How to lead a high performance culture

How to lead a high performance culture

Philip White

28 April 2022 - 10 min read

How to lead a high performance culture

As organisations are coming out the other side of the pandemic, there are a lot of employees who are reconsidering their place within their organisation. People are feeling unsure about their place in their job and questioning their relationship with their employer, family and finances. 

As they do so, they are looking for positions that better align with their own aspirations. Last November, research from the UK labour force survey estimated that job resignations were at 391,000 — their highest in the past twenty years. 

Flexible working hours, increased salaries and other company perks may offer a short-term solution, but they don't guarantee employee satisfaction.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed, leaders should use this phenomenon as a chance for a big reset; of company goals, values and initiatives. All under the umbrella of a high performance culture. 

Findings from the PwC 2021 Global Culture Survey shows that 81% of respondents agree that culture is a source of competitive advantage, further attesting to its importance within today’s market. 

The reality is that leaders who provide their employees with the right conditions to thrive are likely to see a positive impact when it comes to growth, performance and how customers interact with their business as a whole. 

Drawing on the expert insights of award-winning speaker Marcus Child, this article looks at how leaders can lead a high performance culture in their organisations.  

Leading with Care and Concern 

Employees want to be led by someone who cares about them; someone sees them first and foremost as a person instead of a means to reaching their goals. Customers, too, value these attributes; leaders who care about the needs of their customer will be more attentive to creating solutions that satisfy these needs. 

It’s easy to think that leadership is about charisma, magnetism or other potentially egocentric qualities. However, customers and employees alike value concern because it makes them feel included in company activity. Inclusion promotes engagement and engagement is a key pathway to success. 

These attributes can be justified further through William Schutz’s theory of interpersonal relations. Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) examines the relationship between people in a group. The theory suggests that people look for three main interpersonal needs when they are in a group — affection/openness, control, and inclusion.

Applying these areas to your business provides a useful framework for leading a strong company culture. 

1. Inclusion:

As a leader, it’s a good idea to consider how far you want to be included in your employees' work and how much they may want to be included in yours. 

When you include somebody in a meeting or a work activity, you are telling that person that they are significant and that they matter. Even if they do not verbally communicate or contribute to this event, you can be sure that they will be committed to the cause. 

Inclusion can be an enabler for achieving goals as people will feel ‘a part of the process’ and recognise that their voice matters in how decisions are made. As you begin to hit those goals as a business, a greater level of inclusion will ensure that wins are being shared.

2. Control:

Consider how much control exists in your interactions with employees. This could be a case of whether you want to be hands-on every step of the way or allow them to develop ideas, consulting you only when they require advice. The answer to this question will differ from company to company, but it is important to consider this factor thoroughly and find a solution that is appropriate. 

On one level, giving control to employees will suggest that they are capable of the task in-hand. Having this control will, then, encourage ownership and a sense of pride in those who are given this responsibility. Alternatively, someone may require more guidance on a task or project, especially if they are less experienced in dealing with this work. It’s about being attuned to what allows people to work to their best ability. 

Having said that, it's generally a good idea to not give too much control. People want to feel included, but leadership is still valued; the promise that someone will be able to make the tough decisions when things change remains an assuring one for employees. Ideally, you want to find a place where more control is being taken from those autonomous and empowered people in teams. 

3. Openness:

Affection, warmth, openness, this term has been altered slightly in different interpretations of the research but what is important, here, is that you are thinking about how open you want to be as a leader. If someone completes their work to a high standard, are you going to give them praise that they deserve?

Overlapping, in particular, with inclusion, this attribute defines how much information you wish to share with employees. How much of your own feelings you wish to communicate to them. Ultimately, when you say nice things to people, they are going to feel valued. In a collective success journey, openness is a great way of making people feel liked and getting them onboard with your plans.

Defining Goals (and celebrating when you achieve them) 

Defining business goals is fundamental to moulding a high performance culture. If you don’t have a desired state to aim toward, then employees are likely to lack direction and motivation in their day-to-day responsibilities. 

