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Creating a High-Performance Culture

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For an organisation to achieve its vision, an organisation must look to its workforce to help deliver the vision by building a strong culture based on its core values.

Organisations seeking to remain commercially competitive can achieve only so much with improving systems and processes within an organisation or defining an excellent business strategy. To become more innovative, productive, diverse, safe, and skilled or to improve quality of the goods and services offered requires a greater level of engagement of the people working within the organisation. The level of engagement is driven through the culture that exists within the organisation. Quite often we overlook the causal factors when things fail.

  • How many organisations develop a brilliant strategy and then fail to execute?
  • How many embark on a major change that does not get successfully implemented or takes too long?
  • How many leaders sit at the executive table where good decisions were made, agreement achieved, commitments made, then only to watch, perplexed, as little or nothing happens?
  • How often do we see creative ideas and innovative plans become stymied by bureaucratic process and energy-draining efforts?

In most cases the cause is the absence of a performance culture.

Drivers for change within an organisation

There are number of key drivers influencing how an organisation operates and delivers its services. For example; Customers place expectations on how organisations should operate as well as Regulators and Key Stakeholders. Industry can also influence how an organisation should operate in providing its services and of course the level of engagement in staff determines how effective an organisation is.

The importance of culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – Peter Drucker, American management consultant

When famed business management consultant Peter Drucker was quoted as saying this, he was not downplaying the importance of a good strategy. He was highlighting that regardless of what the organisation’s strategy is, it can only be successful if the organisation’s culture supports the execution of that strategy.

Benefits of a high-performance culture

The benefits of building and sustaining a high performance culture include:

Man standing in front of a team pointing on the chart at the board
  • Focused execution of strategy
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased profitability
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Improved customer loyalty
  • Increased employee satisfaction
  • Consistent leadership and management practices
  • Improved organisational agility
  • Accelerated implementation of change
  • Higher levels of enthusiasm, motivation and engagement
  • Greater commitment and personal accountability.
  • Increased innovative practices

Qualified benefits are shown in the Benchmarking Effectiveness section at the end of the paper.

Definitions of culture

Culture can be simply defined as: “The way we do things around here”

Organisational Culture is the learned assumptions within an organisation on which people base their daily behaviour and also guides their actions. It drives how people think act and feel within an organisation and can be best summed up as the “DNA” of the organisation.

A High-Performance Culture exists when people know and act consistently on what is important bringing focus and discipline to execution. They focus on optimising cross-functional collaboration and seek to continually improve individual, team and organisational performance.

Questions for your organization:

  1. What key drivers are influencing your organisation in how it delivers its services?
  2. Why is a high-performance culture important to your organisation?
  3. What benefits can your organisation see by focusing on building a high-performance culture?
  4. What are the key causal focus areas that can impact your organisation’s culture?
  5. What steps can your organisation take to build a high-performance culture?
A business team having a serious meet around the table

Fundamental to a high-performance culture

Fundamental to a high performance culture is discipline. It promotes decisiveness and standards of excellence and ensures direct accountability.

Discipline is a main reason why commitments and expectations are always clear, constructive behaviours are also reinforced and rewarded where obstructive behaviours are blocked. In such a culture, people are truly engaged in the business of the organisation.

The emphasis on discipline is focused on setting clear boundaries with flexibility within those boundaries that allows people to be innovative on how they work between those boundaries.

Establishing a framework for a high-performance culture

Dr Robert A Cooke, co-founder of Human Synergistics, developed the “How Culture Works” model that articulates the organisational variables that cause culture and in turn drives the outcomes of culture.

These organisational variables already exist in many organisations making it relatively straightforward approach to follow in order to assess and measure culture.

To achieve a high-performance culture in an organisation there is a need to understand how cause and effect impacts culture, illustrated by the diagram below:

Culture diagram at work

© Copyright Human Synergistics International

The above is a contextualised version of Dr Robert A Cook’s Human Synergistics model on Organisational Culture. The model highlights the drivers for organisational culture stemming from Cause to Effect.

The model highlights you need to address the causal factors first before you can achieve your desired outcomes. E.g. to become more innovative we need to ensure the environment is created to support and sustain an innovative culture. Simply attending a course on innovation will not drive a prolonged innovative culture.

