Chain of Excellence: Your Easy Button for High Performance

Filed under: NLP Techniques

Want to boost your performance in almost any area? Learn the basics of John Grinder's wonderful model, known as "Chain of Excellence".

Dr. John Grinder, a genius linguist and the co-founder of NLP, has a knack for taking complex concepts and making them teachable and simple. Mike Mandel has always said Grinder was his best teacher of all time, and he had the pleasure of learning this directly from Grinder during one of the NLP co-founder's trips to Toronto. If you ever get the chance to study directly with him, do it.

Chain of Excellence is a model to help you improve your performance, and it operates at four distinct levels as a hierarchy.

They are: performance, state, physiology, and breathing. 

Before we look at each level, keep in mind that we're doing our best to align with the original material. But since we did not create this model this represents our minimalist interpretation of Grinder's original concept.

Always learn from great teachers, wherever possible, and always credit the source!

Since Chain of Excellence works as a hierarchy, an intervention at a higher level will naturally encompass everything below that level. So with that in mind, let's start at the bottom and work our way up. 

Performance is at the Base

Performance is at the very base of Chain of Excellence. This is basically how well you perform at a certain task. It is how well you are running a marathon, how well you are writing the next great American novel, or how well you are playing the piano. 

If you have gone to school to become a teacher you may have heard, “She’s doing the best that she can” to describe a student's performance. The logic behind this being that everyone wants to do well, and if a student isn’t able to, it is because they just don’t know how to perform! But if they’re given the appropriate resources and support, they can learn to perform well, and they’ll blossom. 

We all want to perform well, and obviously there are skills we may need to learn to make high performance possible. But performance is also affected by things that have nothing to do with our skills, abilities or resources. 

That’s where the Chain of Excellence shines. According to this model, if we want to change our performance, it may be more efficient and effective to move up to a higher level in the hierarchy.

In other words … this base of the Chain of Excellence is the quality of performance that we’re after. Assuming we have the knowledge, abilities or skills required, we’re not going to intervene here. 

Let’s take a short climb up to the level of “state”.

State is Level 2

Your state is YOU at the present moment in time. It’s the sum total of your physical body, emotions, beliefs, and self-talk (aka internal dialog) all rolled into one “everything burrito” and placed before you on a golden platter. 

The state that you are in largely defines how you perform any given task. Have you ever realized you are not in an ideal state of mind to meet a certain task? Perhaps a friend notices and says “suck it up, buttercup”, thinking it will help. But often it does not help. It just causes you to reinforce your focus on poor performance and amplifies the unresourceful state that you’re already in.

We can all be in different states at different times. But if we want to perform well, the state must support the desired performance. If you were on a first date with the person of your dreams, you might not want to be in an argumentative state. If you’re relaxing with a great book, perhaps you don’t want to be in the same state as you would for getting that promotion at work.

How do you get in the right state so that your performance kicks ass? Let’s climb up another level in the Chain of Excellence and look at physiology.

Level Three is Physiology

Emotion follows motion! In other words, changes to your state can come from how you use your physical body. If you can change how you use your body, you can change your state instantly. And even better, you can change to the state that’s actually useful for the performance that you need to achieve.

If you have ever taken an anatomy and physiology course, you may recall anatomy is the form and physiology is the function. Your heart is the form, whereas the function is blood circulation. 

If you had a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, you could obviously change that state with a quick round of jumping jacks.

When NLP folks talk about physiology, they're talking about it through a whole body system lens. If our state is the sum total that is externally measurable, the physiology is what created the state. 

The intrepid reader might ask the following: “But how can I change my physiology? I’m not a bodybuilder or olympian.” Great news everyone, you don’t have to be. Changing your physiology doesn’t have to mean 100 push ups, 100 sit ups, 100 squats, and a ten kilometer run every day. 

It can be a simple matter of straightening your back as you type a blog post or pausing every now and then to take a walk. Have you ever been stuck on something where you sit at your desk for a long while, attempting to think your way through it? Odds are, your state won’t allow you to get “through it” because what you need is a physiology change!

