Creating a high-performance culture can serve as an equaliser for the rich diversity in the South African workplace with high-performance team environments generally being perceived by employees as less stressful and more productive.

A high-performance culture allows employees to focus on what they can achieve together. It’s in a company’s best interest to encourage leaders to foster a working environment conducive to a culture in which individuals can develop and perform at their best. Employees’ goals need to be clearly defined and, ideally, employees should have input into these goals to ensure greater buy-in.

Corporates all over the world are generally only maximising 15 to 20 percent of their employees’ talents. A contributing factor is the bureaucratic way of creating job descriptions that tend to put employees’ capabilities and tasks in boxes. If the descriptor is too narrow, it limits individuals to only ‘play’ inside the specified box and not develop in any other unspecified areas. Riaan Steenberg of Stellenbosch Graduate Institute says, “high-performing companies usually do not feature formal grading systems or narrowly defined job descriptions. They are more likely to define jobs broadly. In fact, in the future, the best employees will demand innovative, imaginative contracts and employers who are unable or unwilling to supply such new paradigm agreements, will come up short.”

It is therefore important that management engages in conversations with employees about their various talents and how best to use these to the company’s advantage through reaching shared goals. Employees of the future definitely want tailor-made career paths and will thrive on collaboration, where work is interwoven, both internally and externally. Many companies will even accelerate leadership by grooming future leaders with team-based learning, where trainees literally go on rounds in a group and then receive individual feedback after formal observation.

Leaders need to motivate individuals to stretch themselves further and create environments that are conducive to achieving this. They need to be able to adjust to the unprecedented challenge of having five generations of staffers working together.

This starts with authentic leadership, where those in management accept that they are not ‘the oracle’ of all information and tasks. Leaders aren’t the executors and gone are the days of micro-management. We are moving into an era where knowledge workers dominate and lifelong learning is the rule.

Self-leadership of employees is the true silver bullet for unlocking potential and creating a high-performance culture. Management needs to build employee competence, empower them to take ownership of what they’re doing, and hold them accountable for what they produce. This will foster trust and allow for a greater spread of responsibility throughout the company.

Laying the foundation for a high-performance culture is best achieved during periods of optimism and calm, rather than when times are tough. In this way, employees’ capacity to perform, even under difficult circumstances, is strengthened. If one can sketch potential challenging scenarios before they happen and provide staff with the opportunity to solve these issues, they will be far more resilient and effective when tough situations really arise.

Three preventative measures to put in place:

  • Red flag mechanisms – A structure that helps leaders avoid serious missteps by empowering people on their teams to raise issues, problems and challenges immediately
  • Black Swan (or what if) thinking – Building robustness to be able to react in time to take advantage of opportunities or to meet threats caused by a surprising Black Swan (an event that comes as a surprise and has a major effect)
  • Productive/Prudent paranoia – Scratching deeper than the surface for possible challenges and difficulties

All these measures require a strong sense of trust in the leadership of the organisation. Research suggests that performance is highly dependent on the approach and level of skill a manager has and shows that managers in high-performance environments engender high levels of trust, are flexible and accommodating.

Managers impact the culture at work more than 100 percent. Like all good things, the development of such a culture does not happen overnight. The impact is not felt just by what is done today, but by what’s done over an extended period of time. There is no doubt, however, that the future workplace will be based on sharing and forming a community, and on high levels of authenticity, innovation, personalisation and collaboration.

Irwin van Stavel
Managing Director and Senior Partner

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