Understanding High Performance Culture
“High performance workplace culture” is one of those phrases that seems straightforward, even obvious. Isn’t it just “a business culture where people perform at a high level?”. That makes sense, right?
When we start to break that idea down, though, things begin to feel more complicated. Culture is easy enough, but how do we define organisational performance that is “high?” Is it by results? Consistency? Brilliance? And why is it performing highly? Because people are motivated? Happy? Well rewarded? Is it sustainable?
To us, a High Performance Culture isn’t a happy accident. It takes work and thought. It takes consideration and empathy, dedication and motivation. It takes purpose, and it’s absolutely worth the journey.
Defining a High Performance Culture
High Performance Cultures aren’t results-driven, hard-nosed and profit-focused. They’re people-driven and values-driven. Profit and great results are what happens when you create a culture of motivated and supported teams who understand their roles.
A more poetic explanation, quoted internally at Netflix when defining its own company culture and often attributed to French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, goes:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
In other words, a High Performance Culture isn’t a list of tasks that can be put in place, though it will eventually lead to tasks being handled better. It begins on a much deeper level – a shared set of goals based around very specific expectations that will vary from company to company, and even from team to team.
What makes a culture “High Performance”
“The difference between an organic culture that just develops over time and a High Performance Culture,” explains Emma Haslam, one of Culture Consultancy’s directors, “is first off, a focus on continuous improvement of mindset, behaviours, and perspectives and habits. Then the second part is around outcomes and results – what you’re looking to achieve. The ‘from’ and the ‘to.’ What do outstanding results look like? Not just from a business perspective, but also from a people perspective.”
‘High performance’ means a team working at their best, and at their most satisfied. A high performance team each understand their mission and their part in it. They know their job, and they know why they’re doing it. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, and they know why that is the direction to pull in. They share the same values. A well-performing engine isn’t one that’s being driven beyond its capabilities to go as fast as it possibly can, straining its components and burning through its fuel – it’s one where every component is finely tuned and working well, where everything is well-greased and well maintained, where every part has been chosen because it is ideally suited for its task, and where fuel is used efficiently. It can rev up to bursts of speed but also tick over down a long road. This is exactly true of a high performance workplace culture.
Why a High Performance Culture?
High Performance Cultures make businesses more profitable. All of the outcomes of a High Performance Culture – including high employee satisfaction, less employee turnover, psychological safety and future-proofing against changing circumstances – ultimately benefit the bottom line as well as creating a community of workers who are getting the most out of their jobs.
In a High Performance Culture team-members are well-equipped and motivated to perform their roles, meaning tasks are completed at the right time, problems are identified and fixed and employee hours are used efficiently. In an inefficient company culture, tasks that are not completed on time or to a poor standard will inevitably take more working hours to achieve, and they’ll often be passed up to senior team members to “fix”. An organisation is now paying for a task to be done twice and paying someone with a higher salary to spend time doing it.
A High Performance Culture means staff are engaged and have been helped to understand their company’s values and their role within it. Research commissioned by Marks & Spencer found that stores where they had worked to make employees feel more engaged delivered, on average, £62 million more in sales annually. A study by Gallup found that businesses with the highest employee engagement scores were 18% more productive than businesses with the lowest scores. The CBI (Confederate of British Industries) discovered that engaged employees took roughly three days a year off sick, while disengaged staff were likely to take nearly seven days’ worth of sick leave.
The cost of poor company culture can be high, particularly when it comes to staff turnover. A white paper by Robert Walters, CEO of Robert Walters Group a British recruitment company, found that over half of people in the millennial age group (27-42) cited company culture as a source of disappointment in a new job, with 25% saying that their reason for leaving an organisation would be to seek a “more fulfilling” role. A 2022 study by Reed.co.uk revealed that a staggering 25% of British workers were considering leaving their job within the year. Almost all the reasons listed were linked to company culture; 44% said “toxic workplace culture” was their primary reason for wanting to move on, 39% blamed poor management, 34% said they didn’t feel valued and 16% cited career progression. These are all issues that implementing a High Performance Culture would address. A look at what employees said they wanted from their jobs reinforces the value of High Performance Cultures – flexible working hours, mental health support and career development were the three 0most cited elements after a salary increase.
