Lessons learned as a UN Peacekeeper — helping leaders create a true performance culture
In my professional life I am a performance psychologist & active researcher of neuroscience who founded and leads a leadership & training company called Psych-io. I started off my career as a psychologist in the New Zealand Navy & was lucky enough to be selected to represent New Zealand as an unarmed United Nations Peacekeeper in 2010–2011. Our role was to monitor ceasefire agreements, conduct daily inspections of the local military positions & observe the demarcation line to ensure no conflicts occurred. This United Nations mission is called UNTSO & is still the longest continuously staffed mission in history, beginning in May 1948. I was based in Syria & Lebanon for an incredibly formative year & was there during the tragic start of the Syrian uprising. In fact, I was living in Damascus at the time & working in the Golan Heights on the Syrian-Israeli demarcation line.
I was there as part of a multi-national force of unarmed observers from 22 different countries. We came from different parts of the world, spoke different languages, had diverse cultures & due to the fast-paced nature of the mission, we received no onboarding or training on how to work together as a team. We had to hit the ground running & figure it out ourselves. If difficult conditions ever existed where we were expected to perform, these were undoubtedly them. We worked in an extremely dangerous environment patrolling an area where sadly, conflict has been a regular feature throughout history, including when I was there.
The most powerful lessons I took away from this incredible experience, was what it truly takes to perform as both a leader & team member of an international team under high-pressure conditions. Where we were working there was no room for error, we had to perform at our best every day, & our ability to quickly form a highly effective team would determine if we succeeded or failed. We literally needed to shape a performance culture within our team from day 1 & maintain this for the length of our mission. There were many valuable lessons I learned during this period, but the top three lessons which I want to share with you to enable you to create your own high-performance culture(s) are:
- The importance of effective feedback. When under pressure, we need to be sharp with our communication & our ability to both give & receive effective feedback is paramount to performance. The feedback we provide must be clear, immediately understood & actionable. But we equally must be able to actively listen to hear the feedback provided to us. According to neuroscience, feedback is one of only two ways our brains learn along with failure. So, without a strong ability with both directions of feedback, we cannot learn & improve. If we need to learn & adapt, it’s essential we do feedback well. Under pressure, I learned that to receive feedback effectively, we are best placed when we intentionally create the mindset to see it through the lens of learning, we cultivate a growth mindset, we view it as a powerful opportunity to better illuminate our blindspots, & we separate ourselves from the issue to depersonalise it.
- The need to have clear & stretching goals. Goals are a key source of motivation, engagement & purpose. They sit at the heart of our drive and achievements. We absolutely need powerful goals to keep us focused when under pressure otherwise it becomes far too easy to check-out of our work. But often we get goals wrong & think SMART goals are the gold standard. They are not. The latest scientific research is clear — goals need to be stretching, memorable, rehearsed, near-in-time & most importantly meaningful to us otherwise they simply will not work. Setting stretch goals with these characteristics are at the heart of sustained motivation & performance.
- The need to clearly align on performance expectations. Under pressure, like when busy or under resourced, all too often our performance expectations are left to assumption. This often leads to significant performance, motivation & efficiency issues because without clarity of expectation, we don’t know how to move forward ourselves. Using two simple 4-step processes to first draft & then co-create performance expectations which I learned working as a Peacekeeper, as leaders we can align on clear & inspiring expectations with our team members that provide clarity, direction, autonomy & empowerment.
Drawing from this incredible experience, I chose to make these lessons available to any leader & team member through some expert recorded workshops. I named the three-workshop series, Creating a Performance Culture. Check it out at here for more info.