What could you do instead? You could get up and take a walk or maybe a simple pattern interrupt like brushing your teeth. You could even just stand up, look to the sky and yell “YES” to put yourself in an amazing mood! The key to changing our physiology has to include moving and, if you want big results, we need to get more specific about how to move.

Picture someone walking in a sad manner. Then picture someone walking joyfully. What differences do you imagine?  

A sad person may trudge, dragging their feet, letting their head slump with their eyes directed at the ground where a joyful person may have a bit of a bounce in each step with a smile in their eyes. The joyful walker would have freely moving arms and vision as they make eye contact with each passerby.

Here is the proposal and it may sound ridiculous, but if you could cheer up by walking joyfully, would you do it?  

The Chain of Excellence shows us that it really is that easy. Walk as though you're happy (physiology change), and notice that your state shifts to one of actually being happy (state change). Suddenly, if your desired outcome is to have a great time hanging out with friends, you'll perform better at that task.

Try this: Be Wonder Woman or Superman. Research shows that people who stand in a classic “power pose” prior to an interview, are more likely to be hired than the person who assumes a lesser posture.

So, from now on, move with relaxed power and grace, do some push ups or jumping jacks, or otherwise find something that works for you when it comes to moving your body. If you want to be in an empowered state with a performance to be proud of, make a change to your physiology. If it works for you, then that’s the only thing that matters! 

But let’s ramp things up with the top level of the Chain of Excellence … breathing.

The Top Level: Breathing

Are you ready for the secret? 

Okay, it may not actually be such a secret. Many martial arts and meditative practices utilize this secret for centuries: the power of the breath. Everyone has to breathe in order to live, so it makes sense that this really is important. We crave that oxygen the moment it’s restricted. It’s a simple action that we hardly think about.

The way we breathe is connected to how we feel, and how we hold the body. A sigh of relief, the breath of laughter, the frantic gasps of crying despair, even how you hold your breath when playing hide and seek when the seeker is dangerously close to discovering your hiding spot!

Tip: Start to notice how you’re breathing at different times. How are you breathing when watching TV? What about when you’re excited about something? How about when you’re unhappy or even having an argument?

Here’s the really cool part: If you change how you’re breathing, you will automatically affect your own physiology,  your state, and your performance.

There are countless ways to practice breathing. Deep, slow breathing into the abdomen works wonders for so many people. Most of us tend to tense our shoulders and breathe small sips of air high into the lungs that cause our shoulders to rise and fall with each breath. This is not the breath of happiness and relaxation. Try this instead: Let your breath leave the shoulders and take a journey down towards that abdomen. It only takes a few seconds of breathing in the way to get noticeable results in all four levels of this hierarchy.

If you’re tempted to think, “I don’t really care about taking a few seconds to breathe differently,” you might want to reconsider. Instead, ask yourself a different question such as, "Do I want to perform better and feel better?" If you answered “yes” along with the rest of us, why not start by standing up and taking a few deep breaths.

Pro tip: Experiment with purposefully changing your breathing and your physiology together!  The next time you catch yourself feeling even a little bit unhappy just stand up, stand tall, put your hands up in the air, shout “YES” and start laughing ridiculously on purpose. Do this for just 10 seconds and then we dare you to even TRY to feel unhappy again afterwards. You’ll probably find it next to impossible. Your state will have changed, and you’ll be ready to perform so much better.

What’s Next?

Now that you’re aware of the Chain of Excellence, challenge yourself to use it. If your performance doesn’t match your desires in any particular moment, ask yourself, “Is it a knowledge or skill gap? Or am I just not in the right state for this?”

If it’s your state, then immediately change your state by using a change in breathing and physiology. If you notice someone else in the wrong state, build rapport with them by pacing them (matching and mirroring). Then take the lead and lead them towards a different state through a change in body posture and breathing!  It’s magical.

Change your life. Now. If you like personal development tips like this, you’ll love our Personal Growth Membership which includes all of our best life-changing courses to optimize your personal communication, behavior and wellness. Join our community and build the awesome life you deserve!

For more about John Grinder and his training visit his website.