Another study, undertaken by Durham University for the UK’s Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) found that workplaces that had specifically implemented “high performance working practices” said they had less staff turnover, won and retained more new clients and customers, and found their teams more likely to accept pay freezes or reductions with good grace during tougher times, all of this positively affecting their bottom lines.
Work has changed
Culture Consultancy’s Jo Geraghty says, “the relationship between employer and employee has fundamentally and irreversibly shifted. The days of ‘carrot and stick’ are long gone. Today’s workforce wants to be treated like ‘grown-ups’. They want an employee value proposition that clearly articulates the cultural and behavioural contract between both parties.”
Younger people actively look for exciting and rewarding workplace cultures. Research commissioned in 2022 by the HR Software company Breath, via researchers Opium, found that 86% of 18-34-year-olds cited company culture as a top priority in job searching. Again, clear communication, psychological safety and protection against burnout were all factors that ranked highly in their decisions. 53% of young people said they would be less likely/never apply for a role that didn’t mention company culture.
Emma agrees. “People want flexibility,” she says. “They want a place which focuses on well-being, and diversity and inclusion and all of these other factors.”
Company culture vs spending cuts
While there’s never a bad time for a business to ensure it has a productive workplace culture, it’s a particularly valuable exercise when times are tough. Economic downturns, rising inflation, recession and cost of living impact all organisations. Traditionally, savings would be made by “trimming the fat” – lay-offs, cutting benefits, closing premises; that sort of thing. It feels like an easy solution, but these elements only deal with immediate costs. Changes to a company’s culture, although harder to bring about and sustain, pay off massively in terms of efficiency and long-term gain far more than simply slashing budgets. A High Performance Culture future-proofs an organisation; it means a team that is invested and satisfied, not feeling undervalued and under threat.
Companies that focus on spending cuts as a way of maximising revenue – a dramatic reduction in headcount and cutting benefits – create poor company cultures which in turn perform poorly. As a 2020 article on Forbes put it, “your employees are your lifeblood … You can do great damage to your workplace culture for years to come by making knee-jerk decisions that send a message to your employees that they are expendable and nonessential, or that they have no voice in the well-being of the company.” What can appear as “soft” or “fluffy” expenses, such as training, development and employee engagement are important components in building a high performance company culture.
As Emma says, “If you just focus on the hard cost-cutting measures, not on the culture, you’re going to have a very specific culture that only a very small proportion of people will want to work for. You run the risk of things like groupthink bias; not delivering your client needs, because maybe your clients are more diverse. The impact is quite severe if you just focus on the business metrics.”
In an era where sites like Glassdoor give employees the platform to leave public feedback about their experiences, poor handling of company culture directly impacts the quality of candidates likely to apply for future roles.
Jo agrees. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “Obviously, there are efficiency gains to be had through streamlining processes and right sizing businesses but extreme headcount reductions are usually a sign that the business was not being well run in the first place. I understand that some financial savings need to be made but doing away with employee benefits, development and training will break the employees’ trust in the EVP. Repairing this will be much more expensive in the long run.”
What makes a High Performance Culture?
There are dozens of factors, big and small, that can define or contribute to a high performance workplace culture, though ultimately, they ladder down into a handful of key themes. You’ll notice that these themes each reinforce one another. Like a High Performance Culture itself, each supports the other, and each is a key slice of the whole pie.
1) An understanding of values, aims and goals across the organisation.
Members of a team should know the direction the company is headed and have an investment in that mission. They must believe in the purpose, and understand the journey and their role within it. It can be thought of almost like a ship’s crew on a mission of exploration, where everyone from the captain down to the cabin boy, ship’s cook and the oarsmen know the vessel’s destination, understand (and just as crucially, appreciate) why that destination is important and why the route has been chosen, trust their colleagues to know what they’re doing and understand their own specific set of duties and why they are an important part of the whole. Collective values and aims lead to a shared vocabulary. Everyone is on the same page.
