Culture check: Rebooting behaviours for high performance

Now is an opportune time to assess goals for the year ahead. Building on last month’s article, we look at smart strategies and appropriate tactics to optimise your team’s performance.

A high-performance culture is one where an organisation’s operational systems, routines and behaviours contribute to excellent delivery, usually assessed in financial terms, but possibly also in measures such as societal contribution or customer satisfaction scores. High performing companies work better – and in a virtuous circle, employees perform better too, in turn driving iterative improvement.

High-performing cultures have many components. They embrace and penetrate all hierarchies of a company, and usually all areas of its operation, from strategy to factory floor to customer servicing. Where and how should changes be initiated? Here are some big drivers and smaller actions to motivate and mobilise the organisation and teams within it.

The ultimate goal is the organisation’s main deliverable – or, as we call it at Wits DigitalCampus, “The Main Thing”. If the entire enterprise grasps this – the need to put first things first – productive performance will have a strong prospect of taking hold. In a study of the dynamics and performances of orchestras, Harvard psychologist J. Richard Hackman discovered that the group performance of “grumpy” symphonies was actually better than those in which the musicians were happy. “When we’re productive and we’ve done something good together (and are recognised for it), we feel satisfied, not the other way around,” concluded Hackman, summarising a key insight surrounding the cause-and-effect dynamics of teamwork.

Linked to this is the importance of the company’s values, vision and mission. Leading management theorist, University of California (Berkeley) Professor Morten Hansen, defines purpose and its power as “making valuable contributions to others (individuals or organisations) or to society that you find personally meaningful.” Essentially, purpose helps to direct and channel efforts, throughout the company, in the same direction.

Hansen goes further. From his studies of thousands of employees he noticed that the top 20% of performers were those who displayed passion for their work. Leaders who are able to instil both passion and purpose – what Hansen calls ‘P-squared’ or P² – into their talent and teams are most likely to see the results in a combination of excellent delivery, energy and commitment, and overall high performance.

Another high-performance lever is a growth mindset culture. A decade ago, American psychologist Carol Dweck posited that people can be categorised along a continuum according to an inherent belief in their abilities. ‘Fixed mindset’ people see their skills, talents and traits as essentially set, whereas ‘growth mindset’ individuals understand that they can expand their knowledge and skills, grow into challenges, and learn from setbacks.

Certain habits can be encouraged to instil a growth mindset. Possibly the most important is to formalise knowledge building. Make extra-curricular training compulsory. Incentivise the completion of courses in parallel fields. Habituate feedback sessions to share knowledge. (As an aside, self-identification is key: people who identify as proactive problem-solvers, for example, are more likely to be participative in embracing a challenge. The implication for leaders and talent managers is that the very name of a role, team or unit may be important. Should ‘IT Manager’ still be a title? Instead, perhaps ‘Digital Knowledge Engineer’ would encourage a shift in the way the organisation values the function, and the performance of that employee.)

Performance requires clarity of goals. The importance of goals is well documented. Yet, still, goals are often vague, or not closely linked to motivations or consequences. For goals to be genuinely effective, tie them to specific performance metrics, agreed rewards or incentives, and a defined process or system of desired behaviours.

Formalities aside, there’s scope for lateral thinking around objectives and KPIs. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos offers interesting perspectives on timelines when formulating goals: “If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people, but if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.” The insight is to consider gearing short-, medium- and long-term performance objectives, with appropriate strategies and behaviours for each.

Time is crucial in a different context. A company’s primary asset is its people and, as Harvard Business Review and Bain point out, its scarcest resource is people’s time – effectively, the organisation’s time.  The HBR/Bain study revealed a number of productivity insights involving the misuse of time. Two were particularly interesting in that they are closely linked to cultural behaviours: the overwhelming scale of digital communications, and the escalation of meetings. We are all likely to be familiar with the situation, but the scale may nevertheless be surprising: the research included a calculation that senior executives can now expect to receive upwards of 30,000 emails a year, and as many as 300,000 annualised employee hours can be involved in supporting the weekly ex-co meeting of a large corporation!

Intuitively, we realise that the connectivity of email, social media, and mobile phones is vital, but that it can also be hazardous to productivity. FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – is a proven psychological drag on our time and attention, and so some of the most effective habits for improving focus and delivering significant marginal gains in productivity involve reorienting how we interact with digital communication tools. Encourage your team to adopt habits such as dedicating batch time to emails and phone messages, and then, if their responsibility allows, to close email (and turn off the phone!). And, instead of poring over emails chronologically, instigate the habit of prioritising those where value can most be added.

Consider improving the productivity of meetings by clarifying behaviours as to decision-making processes and hierarchies. This in itself may cut the need for many meetings. And institute clear rules for the calling of meetings, how they are run, attendees, and their maximum duration. The point isn’t that meetings shouldn’t occur. But if, as in some calculations, as much as 15% of a company’s total collective employee hours are spent in meetings, the question needs to be asked: can the time be used better, and if so, how should the company’s behaviour shift to ramp up the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings?

Directing energy and resources is vital. Employees’ behaviours and corporate culture shifts which encourage optimal use of time will ensure productivity, performance, and competitiveness.

Even small changes to refine company systems and routines can re-gear performance. Author and habits specialist James Clear references what he calls ‘atomic habits’ – an indicator of size as well as force. Tiny habits, the little units of our lives that comprise everything we do, are both easier to stick to and catalysts for bigger, powerful changes. Micro-progress might seem pointless, but it accumulates over time. They key is to start; focusing on the triggers and actions, however fractional, can make transformative changes through the power of momentum.

Here’s an example: try ending the workday only after starting something new, then deliberately pausing it. This is counterintuitive, and even seems entirely unproductive. But as innovation consultant Dr Amantha Imber points out, the next day’s momentum can be kickstarted immediately, without needing to reprioritise and refocus.

Indeed, if there were a catchphrase for high performance, it would be ‘prioritise and focus.’ For the year ahead, or any other time horizon, taking the time and making the effort, now, to prioritise your organisation’s goals and the teams’ tasks may be the most important action towards instilling the right skill sets and behaviours for next-level performance.


Written By:

Gavin Olivier

Senior Partner and Managing Executive

Wits DigitalCampus