Author Talks: Get on the performance curve

By taking pause to assess our default responses, Dr. Laura Watkins says we can take new problem-solving avenues that build our capacity to handle change and complexity.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Max Landsberg chats with neuroscience expert and Cognitas Group cofounder Dr. Laura Watkins about her new book, The Performance Curve: Maximize Your Potential at Work while Strengthening Your Well-being (Bloomsbury Publishing, November 2021). Having both well-being and success doesn’t have to be a balancing act. In fact, Watkins and coauthor Vanessa Dietzel have cracked the conundrum of how to make wellness and effectiveness work in concert with one another. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

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Ultimately, we all have one precious life. When we ask people what will make theirs meaningful, they usually tell us two types of things.

On the one hand, they’ll often say that they want to be successful, or achieve certain goals, or contribute in some way. We would summarize that as the desire to be effective. They’ll also tell us typically that they want to feel good in order to have meaningful relationships or in order to have good health and well-being. We summarize that as well-being. With these two different objectives in mind, the effectiveness and the well-being, there comes a problem, which is that very often people end up trading off between the two things.

Often, with the people that we’re working with at Cognitas Group, the effectiveness is there most of the time, but it’s the well-being that takes a hit. Whether that’s long hours of travel, time on video calls, or taking work calls on weekends or holidays, we often see that they are making those trade-offs. That might be fine in the short term, it might get them results, but in the longer term it’s going to have a hit on their effectiveness and productivity overall.

When we’re not taking the time to recharge, our brains are more likely to be in a protect state, which is a fight-or-flight state where our prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain that brings our most human, highest forms of thinking—isn’t going to be working as well, so we’re not going to be bringing our best thinking to the problems. Over the longer term, when the brain is constantly in that fight-or-flight state and we’re feeling stress, it affects the structure and the functioning of the brain.

We wanted to answer, with this book, the question of what it really takes to have effectiveness and well-being work in concert—to complement each other rather than to work against each other.

To do that, we’ve tried to come up with a practical road map drawing on all of the different elements of our expertise: my background as a neuroscientist and in adult development psychology, my colleague Vanessa Dietzel’s background as a yoga teacher and a breathwork therapist, and both of our work in executive coaching.

We’ve also brought to bear plenty of scientific data to the problem, and we’ve spoken to a number of remarkable individuals from many walks of life who we think have little pieces of this puzzle about what it takes to have effectiveness and well-being work together.

What is the performance curve and why is it beneficial?

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On the performance curve, we’ve cracked the conundrum of how to have effectiveness and well-being—and have the two be mutually reinforcing. We’ve done that by building our inner capacity to deal with change and complexity.

So what does that mean? It means life is full of change and complexity, and the last couple of years have been a stark illustration of that. One way we can deal with that change and complexity is by throwing our resources at it. We can be reactive, and we can, in an adrenaline-fueled way, work through issues and get to the other side. Then, the chances are we will have spent our resources, so we’ll need to rest and regroup, and then go again when the next crisis hits. We call that cycle a boom-and-bust curve.

By contrast, we can also look at those challenges we’re facing by taking a step back and asking ourselves, “How can I grow or work in a different way to face this challenge?” That’s what we mean by being on the performance curve—it is to look at our inner operating system, our default responses, our mindsets, our emotional reactions, and our habits, and to ask ourselves, “How can we think differently, react differently, or work in a different way that allows us to get different results?”

For example, let’s say I’m facing a hurdle at work. I could push through it, I could push my team, and the chances are that I’d get a result in the short term. But what if I were to step back and ask, “How am I contributing to this problem? What assumptions am I making? How can I work differently with other people or with my team to get a different result?” If I do that, I’m going to hopefully find better solutions. I’m also going to grow and learn, and my team will as well so that next time around, the problem is going to be easier.

On the performance curve, we’ve cracked the conundrum of how to have effectiveness and well-being—and have the two be mutually reinforcing. We’ve done that by building our inner capacity to deal with change and complexity.

Being on a performance curve is not about being happy or about being comfortable. It’s actually sometimes about being uncomfortable because we ask ourselves those challenging questions, but the idea is that over time it will become a more fulfilling place to be.

We will be able to take on greater challenges with greater ease, we’ll be able to focus ourselves on more meaningful work as we better understand what really drives us, and we will be able to have greater impact over time.

