The Tyranny of Performance

Work-life balance. We want it. There’s now a CBABC committee dedicated to it. Yet what does it mean and how exactly do we get it?

The word balance is misleading. It seems to indicate a quantity goal, with a focus on the amount of time being spent on either side of the work-life equation. I hold a different view, that it is not so much a question of quantity but rather the overall quality of our entire life that is important.

What is the quality of our work life? What is the quality of our personal life? When both activities are fulfilling we have an abundance of energy. When one or both are draining we run into health issues and performance challenges.

Instead of work-life balance can we just talk about work-life enjoyment?

As we all know there is little enjoyment and much stress in our work lives and the only ones benefiting are the lottery corporations selling the dream of a “no work” future.
This week I have been reading Timothy Gallwey’s book “The Inner Game of Work” and thinking about its implications for work-life in the law firm. Gallwey writes about the crucial connection between performance, learning and enjoyment. When we thrive at work these three elements are present. The challenge is that in so many work places the extreme focus on performance obscures all else. This in turn has a negative impact on the quality and quantity of our performance. Gallwey describes the cycle like this:

It is obvious to most people that emphasizing performance doesn`t make it happen. Quite the contrary is true. The three sides of the work triangle are part of an interdependent system. When either the learning or the enjoyment side is ignored, performance will suffer in the long run. When it does, management feels threatened and pushes even harder for performance. Learning and enjoyment diminish even further. A cycle ensues that prevents performance from ever reaching its potential.

Sound familiar? At most law firms the focus is on PERFORMANCE. And the tactics people often use to get there are long hard work and will power. As performance enhancers both are overrated. They are not sustainable. They drain energy. Enjoyment on the other hand generates energy as do learning activities when they are in service of our interests.

Enjoyment in a law firm?

Some of you might be thinking at this point – enjoyment? At a law firm? The answer is yes, absolutely. Many of the lawyers I speak with find enjoyment in interacting with clients and with their colleagues. Others have told me they love tackling tough problems. Enjoyment is often linked to our individual strengths. We like doing what we are naturally inclined to be good at. The challenge is that many of us are so focused on performance that we have lost sight of enjoyment all together. To get the enjoyment back this summer let’s take one week at work to focus on noticing the moments of enjoyment during the day. What are the high points? When does work become a pleasant pursuit?

Based on the numerous strength assessments I’ve conducted with lawyers it is clear that one of the most common strengths and sources of enjoyment for lawyers is learning. Law firms are learning organizations. Lawyers are knowledge workers. And yet, the emphasis on performance, both in terms of billable hour targets and in the volume of work required, obscures the learning focus.
Learning, once a passion, becomes bad news.

One of the hardest periods in a lawyer’s career are the first two years of call. Many new associates, relieved at getting through law school and securing a job, are unexpectedly thrust into a sink or swim legal environment that puts a sting in learning. It’s a little bit like being a new parent. You can read all about it but you never know how tough it is going to be until you are living it. Learning in the early years of practice can be stressful, energy draining, and unpleasant. The goal for associates becomes getting out of the learning curve as quickly as possible to a place of knowledge and security.

I want to encourage a different approach to learning: One where we choose the focus and that supports us in excelling. CLEs, retreats and seminars are nothing compared to the powerful learning opportunities presented to us each day in our personal and professional lives. Gallwey writes:

And what is the price of admission to this seminar? The humility and interest to be a student. You must declare yourself to be a learner during your working hours as well as a doer. After that you must pay attention to the teacher – experience itself.

The client will teach us how to develop client relationships. The subordinate will teach us how to manage. Every file or transaction will teach us how to optimise our work product. We just need to pay attention to what is being offered up.

Through the daily pursuit of learning we become more capable, more skilled and our performance accelerates. We don’t have to wait for the next CLE. We can choose to focus on developing our personal qualities such as cooperation, initiative and attention to detail. We can set goals to deepen our understanding of a particular person or subject matter. The choice is up to us. They key is to focus our attention, observe and debrief what we have learned with a close friend or colleague.
The performance, learning, enjoyment equation is a powerful step in the direction of getting the most out of work life. Let’s become active participants in getting a healthier and happier work life. Let’s learn where the enjoyment lies and take steps to get a healthy dose of it everyday.


  1. Jeong Chun phuoc

    “No real connection between performance, learning and enjoyment”

    In this E-age of seamless connection, there is a supposedly close linkage between performance, learning and enjoyment. Unfortunately, in real practice, there is no gracious connection whatsoever between the big three factors.

    Firstly, the moving goal-post of performance or known as ‘key performance index'(KPI). Can real performance be mathematically calculated by an index that doesn’t stay put.

    Secondly, the learning process in a workplace which has nothing to do with any social and philosophical notion of enjoyment. To almost every worker and employee who’s tie down to a 9-to-5, including the overtime loggers, it is more like the principle of utilitarianis’ at work. We had to do a certain task because we are required by law and by the invisible contractual obligation to get it done.

    The brownian conflict between all these three antagonistic factors invariably creates a dichotomy of discord- a clash of civilisation effect and a domino impact that implicate everyone else -and everything- along the way.

    Jeong Chun phuoc