The secret to a high-performance culture – high-pressure?

Performance may ‘look’ different from one business to the next, but in a high-performance culture, are equally high levels of pressure inevitable? Is there a secret to achieving the perfect balance and what role do senior HR professionals play? Our HR Business Partner Emily Cryan explains more...

Some people will blame Brexit for the ever-mounting pressures being placed on UK organisations. Others will cite the seemingly growing expectations of customers, the battle for talent, investor targets or a need to innovate in order to compete. It could just be a reflection of management ambition of course, or a desire to remain one step ahead. But irrespective of the driver to operate at a continuously peak level, the common denominator that will influence a company’s ability to achieve this standard, is a high-performance culture.

When a hunger to achieve lies within the true DNA of a company, high-performance – arguably –  comes far more naturally to the entire team. Or at least the majority of it.

But before the secret to a high-performance culture can be analysed – if there is such a thing – it is firstly important to define what high-performance typically ‘looks like’.

Defining high-performance

For some businesses, high-performance is measured largely on the basis of bottom-line statistics such as output, turnover or margins. In such organisations, performance – and productivity – matter because they affect the fiscal strength and market share of the brand.

In industries where roles are competitive and recruitment remains tough, a high-performance environment is often one that supports the ongoing development and success of colleagues. Given the opportunity to thrive as individuals and/or within a team, employees will become far ‘stickier’ than if their personal ambitions lie unfulfilled.

But it may also be the case that high-performance is defined according to the optimum use of other resources, such as technology. Downtime affects throughputs or service level agreements (SLAs) for instance, which impacts on a company’s ability to meet customer expectations, and thus, reputation.

In truth, the list goes on and of course a combination of the above is likely in many firms. But only when a business – and its HR team – agrees on the definition of high-performance and how it is measured, can steps be taken to support people to achieve what is expected of them.

It may sound like an obvious initial statement to make, but this KPI clarity is essential if HR is to help define and deliver the strategy to achieve the performance sought in the boardroom. Going on to shape a high-performance culture is far from easy – and cannot be the responsibility of one person or department – but this groundwork is the crucial first step.

Reinforcing a high-performance culture

It is no secret that culture can manifest itself in many ways, and certain cultural elements or norms become established and cemented incredibly quickly. It emerges as a result of the way people behave. It cannot be prescribed or dictated, and it won’t materialise simply because somebody wrote a vision or mission statement down in a company handbook.

Speaking from personal experience at Cascade, continued revenue growth of up to 20% per annum certainly helped rationalise the onward targets set for the company. KPIs are established for both the sales team in terms of new business and account managers who are empowered to safeguard client retention. But culture has undeniably had a role to play in such KPIs being met each year.

The priority is to get things done, quickly and to a high standard.  But this is not merely an output-focused mantra. Inputs matter just as much. Clear and strategically aligned objectives throughout the company, collaborative working and a sense of shared responsibility underpin the way of working. Trust, transparency and effective leadership reinforce the approach, and quarterly reviews communicate and connect people to the bigger picture.

HR professionals alone are not responsible for shaping and maintaining such a culture of course. But HR can support line managers to develop the skills they need to instil these factors within their teams. Because herein lies part of the secret to a high-performance culture – authentic leadership from people who ‘walk the talk’.

The role of authentic leadership

First-hand experience has proven the role that authentic leadership has on employee engagement – a quality conducive to strong performance levels – as it impacts upon the internal brand. Cascade’s CEO was also recently quoted as stating: “You can’t say it and not be it”, as employees will soon become disillusioned by managers who asks one thing of them but does another themselves.

Effective people management from departmental leaders is therefore imperative in creating a culture of success – it sets the tone and ensures ongoing commitment to the collective goal. A manager’s continued analysis of both team and individual performance also ensures the exertion of equal effort, the identification of development needs and the discovery of employees who will further thrive when stretched.

Whilst some managers believe they are born to lead, others certainly require coaching to become strong leaders. HR’s provision of management training, leadership apprenticeships, appraisal guidance and even absence workshops, will all support this cause, but learnings must then be put into practice.

That is not to say the job of a HR professional is over, as ineffective management must be called out.

Does high-performance mean high-pressure?

Even in an organisation with clearly defined performance expectations, a positive culture of success, and the support of effective leaders, it could still be argued that the pace of modern business naturally creates a high-pressure environment. This sense of pressure is typically magnified if customer demand unexpectedly spikes, recruitment drives stall or there is another unforeseen impact on workloads. It is sometimes inevitable.

The challenge is to manage this pressure to ensure it remains a motivator, not a cause of stress.

At the time of this article going to print, Cascade is midway through analysing the results of a study* which explored the extent to which stress has simply become a ‘way of life’ within the average UK workplace. But just because it is common, this does not mean it should be considered acceptable, particularly if the physical or mental wellness of employees is in jeopardy.

The clever – albeit temporary – redeployment of resources can prove crucial here. A department may need to ‘borrow’ from another and/or rely on collaborative efforts to maintain performance levels during high-pressure periods. This way of working should be accepted and embraced, especially when considering the collective goal referenced earlier.

But this cannot become the norm. The focus must be the return to a high-performance – not high-pressure – environment, to ensure stress levels do not taint the culture that everyone has worked so hard to foster.

Protecting morale

Assuming stress is not a HR concern within the workplace, maintaining morale in potentially high-pressure environments can remain a challenge, particularly because employees are motivated by very different types of rewards. HR professionals widely acknowledge this, and so the temptation can be to try to tailor a benefits package to suit every individual member of staff. But in practice this is extremely difficult, especially in larger firms.

With such a diverse workforce at Cascade, the approach is to offer an extensive range of benefits including a pension, income protection, the ability to buy and sell holidays, and things that help with daily life such as bus season tickets, for example. Even characterising the rewards that employees seek based on demographic – such as millennials – would be too sweeping a stereotype to make, so the provision of such a comprehensive package hopefully provides a stimulus for all.

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