Understanding Superior Performance

How to Find and Develop Top Performers

“Excellence is an art won by training”
understanding superior performance

Top companies hire great people

What makes someone really good at something? Whether that ‘something’ be leadership, or management, or selling, or music, or maths etc.?
How can the capabilities of top performers be analysed and codified so that they can be taught to others and/or be selected for during a hiring process?
This is a question that’s of concern to anyone who wants an organisation full of high performing people.

There are three aspects to answering this question:

  1. The first part of the answer is about the natural talent someone has
    i.e. the nature vs. nurture debate.
  2. Then training is also clearly a factor in developing top performers.
    This is all about ‘practise making perfect’.
  3. There is also the matter of the specific behaviours that those top
    performers engage in that make them stand out from the crowd.
    There are three methodologies that are of particular interest in this
    field; (i) Behavioural Analysis, (ii) Positive Deviance and (iii) Competency

So, let’s briefly look at the biology of success, the role of training, and we can then explore the three methodologies that can be used to uncover expert behaviours…

Nature vs Nurture

Clearly, part of what leads to elite levels of performance, is an appreciation of the genetic factors involved in getting outstanding results. For example, in the same way that some people grow to be above average height, some are born with the potential for much higher than average IQ, and so can perform better at intellectual tasks than their peers.

Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows that elite athletes who excel at endurance sports lack a gene (IL-15R-alpha) that causes muscle fatigue, meaning that they can run for much longer than ‘normal’ people who have the gene.

Also, average eyesight, as measured using the Snellen chart method, is rated as 20/20. Most US professional baseball players, however, have 20/12 vision or better, which means that they can see things at a distance of 20 feet that most people can only see when it is 12 feet away. So, having excellent visual acuity is necessary (though not, of course, sufficient) in order to be able to play major league baseball.

When looking for the most extreme (or elite levels) of performance these biological factors (such as IQ, eyesight, lung capacity, dexterity etc.) should be measured and selected when making hiring decisions, because without them people physically can’t hit the very highest attainment levels.

Practise makes perfect

Part of becoming a top performer is also about the training someone gets. Even with an abundance of natural talent some training is required to reach the highest levels of performance and with the correct coaching many people (not just the ultra-gifted) can reach a very high standard.

So, it has long been established that (what psychologists call) Deliberate Practise, is a vital component to achieving superior results. Deliberate Practise consists of

  • breaking a skill down into a number of tasks
  • being briefed on how to do a specific task
  • attempting to do it
  • getting prompt and informative feedback on how you did
  • repeating the task until it can be done well
  • moving on to the next task in the series

Being able to engage in this process (especially where a complex skill like learning a language, running a P&L account, or playing the violin is concerned) requires a considerable amount of both time and money. So, businesses need to consider (i) who they invest in, and then (ii) having well-structured development programmes to bring out people’s full potential; programmes that focus in on those skills that really mark our higher levels of attainment in a given area.

Three Methodologies for identifying Expert Behaviours

The three methodologies we’ll look at for highlighting ‘what specifically’ experts do that is different from the average person are:

  1. Behavioural Analysis
  2. Positive Deviance
  3. Competency Profiles

Behavioural Analysis; The Difference that makes the Difference

Between 1968 and 1972 a group of researchers (including Neil Rackham and Peter Honey) worked with managers at BOAC (now British Airways) to identify the communication behaviours of expert managers. They developed a coding system, called Behavioural Analysis (BA) to highlight what behaviours managers engaged in during meetings e.g. summarising, asking questions, giving information, supporting others etc. They observed hundreds of meetings within BOAC, collected data and (importantly) also gave the participants feedback on what they noticed so they could alter their behaviour. As part of this work they uncovered behaviours that distinguished the best managers from the rest of the pack. These included the observation that good managers:

  • Check people have understood them (less effective assume they’ve understood them)
  • Go to their boss with proposals (less effective go with problems and difficulties)
  • Set specific objectives (less effective set general objectives and vague standards)

BA and expert negotiation skills

Behavioural Analysis was then extended into a wide range of topics including, selling, negotiation and management of social care teams, and the output was then used to highlight expert behaviours across a range of activities.

For example, as a result of observing some 10,000 real life sales meetings and spotting the difference between good and average sales people the well-known SPIN selling process was created. That same database was also used to identify the behaviours of outstanding negotiators. Some points of interest from that study include the observation that Expert Negotiators:

  • Summarise twice as often as average negotiators.
  • Are much less likely to use ‘irritators’ (phrases that annoy the other person and provoke defend/attack behaviour) than their average counterparts, that is they avoid words like fair, reasonable and generous as in; ‘this is a very fair offer, you should take it’.
  • Are more likely to initially respond to a proposal from the other side with a question, rather than a rejection or immediate counter offer.

Understanding these behaviours, and then activity seeking to observe them as part of role play, or in a real-life meeting, forms the basis for identifying/training/coaching top performers. Thus, BA is an excellent method for developing management, sales, negotiation, problem solving and presentation skills.

The innovative power of Positive Deviance

What to do when faced with a really difficult situation or problem? Especially if you only have a small budget to work with? Well one possible answer is to look for people who have already solved the problem and embrace what’s called Positive Deviance. (Also known as the ‘Bright Spots’ method.)

A light in the darkness

Positive Deviance (PD) is the idea that in a situation where things are going badly there will be very few people who are actually doing OK. These people will be using uncommon strategies or unusual behaviours that help them to succeed when their peers are struggling. So, Positive because they are doing things right, and Deviance because they are engaged in behaviours that most others are not.

