Improving employee engagement, boosting productivity, and retaining top talent all tend to sit high up on the list of HR priorities in almost all organizations. But for the companies already succeeding in these areas, what's the secret? What's the one thing they have in common?
A high performance culture.
Here's the problem though: organizational culture is an incredibly tough thing to control and manage, and even harder to change.
But that's not to say it can't be done.
In this article we'll explore what a high performance culture is, including the characteristics and benefits of instilling one in your organization, before outlining seven steps you can take to ensure your own workplace adopts one.
What is a high performance culture?
Culture is often all that stands between high performing organizations and the rest. It is the way ‘things are done’ in your workplace.
Organizational culture is the learned shared set of beliefs and values on which employees base their daily behavior and use as a guide for their actions. Your company culture drives how your workforce thinks, acts and feels while at work. It can usually best be described as the DNA of your organization.
According to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss at Harvard Business Review, culture “tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems".
A high performance culture takes this to another level. It’s where employees support one another through whatever challenging situation they face. It’s where they work collectively toward a shared goal. It drives innovation and sparks creativity.
But as mentioned above, this type of culture doesn’t happen by chance.
A high performance culture is the result of careful creation and maintenance of an organization that encourages its workforce to be independent, to problem solve, to work collaboratively, to pursue continuous learning, to be genuinely motivated rather than pushed to meet deadlines and metrics.
It has to be established by leadership and communicated up and down, left and right. It’s reinforced by behaviors and norms within the organization, and shaped by tools and processes that help employees perform highly.
Benefits of high-performance cultures
There are a number of business advantages to establishing a high-performing culture, including:
- More engaged employees
- Higher employee satisfaction
- More instances of innovation
- Higher employee retention rates
- Better collaboration both within teams and with other departments
- Stronger organization with better financial results
- Competitive advantage
Characteristics of high-performance cultures
We've talked about the benefits of building an organizational culture of this kind, but what does it actually look like? Below, we've outlined some of the core characteristics we would expect to see:
Shared purpose and goals
All employees feel they share a common purpose and that they are contributing towards team and organizational goals. Employees understand how their work feeds into the bigger picture, where it fits within the team goals and how it adds value.
Employees don’t need to be constantly chivvied and micro-managed. Employees are empowered to make their own decisions and feel capable and competent to problem solve without needing guidance from above. Management are there to support employees and enable them to carry out their roles to a high standard.
Employees believe they can grow within their roles and that the organization is supporting them to achieve their personal ambitions, while they in turn work to achieve the organization’s goals. A high performance culture prioritizes continuous learning and encourages team members to attend career development programs to improve their existing skills and upskill if possible.
Communication is frequent, open and transparent. When employees understand what they’re doing and why, it allows them to work more effectively, to a higher standard. Communication tools are in place to enable consistent communications, wherever employees are located, and leadership regularly keep the workforce abreast of important business developments.
Employees feel psychologically safe—they take risks and experiment without fear of judgement, they voice their opinions, they don’t feel shamed, they don’t worry about being called a failure if they fail. A high performance culture is a safe environment to fail in because all employees understand that failure can lead to better outcomes.
Team managers carry out continuous performance discussions and actively seek to provide feedback both to and from team members. These performance discussions are a two way conversation that allows both participants to grow and learn from the feedback.
7 steps to create a high performance culture
1. Define your purpose
A sense of purpose gives everyone meaning to what they’re doing. For teams it quite literally explains why they exist and why what they’re doing is important.
Defining your purpose, both as an organization and for individual teams, makes it much easier to articulate these to everyone.
Only when employees understand organizational and team purposes, can they begin to maximize their potential and feel encouraged to work harder to achieve shared goals.
Purpose can change over time, so ensure managers take time to regularly check in on their team purpose and ask questions of team members such as:
- What work that you have been doing feels most meaningful in the light of our purpose?
- What work you have been doing has felt least meaningful?
- What can you do to ensure that work going forward feels meaningful and supportive of our purpose?
