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Unlocking our performance shackles

Jim Ice, Ed.D. -

When underperformance is a systemic characteristic across a department, function or organization, it is important to first consider what existing conditions may be “shackling” the workforce from performing at their best.

When I was a child, I loved magic. (OK. I admit. I still do.) I remember when I was about 12 years old, I visited the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. Walking around the museum, I was mesmerized by each display illustrating his amazing feats of magic. I was particularly struck by the pictures and old black and white movies of him burdened down with shackles and chains, or bound in a straightjacket or locked in a prison. It was, after all, his ability as an escape artist that differentiated him from other magicians and launched his historic career as an entertainer. It was exciting to consider that someone locked in constraints by others could escape to freedom.   

As a consultant to organizations of varying sizes and missions, I often hear leaders describe their concerns about the “under performance” of their workforce. They cite poor sales performance, manufacturing waste and bad investment decisions as examples. They complain that they are not realizing the returns they desire from both their physical and human capital. Seeking solutions to improve productivity, they invest in new programs, process redesigns and employ expensive consultants in an attempt to produce higher performance.

When underperformance is a systemic characteristic across a department, function or organization, it is important to first consider what existing conditions may be “shackling” the workforce from performing at their best. 

To begin your analysis of the reasons for poor workforce performance, consider carefully company culture and/or leadership behaviors that may be, in fact, constraining high performance. For employees to perform at their best, leaders need to ensure a work environment that provides each employee with the information and tools they need to succeed. Here are some common “shackles” that limit a high-performance workforce:  

• Lack of clear vision – where are we headed? 
• Lack of articulated mission – why is this direction important? 
• Lack of communicated strategy – how do we plan to get there? 
• Lack of defined talent strategy – what capabilities are required? 
• Lack of resources – do we have what we need to be successful? 
• Lack of clear expectations for performance – what is expected of me (my team)? 
• Lack of coordination – how do I (my team) fit into the whole? 
• Lack of accountability – what are the rewards and consequences driving performance?
• Lack of leadership – are leaders courageously demonstrating the way? 

• Lack of empowering culture – can I (my team) take accountable action? 

In your effort to free the employees from these performance shackles and maximize organizational output, also consider talent resources not yet tapped (such as employees, partners, suppliers and customers) and enable them to contribute:

• Un-detected talent
• Un-acknowledged (rewarded) talent
• Un-leveraged talent
• Un-focused talent
• Un-motivated (un-engaged) talent
• Un-retained talent 

When you shape an organizational culture with the intent to unlock talent potential — in individuals, relationships, teams and leaders — you free the resources within the company to apply their unique creativity, knowledge and capabilities toward achieving company (and personal) goals. You free them to achieve, to collaborate, to innovate, to lead, to solve problems, to do more with less, to change, to challenge, to take accountability and to excel.

At the height of his fame, Houdini said, “No prison can hold me, no hand or leg iron or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains keep me from me freedom.”

The possibilities for ourselves and our organizations are unlimited when we recognize and remove the shackles and locks limiting our ability to perform.

Learn more about innovative ideas for developing your workforce. Visit Carlow University’s College of Professional Studies at

About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he’s served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success.
Contact: Jim Ice, Ed.D.