How to Be a High Performer

8 scientific steps for landing the promotion—and creating the future—you deserve.

By Marc Effron

Some people begin their careers with a clear performance advantage. They may be smarter than you, come from a better socioeconomic background, be physically attractive, or have helpful personality characteristics. Each of those factors is scientifically proven to help someone perform better than you. Those combined items predict up to 50 percent of anyone’s individual performance, according to academic research.

Sign up for the monthly TalentQ Newsletter, an essential roundup of news and insights that will help you make critical talent decisions.

Let’s call those things the “fixed 50 percent” because they’re largely unchangeable once we’re adults.

Of course, there are no guarantees. A great-looking, highly intelligent, naturally hard-working, not-too-offensive person from a middle- or upper-class background may enter their career with a head start, but they may still fail miserably. If that happens, it won’t be because they didn’t start with a healthy advantage.

This isn’t fair, of course, and it may make you believe that high performance at work is largely out of your control. Fortunately, that’s just the fixed 50 percent. You control every other factor that drives your performance, from your capabilities and behaviors to the size of your network to your personal development. We know about those factors thanks to researchers who have studied every possible performance driver, from goal setting to how we learn to our sleep quality.

Let’s call these combined areas the “flexible 50 percent.” You have the power to shape them at will.

The challenge for someone who wants to be a high performer is to sort through that overwhelmingly large amount of information, identify what really matters, and practically put it to use. My book 8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest) simplifies and focuses that voluminous research into what’s scientifically proven to increase performance and how to apply it to be a high performer.

Why Be a High Performer?

A good place to start our discussion is to answer the question, “What’s the benefit of being a high performer?” High performance will get you more of what you value, whether that’s flexibility, opportunity, pay, power, or recognition. It creates the foundation for a successful career. It gives you access to parts of your company that you wouldn’t otherwise see. These benefits happen because organizations love high performers. They understand that high performers create and sustain successful companies.

They’ll work hard to identify their best performers and give them more time, attention, development, and compensation to make sure that they’re engaged and that they don’t leave.

The company’s additional investment is smart because science says high-performing employees deliver anywhere between 100 percent and 500 percent more output than their average- or below-average-performing coworkers. They contribute more, so they get more. That doesn’t mean average performers are worth less, but they’re unlikely to receive the same investment as top performers.

As an employee, you should also care about being a high performer because it gets you closer to your next promotion. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the next big opportunity only because of your strong performance, you will be much better positioned than others.

If you think your organization is different, that it values everyone equally or that high performance isn’t its primary concern, consider a recent study on corporate culture published in Harvard Business Review.

In this study, more than 250 companies were asked to select their dominant culture style from among eight categories. Their choices included cultures dominated by caring, purpose, enjoyment, and others. In 89 percent of those companies, they defined their dominant culture style as “results.” Results means performance. Culture styles like purpose or learning were selected by only 9 percent and 7 percent of respondents, respectively. This reinforces that almost every organization’s primary concern is high performance.

I also know how much companies value high performance because I advise the world’s largest and most complex companies on this topic. Our consulting firm creates strategies to identify high performers, develop them, and keep them highly engaged. Companies understand the massive benefits that high performers produce, and they want more of them, now. They want to invest in selecting and growing their best talent and to upgrade (that typically means fire) those who will never be high performers.

What’s Really True About High Performance

When you try to understand what’s proven to increase performance, it’s easy to be distracted by the daily barrage of non-scientific stories on the topic (“Relax Like a Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep”) and the clickbait links that ask if actions like starving ourselves will make us more focused at work. (Note: The Yale University researchers’ answer to that question was yes.)

Those stories typically have little to do with real science, or they highlight a juicy finding or two out of context. Either way, they don’t give you any practical guidance about how to apply those nuggets of information.

It pays to be cautious even when someone claims that something is “scientifically proven.” In the New York Times bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a chapter based on scientific research that said anyone could master a skill with 10,000 hours of practice. The media broadly retold that story, and it’s been cited more than 6,000 times in scholarly books and articles. Unfortunately, it’s not true, and other scientists quickly proved that less than one third of someone’s performance is due to their hours of practice.

If you want to be a high performer, you need to be a cautious consumer of these claims. To assess whether a statement about high performance is believable, sort that statement into one of three categories: Is it research, science, or conclusive science? You’ll need to decide which level of proof you require to believe a claim.

Research: A consulting firm conducts a study and reports the results, often to support a product or service that it sells. Its findings may be true, but there’s no independent verification. The consulting firm typically won’t allow anyone to verify if its claims are true.

Science: Someone conducts a carefully designed experiment to test a hypothesis (i.e., if we select job candidates based on their intelligence, we will get higher-performing employees). They publish their research process and findings in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Others can read about that experiment and draw their own conclusions about the findings.

Conclusive science: Other scientists conduct the same experiment described tens or hundreds of times. Almost every time, the conclusions are the same. This is a very strong suggestion that the findings are conclusively true and is the strongest level of proof. Each of the eight steps is based on conclusive science; I use the terms “science” or “research” in the book when referring to concepts or examples at those lower standards of proof. I’ve included hundreds of citations so you can review the actual research, science, or conclusive science that prove the eight steps.

So, What Are the 8 Steps to High Performance?

What do you control that’s scientifically proven to improve your performance? The conclusive science suggests eight steps that will help you be a high performer:

Step #1: Set Big Goals
Goals have incredible power to focus and motivate us; more focus and motivation positions you for high performance. In the book, I explain how to identify the few goals that matter and stretch your expectations for what you can deliver. You learn the ideal type of coaching that will help you hit your elevated performance expectations.

Step #2: Behave to Perform
All behaviors are not created equal. In the book, you’ll learn which behaviors you’re most likely to display, how to avoid going off the rails, and how to change your behaviors to the ones that drive high performance. You’ll also learn how to identify the behaviors that your company values most.

Step #3: Grow Yourself Faster
You’re more likely to be a high performer if you’re more capable in the areas your company cares about most. You’ll learn the optimal balance of experiences, education, and feedback that will accelerate your development. You’ll create your own personal experience map to accelerate and guide your development.

Step #4: Connect
The old saying isn’t completely true, but who you know does matter, and the strength of your relationship with them matters even more. You need to learn how to build a powerful network inside and outside of work, even if your introverted nature makes that your number one fear.

Step #5: Maximize Your Fit
People deliver best when they “fit” their work environment; that means a misfit can turn a potential high performer into an average one. In the book, I explain how to identify the scenarios in which you fit best and how to change your fit to improve your performance.

Step #6: Fake It
You may have heard or read about being a genuine or authentic leader. In the book, I explain why fake you is sometimes better for higher performance—and how to adjust your behaviors to what’s ideal for success at different points in your career.

Step #7: Commit Your Body
Your body plays a powerful role in your ability to deliver, and it’s the only performance lever that you completely control. Sleep supports high performance, as does regular exercise and a healthy diet.

Step #8: Avoid Distractions
Understanding which advice—no matter how many books it’s sold—is simply not helpful can be a challenge. To that end, this step is to know and avoid the performance fads that suggest easy answers to difficult performance questions that distract you from the proven steps.

The eight steps are straightforward but not easy. They require that you have the interest, commitment, and passion to be a high performer at work. If that’s your vision, then your path is clear.

Marc Effron is the publisher of Talent Quarterly, cofounder of the Talent Management Institute, and the president of The Talent Strategy Group, which helps the world’s largest and most successful corporations create incisive talent strategies and powerful talent-building processes. He’s also the author of 8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest).