6 steps to building a culture of creativity & high performance

high performance and employee performance

In a world rushing to get more done in less time, Matt Jackson explores how organisations can help employees perform at their full potential and outlines six steps to boosting performance through creativity

The desperate desire to innovate across all aspects of an organisation is forcing employers to run their teams at unsustainable levels of cognitive effort. Workplaces are under constant pressure to continually innovate the way they design, produce and deliver their products and services largely out of fear that when they’re not their competitors are.

After surveying 7000 businesses and HR leaders from 130 countries Deloitte has published the 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report. It identifies that 82 per cent of respondents believe that culture is a potential competitive advantage, over 50 per cent of respondents are currently attempting to change their culture in response to increased competition and 92 per cent rated redesigning the organisation as important. However, only 12 per cent of companies believe they truly understand their culture, let alone how they can affect it positively.

The real danger when you combine intense pressure to change with confusion is how it affects each individual member of the organisation. When individuals become confused and stressed their cognitive ability has been proven to drop off as much as 50 per cent and they begin to affect their team and the wider culture in ways that put the entire organisation at risk. Here are 6 ways to affect creativity and high performance in your workplace culture without inducing unhealthy levels of stress.

1. Allow time for creativity
Studies on creativity and innovation acknowledge that imposing time pressures can increase cognitive arousal and task engagement. This has proven to be true up to a point and then it drops off. If you plotted creativity against time pressure the shape of the graph would be an inverted U. The implication for creating a culture of creativity and high performance in a world obsessed with productivity is that managers must be aware of the point when teams are trying to get too much done in too little time and take care not to exceed it. The other aspect to explore is how to maintain the optimal level of pressure over time without increasing the levels of stress.

2. Redesign feedback processes
CEB conducted a performance management survey of over 19,000 employees and managers from 34 organisations across seven major industry groups and 29 countries. They discovered that fair and accurate feedback given outside of a formal structure was the single most important driver of employee performance compared to a list of 106 possible factors. Employees who receive fair and accurate feedback from their managers perform nearly 40 per cent better than employees who don’t.

“Only 12 per cent of companies believe they truly understand their culture, let alone how they can affect it positively”

Improving your organisation’s feedback processes can also save you time and money. For instance, Adobe identified that annual reviews required 80,000 hours of managers time each year (the equivalent of 40 full-time employees). In 2012 they stopped conducting formal appraisals and switched to doing regular ‘pulse checks’. This affected 11,000 employees and not just from the top down, but also from the bottom up. 78 per cent of employees reported that their manager is open to feedback from them, a sizeable improvement over past surveys. In 2016 Adobe ranked 87 in Fortune’s top 100 Best Places to Work worldwide.

3. Redefine and reward strengths
Feedback that emphasises an individual’s strengths has been shown to increase performance by 36.4 per cent whereas punishing an individual’s weaknesses decreases performance by 26.8 per cent. This is particularly important in a culture of innovation where experiments don’t always deliver the results the team set out to achieve.

Here managers need to incentivise and reward attitudes and behaviours like curiosity, willingness to trial new ideas, embracing bad news and the sharing of learnings with others. The emphasis needs to be on encouraging these traits as strengths rather than the achievement of specific results.

4. Manage ambiguity and structure
There is a big drive toward decentralising workplace structures by empowering the frontline with more autonomy. This requires management to embrace the risk of uncertain outcomes. It also requires that the frontline be confident with less direction and more ambiguity around how they complete their tasks. Whilst this type of management style is more agile and is well suited to an innovative culture it does not suit those who exhibit strengths like conscientiousness.

These types of people have a high need for structure and anything less will lead to them underperforming and disengaging from their work. Criticising a highly structured person for their inability to handle ambiguity and change will only lead to them performing below their potential and negatively affecting their coworkers.

“There is a big drive toward decentralising workplace structures by empowering the frontline with more autonomy”

Management would do well to clarify for all employees how their performance is evaluated in the context of the overall values of the organisation as this offers flexibility and structure. According to the Corporate Leadership Report increasing employees’ knowledge and understanding of the standards by which they are evaluated results in a possible 36 percent improvement in people’s performance.

5. Be open to new information
People under prolonged stress become close-minded. They default to ingrained opinions, stubborn personal beliefs and are unable to convert time pressure into creative behaviours like trialling a new approach or critical thinking based on new information. Individuals not only suffer a drop in their own creativity, they also negatively affect the team’s performance overall as they are less likely to help others, perceive information favourably or have positive expectations about future success.

Organisations can affect culture positively by encouraging people to understand and express their thoughts and feelings clearly and concisely with each other. The emphasis must be on communicating candidly, constructively and concisely as venting is self-centred and destructive.

6. Avoid being overly idealistic
The importance of being candid with thoughts and feelings in a constructive way means being confident that people can point out disagreements without it being received as personal criticism. A positive culture, whilst being enjoyable, may place too much importance on positivity at the expense of diverse thinking. Teams that overweight positivity tend to seek conformity and individual members shy away from speaking up and expressing their divergence from the norm.

“The emphasis must be on communicating candidly, constructively and concisely as venting is self-centred and destructive”

A naive positive mood also leads people to want everything to stay the way it is so no one feels the need to challenge current practices. To change this requires that managers and coworkers welcome bad news and begin to see problems as impersonal challenges to be solved cooperatively with no attribution of blame. It also means that when successes are celebrated managers ensure that the success is attributed to every individual’s efforts. Most importantly this includes the ‘failures’ that lead to learnings that resulted in the success.

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