How HR can help build a genuine high performance culture

High performance cultures need HR leaders who behave like performance really matters

When people are regarded as performers who need to be coached and prepared for performance – rather than being a resource that needs to be “directed” – great psychological, organisational and result benefits are around the corner, writes Andrea Furst

“High performance” has become a frequently used term by businesses and HR leaders. But what does high performance really mean in a business context? And, more importantly, how do businesses create and sustain a high performance culture, particularly when the corporate playing conditions are tough? And, how would having someone whose role is focused on this help their business?

What is high performance?
High performance means doing what’s necessary. It’s simple and yet really hard. The concepts are easy; the application of them isn’t. That’s why high performers are not typical and not “normal”, where normal is seen through the lens of a bell-shaped curve. High performers know that their place is away from the average, away from normal, seeing how far away from normal they can get.

Further, people who work in high performance cultures do things differently. How they talk about performance is different. They’re focused on understanding how they’re doing things that contribute to their results. It’s an obsession with doing the basics right. Understanding their performance and how they perform at their best is a basic.

So, if sustaining a high performance culture is about doing the basics right then there may be little surprise that businesses can find it challenging to demonstrate high performance behaviours when the corporate playing conditions are not favourable.

“High performance cultures need HR leaders who behave like performance really matters”

When corporate conditions are tough there is inevitably a lot of talk about and focus on “bottom line”; old habits resurface, particularly the obsession solely with results.

Results are measurable, discrete and therefore much easier to talk about, monitor and compare. They lure business leaders into feeling a sense of control due to their more tangible characteristics. These moments are the times when we’d want HR leaders to step up and demonstrate a true commitment to sustainable high performance, highlighting the dollar value of performance’s contribution to these results, regardless of the challenging times.

High performance cultures need HR leaders who behave like performance really matters.

What we see
With the demands even greater on performers to deliver better results, quicker, with less resources and perpetual innovation, there needs to be a change of perspective on how we’re preparing people for the modern workplace. The obsession with output and results has led to businesses being run in a way that would seem ridiculous when it comes to elite sport. Imagine Alastair Clarkson, coach of the current AFL premiers Hawthorn, asking the following kinds of things from his playing squad:

  • What’s the score going to be on Saturday?
  • Which minute are you going to score in?
  • Which foot are you going to score with?
  • How many clearances are you going to make?
  • How many tackles are you going to make?

If Clarkson, who is effectively the HR leader at the Hawthorn Football Club, had this approach to developing performance then chances are he wouldn’t have lasted one season at the club that he has now led to three consecutive premierships. The world of sport understands performance and how to develop it and control it; it should do, as most of the time is spent training with relatively little time spent actually competing. For the business world the demands are different, but human performance is still the limiting factor, so having functions in the business that help people develop while you compete is critical.

“The world of sport understands performance and how to develop it and control it; it should do, as most of the time is spent training with relatively little time spent actually competing”

Clarkson would be far more likely to have helped his players develop their physical readiness for the demands of the game, and he would then also make sure that their mindset was prepared for the rigours of a game or a whole season. In addition, Clarkson would ensure that his players have a full support team of experts around them that they can draw on for the necessary emotional and technical inputs. There is the obvious practice of the technical and tactical elements of performance that have to be, at the least, maintained at world-class levels. However, technical and tactical excellence alone would not be sufficient to maximise the chances of success at the highest level in sport – we’ve seen many superbly gifted players rendered redundant because of their physical, emotional or psychological shortcomings.

Lessons from sport…
The continual focus for the world of sport is one of ensuring that performers are provided with a complete preparation of all of the elements that are required in the delivery of their role. To focus only on technical or tactical elements or to wait for an underperformance in order to address a shortcoming would simply be unacceptable in the world of elite sport. All pursuits dependent upon human performance should probably be guided by the same ideals.

How do we reverse the trend?
Success in any business is ultimately down to understanding, developing and focusing on human performance. To achieve high performance you need to understand what it takes to allow people to fulfil their potential rather than just have it.