The important thing about this is that the PD’s do not have ‘extra resources’ to play with; they have just found a solution that works that others have missed.

Once the PD’s have been identified the challenge becomes one of identifying what specifically they are doing that differs from the norm, and then finding ways of helping others to adopt those practices. And, of course, evaluating the results of the ‘roll out’ programme.

The PD Method was first used in 1990 when the Save the Children charity was asked by the Vietnamese Government to help them address the very high rates of childhood malnutrition in the remote villages of Thanh Hoa province. (At that time more than 65% of all children living in Vietnamese villages were malnourished.) The Save the Children team began their work by identifying poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition. Next, they analysed the differences between them and their neighbours and found that the PD families collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and fish from paddy fields, and added those to what other food was available, to their children’s meals. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children. However, this extra protein was the difference between lack of proper nutrition and (relative) well-being.

A five-stage process

In PD, rather than go through a classical problem-solving process of root cause analysis, generating options etc., the assumption is made that someone within the community or organisation has already found a solution to the issue at hand. The aim of a PD programme is to conduct a strategic search to find and learn from these Positive Deviants. This involves adopting a five-stage process:

  1. Define the problem and the desired outcome.
  2. Determine the presence of Positive Deviants – use data analysis to find the success stories. Be willing to look outside of your own organisation/industry to find them.
  3. Discover the uncommon practices used by the PD’s; what are they doing that’s different from the norm?
  4. Design ways of spreading the knowledge
  5. Disseminate the knowledge (get people using the strategies), measure the results and (hopefully) publicise success.

Competency Profiles and David McClelland

David C McClelland (1917-1998) spent a lifetime in researching human motivation; amongst other achievements he was a professor at Harvard University and founded the consultancy McBer & Company. In 1973 he wrote a paper arguing that traditional academic exams were an ineffective method for predicting whether someone could, or could not, do a job well. Instead, he proposed that ‘competencies’ – should be used to predict job success.

Competences are defined as; “an underlying characteristic of an individual which is causally related to effective or superior performance in a job”.

A competency consists of (i) a label or name, (ii) a description of what’s meant by the label, and (iii) some examples of what people who use that competency do; what are called ‘behavioural indicators.’

These indicators are both positive (good examples, when the competency is done well) and negative (what you see/don’t see when someone does it badly).

For example:

Label: Initiative

Description: Plans work and carries out tasks without detailed instructions

Positive Behavioural Indicators: Makes constructive suggestions; prepares for problems or opportunities in advance; undertakes additional responsibilities; responds to situations as they arise with minimal supervision; creates novel solutions to problems etc.

Negative Behavioural Indicators: Doesn’t make suggestions; doesn’t plan in advance; only does what they are told to do; requires detailed instructions before acting.

The Behavioural Event Interview (BEI)

McClelland developed the Behavioural Event Interview technique as a way of uncovering competency profiles.

The technique involved selecting two samples: people who were rated as outstanding in their jobs and those who were average performers. The two groups of interviewees were then questioned in-depth about the way they did their work, with a focus on specific occasions when things turned out especially well or particularly badly. Transcripts of the interviews (which were up to 3 hours long) were then made and each separate behaviour was noted. These ‘behavioural indicators’ were then clustered together into ‘competencies’ that differentiated the two samples. Finally, a competency model was validated using a fresh group of interviews.

Diplomacy and spotting emotions

McClelland was involved in a project to help the US Information Service recruit diplomats. The researchers found that the best diplomats were very good at divining the feelings of those they spoke to, even when they were given mixed messages. So, if talking with someone who was saying that everything was ‘fine’ in a tone of voice suggested annoyance, they would respond to the emotional component of the message (the anger) and not the surface message (everything is fine).

Having proven that the competency of ‘Reading Emotions’ was important to the work of a diplomat, it could then be screened for as part of the recruitment process.

A Competency Dictionary – looking up the skills you need

In the 1990s McBer researchers Lyle and Signe Spencer wrote and published a Competency Dictionary providing a listing of some 21 competences and 360 behavioural indicators found by the company to be those most commonly uncovered during their research.

This excellent reference book can be used to identify specific behaviours for training and/or hiring purposes, often without the time and expense involved in doing a full Behavioural Event process. The BEI model can then be used to assess new hires and to spot potential as part of internal talent management processes.

Putting it all together

Top performance requires a level of natural talent plus structured training in the format of Deliberate Practise.

In terms of ‘what’ to practise, we have three methodologies to focus those training efforts.

  1. Behavioural Analysis and
  2. Competency Analysis, are two tried and tested methods for (a) uncovering the key skills areas of top performers and (b) providing a training framework for helping people acquire those skills in a structured way.
  3. Positive Deviance is a great tool for spotting key skills when the situation is difficult and solutions are not immediately obvious. It lets us find the behaviours that people can use to transform their circumstances in an otherwise challenging environment.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how well you understand the nature of excellence. Are you doing all you can to identify and develop top performance in your department/company, and, for that matter, in yourself? What changes might you make?


Read this short article on: Approaches to Positive Deviance.


Watch… this five-minute long YouTube interview with Neil Rackham on his research into effective selling and the SPIN sales method.


Consider signing teams up to our Successful Selection Interviewing workshop, to learn how to conduct Behavioural Event Interviews during the recruitments process; run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


You might also like to know that we run ‘one to one’ executive coaching assignments (both ‘face to face’ and as Remote Coaching options) to help people understand how top performers ‘do what they do’.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, a quote by US President Lyndon Johnson about the need to strive for the highest levels of performance…

“The noblest search of today is the search for excellence.”