coach. When we say our motto is: “Helping other succeed”, or “Helping other help themselves achieve their goals and dreams”, we actually want to help them to improve their performance.

On first glace that seems to be pretty obvious and easy to understand. When we look into the meaning of the word performance, we can learn a number of things, but also get a little more confused. Here are some examples:

Kernerman’s English Multilingual Dictionary says performance is – the doing of something.

Axel high res

Fair enough. We probably can all agree with that. The questions is: what is the something and how well is it done?

Encyclopedia Britannica looks at the legal aspects and offers this explanation:

Performance in law, is the act of doing that which is required by a contract. The effect of successful performance is to discharge the person bound to do the act from any future contractual liability. Each party to the contract is bound to perform promises according to the stipulated terms.

I guess that means: If you do what you promised in a contract, you performed as expected and are entitled to the compensation that was promised to you. Wouldn’t it be nice if things were that simple? You tell your boss what you are willing to do, and when you do it, you are good to go? In most cases that won’t work, because we all have come to understand that what was originally promised is seen as the minimum requirement and sets the basic expectation.

The first lesson to learn from this is: Don’t over-promise, so the foundation of the expectation regarding your performance isn’t too high. Then, over-deliver and surprise those who need to compensate you.

A word of caution: You want to find realistic values when applying this lesson. If you play low-ball and then blow everybody away by your final delivery, you run the risk of losing trust. Give realistic figures, set realistic expectations, and then try everything you can to best them; that is the approach that will help you in the long run.

Back to the definitions: Webster’s Dictionary gives us these choices for the term:

Performance =

  • the execution of an action
  • something accomplished
  • the fulfillment of a claim, promise, or request
  • the action of representing a character in a play
  • a public presentation or exhibition (a benefit performance)
  • the ability to perform
  • the linguistic behavior of an individual

    With all these version of performance in mind, we want to see if it always has to be competition.

    I say – NO!

    What we want to achieve is a way to act and do things in our way. That is the way we want to be known for, the way we are proud of, the way we acknowledge for ourselves, the honest way we are and the way we act. Remember the saying: “How you do something is how you do everything!”

    Our performance should always be the best we can do. That requires to give our actions some thought – and don’t forget, what we say is an action too, so give that some thought as well.

    The recent tendency to turn everything into a competition makes life and work appear as if someone has to lose for someone else to win, and naturally, the winner is always seen as the better performer.

    In some cases when that argument of someone or something being better doesn’t necessarily apply, other reasons for awarding a winner to a competition are thought. You might recall the recent award of a huge contract by the US Air Force to the American company Northrop-Grumman. They have created a new tanker airplane for the military that won in 4 out of 5 critical performance areas. In addition it has the shorter take off distance with the same take off weight, meaning it can take off from shorter runways all around the world.

    When our troops are involved in battle, they don’t always have the luxury of perfectly prepared airfields with never ending runways, so this point has global importance. Still, Boeing tried to make the argument that they should win the contract anyway, because some of the parts and work is going to be done by a company outside the United States, namely Airbus.

    What does that mean for our initial question? Well, performance is not a matter of who wins the competition (assuming there even is one), but a matter of integrity. You don’t just want to perform to you highest level when others are watching (or judging, like about the tanker plane), but always. You want to be able to provide your best effort all the time, or the best of your team, and the best of your company.

    Yes, you may not always win, but that is because others try their hardest too, and every once in a while their best is a little better than yours. Rather than finding reasons outside yourself, you want to look at what can be learned, and do better the next time around.

    If you live and work in an environment where you can motivate others and yourself to always bring the best possible performance to the table, you will win the vast majority of situations. The effort and the integrity with which you perform it actually counts much more than the fact that you are the last one standing at the end of a competition.

    Bottom line: performance is not always a competition, but it should always be a sign of your best effort, brought with honesty, integrity, and pride to those that ask for it. If you set your values and your attitude in this way, you will become very successful, and everybody around you will love and respect you.

    Try it, – you will see how good it feels!

  • Axel Meierhoefer is an experienced performance coach, author, educator, consultant, and the founder of Axel Meierhoefer Consulting LLC (AMC LLC). His motto is Helping others help themselves achieve success.