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What is a High-Performance Knowledge Worker?
Why high-performance knowledge work is an underdeveloped frontier
It was management expert Peter Drucker who first introduced us to the concept of knowledge workers, whom he argued used thinking, creativity, pattern recognition, intellectual reasoning, and general knowledge to expand the resources available to an organization.
In the sixty years since Drucker coined the term, the information age has expanded the pool of knowledge available and ratcheted up the speed at which decisions need to be made against the information at hand. Given this new landscape, continuing to view knowledge work as an economic principle based on resources seems misguided. Rather, we argue that our focus must turn biological, psychological, and social and begin to look at the world’s most untapped resource — the human brain.
In today’s world, high-performance knowledge workers (HPKWs) are everywhere. They’re the specialists we’ve come to rely on to deliver high-quality medical services, legal services, consulting work, and wins on Sunday. A high-performance knowledge worker is someone who’s paid to make high-level, high-quality decisions with a real impact on an organization’s functioning and bottom line.
But there’s a big problem in the world of high-performance knowledge work, and especially so in the sports world. Often, the very cultures these high-performers operate in drastically undermine their ability to perform best when it matters most. And the problem is of their own making.
Knowledge workers have fundamentally molded and evolved our current management philosophies and the broader culture we have around work, productivity and performance. Our culture of performance is shaped by the (poor) choices that the knowledge workers have made themselves. Under the basic premise of “more is always better”, HPKW’s have prioritized volume - of work completed and time done - as the hallmark of success, over quality, growth, and emerging expertise. The end result is a constant sense of stress and feeling as though we haven’t done enough. Under constant pressure to perform and deliver, HPWKs most often focus on getting as much done as possible, with limited regard for getting the most out of themselves and the teams they serve.
It’s one of the most sinister forms of self-handicapping. Knowledge workers undermine their own best ability to perform, in the service of creating a culture that they think will drive better performance, without stress-testing any of those assumptions and without challenging their own conventional thinking. Archaic ways of operating, based on stereotypes, debunked science, and a mechanistic approach to human performance and potential dominate the way most high-performance workplaces choose to operate.
Sports may be the biggest culprit of them all.
The mindset that the enemy never stops working, that the money made in sports means that sports should consume all of a person’s time and energy, that prioritizing your own needs or mental health is weakness, that somehow it’s not possible for the best thing for a performer and the organization to coexist and that they have to be at odds…it’s all a recipe for burnout, social disasters, and poor performance.
In the broader culture of sport, it takes a special kind of bravery to experiment with new and consider doing it differently. The consequences are outsized -- choosing to operate in a unique way means that any failure will be scrutinized with an ever-intensifying microscope, attempts at change will be met with deep resistance, and ultimately the HPKW will be forced to decide if they can tolerate being “different”, understanding that different doesn’t mean worse.
Becoming a high-performance knowledge worker is about flipping that paradigm on its head. It’s about offering knowledge workers the same time, resources, and affordances that they would offer an elite athlete. If we think our athletes need to sleep well, eat well, train hard, meditate, and work on their mental performance to perform their best…why don’t executives, coaches, and staff members?
The data on the fundamentals of high performance is clear. Sleep, nutrition, exercise, and hydration account for a disproportionate amount of our overall functioning. Each of these factors can help us think better, feel better, decide better, act better, and perform better. And yet, these are the very things often sacrificed in the name of “work.”
The first unfair advantage goes to those willing to take the risk of stepping out of pseudoscience and into what performance psychology knows to be true. It will take a tremendous amount of courage to cut against the grain in high-performance sport or corporate culture and prioritize wellness over results. We’ve seen leaders of other nations push the change forward for their citizens, with no adverse consequences to business and productivity and outsized benefits for employees. The HPKWs willing to take the same leap themselves will reap the same outsized rewards.
Research shows that the incremental benefits of additional time spent at work start to decrease rapidly after 40-50 hours, assuming that the person is passionate about what they do. That means that, after 50 hours, chances are the work is costing the company more than the employee is producing in value, in spite of the premium placed on time over quality.
HPKW isn’t about doing less work or allowing key duties to drop off, it’s about launching into better work from a position of peak preparedness.
Is how I’m spending my time truly valuable to us achieving our mission?
When is my optimal work time and does my calendar align?
How do we as an organization start to discuss the optimal volumes and time of work so that HPKW is a culture, not a band-aid?
Do I engage in enough of the high-performance prerequisites (exercise, good nutrition, sleep, hydration) to reach my full potential?
In what areas do I let the pressure of being “on” or “doing more” interfere with my status as a HPKW?