In outlining company goals, your strategy should guide employees toward achieving them through measurable objectives and targets. As part of this strategy, culture can encourage positive action by expressing these goals through clear values and beliefs. As with culture, a successful business plan provides direction and clarifies objectives so that collective actions and decisions can be made with confidence — from c-level executives to new starters. 

An extra layer of defining your goals is to look at how you are going to celebrate as an organisation when this goal is achieved. Visualising this positive result can influence an organisation’s culture greatly by giving employees something to work toward. 

Celebrations can take a number of forms, be they monetary incentives or a group activity for the organisation. An even better idea is to include a rewards system with varied options as this will ensure that everyone is included in your journey to success.  

Whatever your celebration may be, it’s a good idea to embed these ideas into your business plan moving forward. From here, think how these potential celebrations and incentives could drive teams’ day-to-day responsibilities. 

For example, if your company reward was a trip to Spain, you could create a virtual flight map that updates every time a milestone was hit; as each objective is achieved, the plane nears toward its destination. Actualising company benefits will, ultimately, create a sense of momentum as teams race toward their desired state. 

Bridging the Gap between Customer and Employee Behaviour 

Reaching a goal is fundamentally impacted by your customers and, more specifically, their behaviour. How they interact with your organisation will either accelerate or halt your journey toward a desired destination. 

On one level, this could be a case of, simply, ‘buying more’ of  whatever product or service you offer. However, for long term success, it is also likely that you would want your customers to keep coming back to your business and to tell others about how great your business is. 

Once you understand what your customers need to do to help your organisation achieve its goals, you will have a better idea of what drives them. Drivers are those unique selling points (USPs) that give your organisation the competitive advantage over others. Pinpointing these drivers will allow you to make smart decisions when it comes to developing your business. 

Completing the bilateral relationship between customer and company are employees; the people who represent your organisation. The immediate relationship between customers and employees, on the surface, appears transaction or transferral. 

As they carry out their duties day-in day-out employees can feel like they are, simply, going through the motions to complete the transaction of a service. Checking someone into a hotel, scanning a customer’s items, replacing a client’s windscreen. 

These actions seem plain and routine, but they can be elevated through strong values and setting the right conditions that allow employees to go above and beyond in their role. Once you develop a deep understanding of your customers' behaviour and the factors that cause them to behave that way, you will be able to advise employees on how to act so that these factors will happen routinely and customers will behave in ways that make your goal happen.

Creating the conditions for people to succeed 

Just as drivers encourage positive customer behaviour, so will the right conditions facilitate positive employee behaviour. Creating these conditions is, primarily, a case of leaders finding ways to make their people feel included, like they have enough control and that they are being recognised within the organisation. These conditions will allow employees to act in a way that will enable customers to do the things that drive your company goals.

Values are a key condition that can give employees something to define their actions by. Too often companies use broad terms as values, like “responsibility” or “accountability”, which are forgettable and risk alienating employees in their impracticality. 

It is much better to have values that clearly define model behaviour, so that employees can remember these principles whenever they are faced with a decision. For example, a family-targeted hotel company may exchange a value of “excellent customer service” to “care consistently” as this encourages a more direct action for employees in an accessible way. Any organisation should have values that reflect its identity and how it wants its employees to behave in their roles. 

Digital transformation: culture is key

Creating a digital culture requires more than just technology expertise; it requires stronger leadership and culture as well. Findings show that companies that focused on culture were 5x more likely to achieve breakthrough performance than those that neglected culture in their digital transformations. 

Leading a successful digital transformation does, indeed, share a lot of qualities with leading a high performance culture. For one, leading a high performance culture is an iterative process, defined by consistency and care. Actions should not take place in a vacuum; continuously working through the motions of your plans will create a stronger work culture. 

This point is particularly relevant for actions of inclusion, control and openness, which are best carried out iteratively. Successful digital transformations are, similarly, achieved through continuous actions that reinforce improvement and development. 

Even though technology has the potential to improve working processes, these significant improvements only occur when they are integrated into a culture that is driven to improve. For long-standing success beyond your digital transformation, culture is key.

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Philip is the Managing Director of Audacia and is responsible for the company's overall strategy and culture.