Woman leading the meeting of the team

Drivers for Change

At the leftmost part of the slide we see the major drivers impacting how an organisation reacts to change. Our customers place expectations on us on how we should operate as well as our Stakeholders.

Regulation may impact how we operate or deliver our offerings. Competition is also influencing how we operate in providing our services and of course our People’s level of engagement determines how effective we are.

Busy office employees working on separate computers

Causal Factors

The way we do things in the organisation is shaped by how effective our Mission and Vision is; how well structured our organisation is in supporting people to achieve its goals; what HR Practices are in place that add value to staff performance; reinforcement systems that incentivise people to perform well; how well Job Design is to ensure people are working to their potential, how well Communication is across all layers and functions that supports achievement of outcomes and how well Leaders support their teams and foster collaboration across the organisation to ensure effective performance.

Operating Culture

This is the product of how we are expected to perform as a result of how effectively we execute against the causal factors.

Outcomes of Culture

These are driven by how effective we are at execution which then determines how we approach Teamwork; How we work with others outside our team, how Motivated we are and what level of Satisfaction we feel when we perform our jobs.

Innovative Behaviour

This stems from our outcomes of culture that impacts our ability to ensure people are feeling supported and encouraged to bring ideas and actions to challenges.

Operational Outcomes

These are the measures of how effective we have been in achieving our intended goals.

Key to building a high performance culture

In order to build a high-performance culture, we need to focus on 7 key causal factors to build an organisational culture that result in outcomes that drive high performance. These are summarised as follows:

Team applauding their colleague

1. Mission and vision – Build a shared meaning
For people to be interested enough in the future of the organisation they need to feel that what they do is important. People need to feel that their effort is making a difference. They need to feel that what they do is worthwhile.

Clearly articulating the organisation’s mission, vision, philosophy and/or values gives the organisation a unique opportunity to communicate to its employees what the organisation sees as being important, what its priorities are, what role it plays in the wider society and what its contribution is. It has to be authentic, resonate with the people and has to be translated in to action and be used by senior executives as guidelines for decision making.

Young team members happily looking at the sheet on the office table

2. Organisational structure – Allow people to get involved
The structure of an organisation represents the division of functions and roles.

The key focus is how these functions and roles interrelate and coordinate to create a whole and how the structure facilitates or inhibits opportunities for people to influence what happens and the extent to which they are involved in helping the organisation improve the way it operates.

Staff members must be given the opportunity to provide input to the decision making process. For innovation to occur, people need to believe that they can challenge the status quo and that their voices will be listened to.

Man talking in front of business people

3. Human resources practices – Turn the shared meaning into everyday reality
Human resource systems such as recruitment, selection and placement, training and development and performance appraisal, send signals to employees about what is important, what behaviour gets rewarded and what people need to do to be ‘successful’ in the organisation. These systems can influence how people are treated fairly and equitably are also an important precursor for innovation.

Flexibility, adaptability and a lack of pre-conceived judgement (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) create a sense of openness to new experiences around the organisation. Flexibility in employment practices breeds flexibility in thinking. Flexibility in thinking breeds innovation.

Businessman congratulating an employee on a successful presentation

4. Reinforcement systems – Reward the behaviours you want
Everyone knows the basic tenet of psychology – behaviour that gets rewarded gets repeated. Surprisingly very few managers are good at praising good performance but most are very quick to criticise mistakes.

The relationship between reward and punishment is complex. Reward good performance and you will get motivation to excel. Ignore good performance and you will get motivation to do nothing. Punish mistakes and you will get motivation to avoid blame. Avoidance of blame is far too prevalent in too many organisations.

When organisations fail to recognise good performance but are quick to point out mistakes, the result in general passivity in the culture with people thinking more about avoiding blame than striving to excel. It’s not about ignoring mistakes, but how the circumstance of the mistake is dealt with constructively. The focus should be on improving performance. Reward doesn’t mean money, assuming certain economic needs are being met, intrinsic reward, such as the sense of a job well done is much more motivating.