If that’s the case then several questions about managing performance in the workplace arise:

  1. How can we hope to develop “performance” when the concept of performance is often incorrectly used to mean “results”?
  2. Why would someone only get a “performance improvement plan” annually and/or when it’s part of a process that’s conducted for exiting them from the business?
  3. Why is training in the workplace predominantly focused on developing the technical and tactical skills of performers when there is so much more to performance than those two things?
  4. Why is so much time spent reviewing unsatisfactory performances when success is first and foremost all about replicating what works?

“It’s time to re-label humans as performers who need to be coached and prepared for performance”

There are many more questions we could draw your attention to, but these four provide a useful way in which to consider the role of HR leaders in the workplace of the future and how you might add valuable perspective to the pursuit of learning, enjoyment and the delivery of results.

Clarifying the understanding of performance is one of the most crucial roles that a HR leader plays in creating a sustainable high performance culture.

Further, once you are talking about and referring to performance (rather than talking about performance when in fact you mean results), it makes challenging times more manageable.

Performance and results
Results are uncontrollable outcomes that are the end products of input. Whether you’re relentlessly focusing on them to make them happen or relentlessly focusing on them in review of them happening, they are out of people’s direct control. Focusing solely on them will only contribute to heightened levels of uncertainty. Couple this fact with tough playing conditions where results are sometimes impossible to achieve, it’s clear to see why performance and the ingredients of performance are vital to HR coaching conversations. You have a much better chance of controlling inputs.

When performance and its various ingredients are understood it makes for much more useful conversations about how to get results. Performers understand how they’ve contributed to their achievement, or lack of results. So, in this world where high performance is everything, HR leaders would be encouraging businesses to obsess over the performance just as much as they do over the result, because they know it will deliver consistency and predictability.

This is the high performance approach, and it involves hard work, focus, discipline, sacrifice, the risk of failure, and the postponement of immediate gratification. And, this is where the high performance director (HPD) steps in…to keep an intense focus on performance and results, despite the inevitable ebb and flow of the business environment.

What can a HPD do?
The harsh reality is high performance behaviours need to be prevalent regardless of playing conditions. For this to happen, businesses may need to enlist HPDs rather than Human Resource Directors (HRDs) to effectively create a sustainable high performance culture.

To be clear, this suggestion is not to replace the actual people but to rethink their title and more practically the things that they focus on in their day-to-day interactions with people within the business. In fact, we view the role of the HRD to be actually a lot of HPD.

What would it be like if HRDs became HPDs? What would it mean for them and how would it transform their business relevance and impact?

“To achieve high performance you need to understand what it takes to allow people to fulfil their potential rather than just have it”

Well, in the future workplace with HPDs:

  • Performance has to be defined and understood by everyone to be about doing the things that you need to do in pursuit of the things that you want – process and outcome, but definitely not outcome alone.
  • Everyone would have an ongoing performance improvement plan that was supported by the HPD, and this plan would ensure every individual understood the physical, mental, emotional, technical and tactical requirements of their role and were being supported to make each of these elements as consistently strong as possible.
  • Training opportunities would be provided for every element of performance, and best practice would not simply be what was being done but would be more about how it was being done.
  • Every success that was delivered in the business would be reviewed in detail so that the ingredients and recipe of excellence could be spread and repeated. This approach would ensure great performance could be replicated with confidence, which is much more favourable than the current trend that simply helps people become ever-more confident at knowing what not to do!

If this brave new, high performing world is to exist then it is very likely that a HPD will become a key member of any workplace. Rather than being a resource that needs to be “directed”, it’s time to re-label humans as performers who need to be coached and prepared for performance. With such a shift in mentality there will be great psychological, organisational and result benefits around the corner.

What you can do to create high performance if you’re a HR leader:

  • Make performance and results your priority
  • Help performers to understand the range of performance ingredients that contribute to their results
  • Create a way for performers to know and be able to replicate the things they do that result in success

Image source: iStock