All of that will be done with greater ease so that we can put more into our well-being. That’s where the virtue cycle comes in because, of course, once we’re feeling better, we do better, and it keeps working in a positive cycle from there.

That’s not to say that we are expecting to live all of our lives on the performance curve, but the key is to recognize when we’re on the boom-and-bust curve, what’s causing that, and how we get back to the performance curve.

How do we spend more time on the performance curve?

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We outline three catalysts to being on the performance curve: the wisdom catalyst, the fuel catalyst, and the connection catalyst.

The wisdom catalyst is our ability to see and adapt our inner operating systems—to notice our mindsets, our emotional reactions, and our habits; to question whether they’re serving us and to find different ones to get different results.

Let’s say, for example, that I start to notice that when people disagree with me in meetings, I find myself moving into the protect state that I described earlier. I pay attention to why I’m going into the protect state, and I start to realize that it’s because when people disagree with me, I feel like they’re questioning my knowledge and my experience, and it really matters to me to feel knowledgeable and experienced and have other people see me in that way, too.

I might say to myself, “I’m in protect state, and that’s not really serving me. I’m not bringing my best thinking at a time when I’d really like to be able to. How can I approach things differently?” I might start to shift my attention to another way of thinking. For example, when somebody disagrees with me, it’s actually a chance to hear what they’ve got to say about the situation. I might pick up new ideas and knowledge and actually round out my knowledge and experience and maybe even contribute something to theirs.

What I’ve done there is I’ve noticed a driver of my own, a hidden driver, and I’ve flipped it around to work to my advantage. That’s going to then put me into more of an explore state in my brain because I’ll be drawn by the rewards and opportunities of being able to round out my knowledge and experience.

What I’ve done there is shift my inner operating system in a subtle way that’s going to help me to bring my best. My brain will be firing on all cylinders and hopefully will then get a better result.

The second catalyst is a fuel catalyst. This is about how we can sustain ourselves on the performance curve over the longer term. Part of this is about having a clear sense of purpose. When we’ve got that clear sense of purpose, it helps to fuel us to keep doing development because we’re motivated to bring our best, but it also helps us to go after and spend time on what we find meaningful, to better understand ourselves. That’s going to help bring out the explore state that I alluded to earlier.

Alongside that sense of purpose, we also know that it’s very important to have habits that are going to support us in being on the performance curve. These are habits that are going to help us notice when we’re more in a protect state and give us techniques to shift to explore state so that we can reset ourselves and get a fresh perspective.

Many people know that mindfulness is a powerful technique of its kind, but we uncovered so many different techniques that draw on breathing, or on different kinds of movement, or on different kinds of journaling or writing—things that we can do to really reset ourselves.

What we encourage people to do is to identify one or two tools they can use daily so that they can set themselves up for their best, and then also have in their pocket a couple of tools that they can pull out when they’re feeling knocked off balance by some kind of setback or challenge and they want to get back on track.

For example, when I’m feeling under pressure, one of the tools that I often use is a very simple breathing exercise: in for three and out for six. That lengthens my breath and settles me down, putting me back into more of an explore state.

What we encourage people to do is to identify one or two tools they can use daily so that they can set themselves up for their best, and then also have in their pocket a couple of tools that they can pull out when they’re feeling knocked off balance by some kind of setback or challenge and they want to get back on track. For example, when I’m feeling under pressure, one of the tools that I often use is a very simple breathing exercise: in for three and out for six. That lengthens my breath and settles me down, putting me back into more of an explore state.

The third catalyst is the connection catalyst. This is all about finding fellow travelers to support us on the curve and engage in developmental relationships where we can share vulnerably what’s going on for us, our mindsets, our emotions, our habits—and get challenged. This is not about it being cozy—it’s about some edge and challenge that comes with the empathy that the other person can bring.

How can we help other people to get onto and stay on the performance curve?

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I think there are three things we can do to really help others be on the performance curve. The most important is to be role models of it ourselves—to open up a little chink to share with other people how we’re striving to be on the performance curve.

Let’s say we’ve given a great speech or written a great document. Rather than just simply saying “thanks” when other people compliment us, let them know what it is that we’ve done to show up well. Perhaps we did a little bit of mindfulness beforehand or a breathing technique like I outlined, or perhaps we’ve reframed our mindset to say, “Other than this feeling like a challenging speech, it’s actually an opportunity to share some ideas that are important to me.”