Not every person is suited to every company environment, and in a High Performance Culture the entire team should share the values and understand the aims of the company at large. Not understanding the expectations of a business is one of the main causes of stress among employees. Shared values and understanding are perhaps the most important baseline factor in a High Performance Culture. It’s the foundation on which the rest is built.
2) Psychological safety and open communication
We can’t underline how important it is that in a High Performance Culture, team members feel comfortable in their roles and in the organisation as a whole. A strong culture is one that practices radical candour.
Colleagues should feel that they can speak up when they need to, and not be judged for their views. People should feel that mistakes are opportunities to learn rather than something for which they’re blamed and punished. Crucially, radical candour is not consensus-based – disagreements are natural and helpful in the search for the right path.
In an organisation that takes psychological safety seriously, where everyone feels comfortable with being professionally open, disagreement becomes a positive force rather than the basis of a destructive conflict and the introduction of a toxic environment. When it goes wrong it can cause huge damage.
One widely reported case saw team members at a UK brewery send an open letter accusing the employer of inspiring a “culture of fear” where workers were “bullied and treated like objects”. A BBC podcast investigation into employment practices at the chain hammered the point home. The company lost its prestigious B-Corp status.
3) Inclusion and diversity
Building diversity and an inclusive environment into a business is obviously an ethically sound practice. It’s “the right thing to do” and will contribute to the shared values and open communication of a High Performance Culture. The business case for “the right thing to do” is also very solid. As The Guardian put it, “businesses may be missing out on creative ideas, innovation and profitability because they are made up of people who think alike. The bottom line is: diversity drives innovation and creativity in all aspects and types of businesses – from small start-ups to advertising agencies to Fortune 500 companies.”
It’s also vital to attracting the right people to new roles. A 2017 study by recruiters Hays found that 77% of employees believe diversity and inclusion programmes are important to recruitment and retention. What’s more, businesses don’t operate in a diversity vacuum, so a diverse team better reflects a diverse marketplace.
4) Growth mindset and agility
It’s vital for team members to feel that they can grow within their roles – that they’ve not become boxed in, that they have the opportunity to flourish and that their successes can lead to more opportunities. Key to a growth mindset is less reliance on existing talents, and an embracing of new skills. Members of a team with a High Performance Culture are more willing to take calculated risks and can grow to fit a space where they are needed, spotting opportunities to prove themselves.
Team members thrive when they feel empowered and trusted.
This isn’t just about giving employees confidence and self-worth, though of course that will also feed into a positive and productive culture. Empowering employees to be able to solve problems and make decisions within their area means their time is being used more effectively. Delegating and empowering team members to be able to make relevant decisions and work self-sufficiently is a more efficient use of paid hours. Low empowerment, meanwhile, leads to a workforce unwilling to go “the extra mile” and work to their full capacity. Companies like Google, meanwhile, where autonomy and empowerment are high, yield spectacular results.
While people should feel empowered, they shouldn’t feel cut off or alone – a High Performance Culture is one in which everyone feels supported by managers and colleagues.
6) Identifying and removing toxic behaviours
For a High Performance Culture to take root, it can’t be blocked by toxic elements. Employees need to feel safe from unexpected changes of direction and well briefed when change occurs. When Elon Musk acquired Twitter in 2022 he famously issued an ultimatum to staff – to agree to an “extremely hardcore” working culture that meant “working long hours at high intensity” or take a severance package and leave. To his (reported) surprise, hundreds of staff chose the latter option.
Pushing employees to work longer hours to maximise their productivity creates a pressured and uncomfortable environment in which people feel they’re expected to work beyond their abilities. Other factors like gossip, bullying, a lack of transparency behind decision-making and progression all contribute to a toxic atmosphere, where those that attempt to keep up risk burnout. Meanwhile, others are likely to simply do the minimum expected of them or just find work elsewhere.
