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The cycle of excellence

April 22, 2011

In December 2010 , Edward Hallowell, a Psychiatrist and author, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘what brain science tells us about how to excel’. I thought that the article was excellent and the presented ‘Cycle of excellence’ seems of key importance to those working on engagement issues.

In short, the ‘Cycle of excellence’ consists of 5 elements:

  1. Select – finding the right job role to fit employees
  2. Connect – foster links with others and utilise the power of togetherness
  3. Play – encourage engagement with work, allow creativity and imaginative ways for people to work
  4. Grapple and Grow – encourage employees to roll with the tough times, rising to the challenge
  5. Shine – provide recognition and praise for efforts in the workplace

Hallowell suggests that we should try to ensure that organisation person fit and person job fit are right for individuals. The goal is to spend the majority of your working time doing what you like to do, doing what you do best and doing what adds value to the organisation.


We should endeavour to make positive connections in the workplace as this ‘galvanizes people like nothing else can’. Given that organisations are often spread internationally and with the introduction of modern technology people often have no need to speak to each other face to face; it is clear that building relationships is harder than it used to be. However, building these relationships is crucial as without them people can become disengaged, apparently one of the key causes of ‘underachievement and depression’. To foster engagement, building relationships at work and having the opportunities to do so should be top of any engagement strategy. Hallowell suggests that organisations expend a great deal of energy on getting employees to ‘buy into an organisation’s mission’ but more time needs to be spent on fostering positive connections. He goes on to provide an excellent analogy, stating that ‘soldiers in the moment are not fighting for freedom or country; they’re fighting for one another’.


Once employees are in the right job and connected, then ‘imaginative engagement’ should be the next level, which Hallowell calls ‘a state of play’. Research suggests that during play, fMRI scans will show right hemisphere activation, suggesting spontaneous and intuitive thinking as opposed to left hemisphere processes which are found to be more analytical and detailed. Interestingly play ‘builds your brain’ as it stimulates nerve growth, and more interestingly play has been found to help regulate emotions, and regulate executive functions such as planning, organising, prioritising, deciding etc which are all key things that one would want from themselves and their employees.

Grapple and Grow

To achieve successful outcomes there may be some tough challenges and working through them can help individuals to grow. Neural pathways can be strengthened through practice and therefore when learning something new we may experience periods of pain or stress but through repeating the process and working through the barriers we can achieve better performance. According to James Loehr, ‘Stress is not the enemy in our lives. Paradoxically, it is the key to growth.’ But the warning is that good stress, ‘eustress’, should be coveted whilst ‘toxic stress’ should be avoided, or minimised or reframed to be positive stress.


At the end of this ‘cycle of excellence’ when employees have found the right job, connected with others that they work with, played at work and become ‘imaginatively engaged’, and then overcome challenges perceived as insurmountable and grown from that experience, employees, rightly so, will expect some form of recognition and appreciation. The need for recognition is crucial to improving human performance. Accordingly, praise encourages dopamine levels to increase in the brain which increases our sense of pleasure and well being.

The cycle of excellence is all about ‘encouraging you to work even harder to achieve your best’. This model fits well with encouraging employee engagement levels more generally. Getting the key elements right means that you can be on the path to the holy grail of total employee engagement fairly easily. After all, getting people in the right jobs, fostering relationships, encouraging people to ‘think outside the box’ and play with ideas, and recognising people’s achievements are all good HR practices. It is clear that many organisations do these or at least do some of these, but it is the joined up way of working with these practices, being consistent and encouraging buy-in to them from employees in which HR Directors/Managers/ CEO’s really achieve impressive employee engagement levels and ultimately improved performance.


Hallowell, E. (2010). What brain science tells us about how to excel. Harvard Business Review, Dec 10, pp.123-129

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