2. Create performance management processes
According to Gallup, too many companies rely on archaic management models and then wonder why their growth is limited. By contrast, businesses that create and implement performance management processes see the biggest sustainable growth.
Performance management processes include:
- Clearly defined standards and expectations across all levels: individual, team, departmental and company
- Creating a transparent reward system
- Communication of shared goals and objectives company-wide
3. Reinforce positive behaviors
Taking time to praise and reward positive behavior is one of the most powerful leadership tools there is. Here’s how managers can do it better:
- Ensure the praise is unique to the individual. Everyone is different and responds to different stimuli. Make sure the praise you’re rewarding the employee with resonates with them and is delivered in a way that they respond to.
- Deliver praise immediately. Don’t wait until later in the day to acknowledge someone’s positive behavior. When you see something worthy of praise, deliver praise immediately. When a behavior is acknowledged with a reward almost instantly, the two become connected.
- Be specific about what you’re praising. Don’t just say well done and assume the employee knows what they’ve done that warrants praise. Be very specific in your approach and highlight precisely what they’ve done that they’re being rewarded for.
- Be consistent with your praise. If you’re rewarding a new behavior, be consistent with your praise to motivate the employee to continue down that path.
4. Encourage transparent communication
Effective communication is critical to team success. Beyond the quantity of communication, be mindful of quality too.
High performance cultures have open, unbiased conversation no matter what is up for discussion. And the flow of information passes seamlessly from the top to the bottom, to the left and the right.
- Inspire employees with consistent communication about the organization’s future.
- Connect the work employees are doing today with where the business is heading.
- Provide employees with a company mission and show them how they can ‘live’ the mission.
- Involve employees in developing business strategy.
5. Empower employees
The most successful leaders enable employees to reach their full potential. They don’t micromanage nor lead at all times.
They empower employees by showing them they’re trusted, by providing regular training, by communicating company and team vision clearly, by getting to know them on a personal level, and by allowing them the freedom to take risks and to make decisions and solve problems (within limits).
6. Prioritize giving and receiving feedback
Giving and receiving regular feedback has a positive impact on both team and organizational performance. A high performance culture thrives on regular feedback - it’s crucial for development.
But in order to make the best use of the feedback that is given and received, team members need to be mentally prepared to learn and grow in response. Carol Dweck calls this the ‘growth mindset’, and it’s a state of mind we can all cultivate.
- Give constructive feedback. Feedback that comes across as criticism naturally makes people defensive, which is not conducive to progress. When delivering feedback, managers need to make sure it’s objective, that it’s constructive, that it only includes facts and observations, and be mindful of how the recipient might react. Take a look at our examples and guidance on how to provide constructive feedback here.
- Give positive feedback. Not everyone can accept a compliment, but it’s important to give positive feedback when it’s deserved, both individually and collectively. Need some inspiration on how to deliver this feedback? Take a look at these feedback models and examples.
- Receive feedback. It’s just as important to receive feedback as it is to give, so make sure managers are actively seeking feedback too.
7. Train and develop your employees
Organizations with a high performance culture recognize that setting up their employees for success through company wide training and development is essential to ensuring continuous improvement and growth for the company.
These organizations don’t relegate career training development to management alone, they view talent as a corporate asset and support and invest it in its development at all levels accordingly.
Engaged companies align employee training and development with the organization's long term aims and objectives, clearly outlining a career pathway for employees to follow.
Final thoughts on creating a high performance culture
If you're looking to create a high performance culture, one of the best things you can do is invest in your teams. You need to ensure that all team members are aligned on their goals, have a shared purpose, and are ultimately empowered to do the best work possible.
For this to happen, you need to start with the managers that lead these teams.
At Saberr, we help managers develop the seven habits and routines needed to develop high-performing teams. Better yet, we give your managers the confidence and knowledge, and equip them with the tools they need to coach their teams.
By using a combination of both experiential and digital coaching. More specifically, we build programs that are designed not only to motivate and train your leaders, but to also reinforce their learnings, helping them develop on-the-job.