Happy woman working on her desk

5. Job design – Give people autonomy to do their jobs
The motivational potential of any job can be determined by the level of:

  • Autonomy – the extent to which the job holder has discretion over how to go about certain aspects of his/her job.
  • Variety – the extent to which the job holder has the opportunity to use a wide range of skills and abilities.
  • Identity – the extent to which the job holder carries out a clearly identifiable (beginning to end) task.
  • Significance – the extent to which the job holder views his/her job as having an important impact on other people.
  • Feedback – the extent to which the job holder gets feedback about performance simply by doing the job.

The more these are present, the higher the potential for motivation. If they are not present to a reasonable level, people are just not intrinsically motivated by their jobs and will instead simply ‘just do the job’. People also cannot be innovative when they can’t make basic decisions about how their job gets done.

Two beautiful women sharing ideas in their work station

6. Communication – Communicate in ways that promote learning
What management communicates and how it communicates are significant influencers of organisational culture. Both send signals to organisational members about what is important and what people should be interested in. Communication is also about how the organisation handles the opinions and ideas of those inside the organisation.

To build a culture that creates innovation, people need to know what is happening in the broader organisation, not just their business unit, as this widens their perspective beyond their day-to-day jobs. It also needs to emphasise interdependencies and how the organisation functions as a whole.

Communicating needs to be authentic, accepted, understood and acted upon. There also needs to be an emphasis on communication as a learning tool – learning from mistakes, learning from opportunities and learning from unique examples of desired behaviours (e.g. customer service).

Happy leader applauded by her staffs

7. Leadership – Give people great leaders and managers at all levels
Leaders have both a direct and indirect impact on organisational culture. Their direct impact comes through their own personal styles, the choices they make about approaches to leadership and management and how they apply the various skills of managing and leading. Their indirect impact comes through the decisions they make about structure, systems, application of the organisations HR systems, goal setting systems, job design and how to use communication as a tool for development.

Leaders at all levels contribute to the development of the organisations culture.

We are all clear on the importance of top level leadership, but many organisations fail to invest in their front line leaders. These are the individuals who build the culture at the front line, all too often the front line leader is consumed by managing task related activities with little time left to manage the people related issues as they are often promoted into these jobs as they are the best at doing the jobs, and tend to seek comfort in the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘managing’.

Outcomes of culture

If the causal factors are well managed a culture that encourages the following constructive behaviours will be achieved:

Group teamwork in the office
  • Teamwork: People work well in teams by working together to solve problems, identify issues, building on each other’s ideas in a way that allows creativity and diverse opinions to flourish.
  • Cross-functional coordination: Effective cooperation and coordination occurs across departments and units throughout the organisation.
  • Motivation: People are motivated to want the organisation to perform at a high level. People are inspired to do better and feel that they have a personal stake in the future of the business.
  • Satisfaction: People are satisfied with their job, like working in the organisation and feel emotionally engaged with the organisation. They want the organisation to succeed, they want to be in the organisation and they want to stay with the organisation.

An approach to improving your culture

Organisations can assess the current effectiveness of its culture and take decisive action to address key causal factors that limit an organisation’s effectiveness in becoming a more innovative and high performing organisation. This can be achieved by adopting the following structured approach:

1. Identify your organisation’s ideal culture – determine the behaviours that will help your organisation achieve its goals and excel at what you do

2. Identify your organisation’s current culture – assess the effectiveness of your current organisational practices and how do they impact on your culture.

3. Assess the impact of your organisation’s culture – the impact it has on individuals, groups, your organisation and your ability to achieve excellence.

4. Establish actions – initiate sustainable change to alter behaviours to shift to the ideal culture.

5. Assess the shift in your organisation’s culture – assess the effectiveness of actions implemented on current organisational practices and how do they impact on your culture and benchmark them against your organisation’s ideal culture. Adjust actions accordingly and review progress against ideal culture annually.

Benchmarking effectiveness

Human Synergistics have benchmarked organisational culture effectiveness from an analysis of 740 Australian/New Zealand organisations.

Organisations that perform well, against the benchmark have constructive cultures that lead to:

  • 27% better teamwork
  • 68% better cross-functional coordination
  • Staff that are 76% more motivated
  • Staff are 35% more satisfied in their roles, and
  • The organisation is rated as being 45% more adaptable to changes in its external environment (innovation)

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