These behaviours have led to recent phenomenon’s such as ‘The Great Resignation’, a surge in employees changing their jobs and lifestyles after the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 prompted a rethink in how they wanted to spend their working lives and ‘quiet quitting’, in which people do the bear minimum at their job and remain unengaged and unenthused. Both are the result of unhealthy and unproductive working situations. In a High Performance Culture, though, where employees enjoy engagement and job satisfaction, they’re motivated and productive.
High performance teams are not …
- Perfect. A culture of perfectionism creates stress. People feel like they need go the extra-mile every single time, with no mistakes or missteps. This creates a stressful environment which can lead to burnout – and burnt-out people make more mistakes … and get more stressed.
- Something only big corporate monoliths can aspire to. Every workplace with more than one member of staff has a culture and re-tuning that culture for high performance is something that can be done by any business. The bigger the company, the more complex a culture change may be, but the process and the reasons behind that change are the same. Any business can benefit from a High Performance Culture, comprised of motivated and satisfied people.
- A culture of fear around results. In a true High Performance Culture, people know what they are (and are not) capable of and have well-supported and realistic goals that they understand.
- A way to force you to work harder. In a High Performance Culture teams are comfortable in their roles and feel trusted by their leaders. Psychological safety is a huge part of that. Already busy people can’t just be given more to do. If people are in the right roles and given realistic expectations to complete work they’re invested in, then their whole working experience will be more productive.
- Places where failure is the worst result. In High Performance Cultures, failure and success are both results that you learn from, and different sides of the same coin.
- A job with no work/life balance. In fact, in a High Performance Culture, employers understand that people can’t work at their best if they’re either exhausted or resentful, both of which are the risks of a job with demanding hours and no time to switch off.
- Boring! High Performance Cultures are creative workplaces where innovation is encouraged and nurtured.
- A marathon and a sprint at the same time. Good working practices mean sometimes you’re running a marathon (a sustained, long-term project) and sometimes a sprint (something that needs to be done in an intense burst), but never trying to do both at once. As Jo Geraghty, Co-Founder of Culture Consultancy, puts it “sometimes it’s a 5k walk in the park, sometimes it’s a bit of a 10k sprint, because you’ve got to get to the finish line. But what you have in between all of those, is good recovery time and great preparation. The reason that you can do the 10k when you need to, is because you’ve got all the support of your team, you’ve got the support of the organisation and you’ve been given the right training and equipment.”
Implementing a High Performance Culture
Implementing a High Performance Culture is a “root and branch” operation that can’t be done with half measures, and must be introduced with full transparency and investment from management level down. It’s also a process we are deeply invested in.
Culture Consultancy use a three-stage process to define and implement cultural changes:
A thorough review of a business’s current culture, including team dynamics and leadership styles, identifying where change can be brought in and where good principles can be amplified, building a case for change.
Starting with the purpose and mission, we design a new company culture based on our insights and research. This stage also involves “preparing the way”, looking at how a new culture can be enabled, including coaching needs and leadership development. It’s important at this stage for leadership and key teams like HR to understand how the culture we’re designing is tied to the companies goals, and the part each will play in implementing it.
The new culture is implemented into the team. This is the most challenging and most important stage of the process. Key to it is an engaging communication roll out and working with the team to support mindset and behavioural changes. We also help monitor progress and solve problems that may arise along the way measuring the return on investment as it becomes clear when the new culture takes root.
Company cultures develop by themselves, and they’re present in every company with more than one team member. They are, simply “how things are done”. Recognising that a culture needs to change is a huge and extremely important step. What’s more, it is a positive one.
Changes in culture are how a company can stay relevant and continue to grow. It’s how it can attract and keep the best talent, and equally importantly, how it can maintain a team of thriving people, doing work that engages and empowers them. High Performance Cultures are how we get the best out of the people we work with, without driving them too hard or cutting corners. If implemented correctly it can mean a better working environment, better results, better reputations and higher profits. In a High Performance Culture, everyone is a winner.
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