It might seem a little vulnerable to share something of ourselves we wouldn’t normally share, but it’s an invitation and an encouragement to others to do their work on their inner operating systems, too. More importantly, it’s normalizing that this kind of work isn’t something we need to save up to do for the therapist or a coach, it’s something that’s part of everyday life.

The second thing we can do is to look for opportunities to strengthen one-to-one relationships into developmental relationships.

The third thing we can do is to look at the developmental culture in teams that we’re involved in. Feedback has been on the agenda for the last few years. Many organizations have worked to improve their board’s management processes, and part of that has been to encourage more regular feedback.

We see feedback as just one part of a developmental dialogue that we’re seeking to encourage overall. You might look and say, “What’s the level of developmental dialogue going on in my teams? Are people sharing openly the kinds of things that I’ve talked about? Or are they not really feeling the support and comfort to do that?” Then, you can look at what it would take to increase that.

There are lots of ideas in this book. What are some practical ways to start?

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With the book, we hope that people will use it to create their own road map. But let me offer a couple of ideas.

The first is to get really good at noticing where you are on that protect-mode-explorer-mode spectrum that I described earlier, and in particular what it is that triggers you to go into protect mode. When you start to understand that and look at the patterns around it, you’ll start to uncover your hidden drivers.

The second idea would be journaling. The data behind journaling is really strong just like it is for mindfulness. There’s a particular kind of journaling that we call expressive writing, which has a lot of evidence behind it. This is where you write your stream of consciousness and particularly your deepest thoughts and feelings over the course of a few minutes, perhaps up to ten minutes.

There is good evidence that it can reduce your stress levels, help you to shift back more into explore state, and even boost your immune system. There are studies that show when you give people little puncture wounds or something and then monitor their recovery, you actually see that people who are doing expressive writing will recover from their wound injuries quicker. It’s doing something with our immune systems, which is pretty amazing.

If you prefer something a bit more concise or structured, then the alternative I can offer is something we call “the daily review.” This is where at the beginning or end of the day, you take stock. You say, “What have I learned today? What have I learned about myself, the way I operate?” Then you say, “How am I going to show up differently tomorrow? What are my intentions for tomorrow? What am I hoping to accomplish or bring to the day? And how am I going to show up to make that become a reality?”

The third idea is to think of one relationship that you can make more developmental, where you can benefit and, ideally, they can benefit too from having deeper, more nourishing conversations about your development.

Extend a hand. Be vulnerable yourself or invite [the other person in the relationship] to do the same. It might feel uncomfortable at first. But when we help people to do that, they always tell us that it is valuable, rewarding, nourishing, and something that they really relish.

What surprised you most in the process of writing and researching The Performance Curve?

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We started this process with a hypothesis that we could marshal neuroscience, adult development psychology, and these holistic domains to help us unlock how to have more effectiveness and more well-being—but even we were surprised by how strong the data was in many cases.

There was plenty of scientific research, which our helpful research assistant managed to bring to bear, and there was so much commonality in the techniques that our diverse interviewees were using to help them be at their best.

Yet, on the other hand, I didn’t learn any of this stuff at school. I wasn’t taught any of these techniques at school, and very little at home. My guess is that it’s the same for many of us of my generation, but I think that’s changing. I went into my high school the other day to give a talk, and almost all of the pupils there were aware of the idea of the growth mindset.

I didn’t learn any of this stuff at school. I wasn’t taught any of these techniques at school, and very little at home. My guess is that it’s the same for many of us of my generation, but I think that’s changing. I went into my high school the other day to give a talk, and almost all of the pupils there were aware of the idea of the growth mindset.

That’s thanks to the work of Carol Dweck and others, which has found its way into education systems all over the world. But what about bringing this to much younger children? And what about having a much more integrated point of view about how to really set people’s brains up to be at their best over their lifetimes, and to start that work from a very young age?

This is the paradox that I finished the book with. On the one hand, we’re very happy to have contributed to a version of that integrative point of view on how to develop and support adults to grow. But on the other hand, I think I would love it if in a decade or two our work is redundant because it’s being systematically done at a much younger age. I think that would benefit those young people themselves, those around them, and also society at large.

Watch the full interview

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Laura Watkins on how to get on the performance curve

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