Leader’s Toolkit

Building a High-Performance Culture: Raise It Up or Tear It Down?

“A culture is made — or destroyed — by its articulate voices.” ~ Ayn Rand

As the new year turns from spring to summer, it’s time to start thinking about the house you’ve built over and around your organization. Specifically, we want to help you envision your organizational leaders as “cultural architects.” As a leader, it’s your job to create and sustain culture in an organization. Yet shaping the culture can, at times, be a heavy burden to carry.

Your organization’s culture is the foundation upon which your results sit. A weak, dysfunctional or misaligned culture will usually yield poor results. A strong, high-functioning, well-aligned culture, on the other hand, will typically bind people together to produce amazing results.

Organizational culture is generally defined as the values, beliefs, symbols and norms people follow in the execution of an organization’s day-to-day business transactions. It shows up in behaviors that are considered acceptable and unacceptable — behaviors that begin and end with the attitudes and actions of leadership.

6 phases of construction

So, as leaders, you can choose to either build a high-performance culture or allow a variety of destructive forces to tear down your culture. If we look at the raising up of an effective culture as a construction project, here are six phases of the job that you’ll need to complete: 

1. Goal setting: The building plans. Every construction project begins with a plan, right? In the same vein, leaders must set specific goals to drive success and point people in the right direction. Goals can be thought of as the overall plan for what needs to be accomplished during a given period in order to achieve key organizational objectives.

To ensure buy-in and line-of-sight, be sure to allow employees plenty of input in establishing their own short- and long-term goals. In addition, ensure objectives are put in writing using the “SMART” criteria (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-bound), prioritized and regularly evaluated.

2. Expectation setting: The pre-project meeting. Before most construction projects, the contractor sits down with his project manager and workers and goes over the building plans. Why? Because putting something down on paper isn’t enough — expectations must be established. Clarify items such as:

  • The roles employees will play in each given project,
  • Specific behavioral expectations (what’s acceptable/unacceptable),
  • What resources are available and where to find them,
  • How the work/project is important to the organization, and
  • How to communicate about progress, changes and obstacles.

Clear expectations are as important as the goals you set. In fact, research has shown that a lack of clear expectations is often the root cause of poor performance. Expectations can be thought of as the “means” or how one achieves his or her goals. Expectations set the boundaries of behavior so people can “play big” and “play fair” as they work to achieve their goals.

3. Continuous feedback and coaching: “The barking foreman.” When many of us think of a construction project in progress, we might think of workers clambering about a half-built structure, pounding hammers and carrying different building elements. But we may also picture a foreman or project manager walking around, barking orders to the hardworking crew.

Now the barking part isn’t advisable in most work environments. But your busy workers do need effective systems in place for determining whether they’re making progress and meeting stated goals and expectations. A few ideas might be:

  • Simple scorecards to denote “gains,” “wins” and “losses” toward an outcome,
  • Budgets and profit and loss statements for financially related activities,
  • Customer feedback forms for customer-facing employees, and
  • Weekly, monthly or quarterly production data for suitable employees.

Other key factors are verbal feedback and an open, two-way dialogue.

Leaders must create a feedback-rich environment where employees know where they stand. Course-correction feedback (when an employee has drifted too far from the goal) and acknowledgment and praise (for progress and momentum in achieving the goal) are equally important. In fact, studies have shown that a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions/feedback to negative promotes the most effective self-development and performance.

In short, communication is critical to creating and maintaining a high-performance culture. Leaders are visible, caring individuals who provide “state of the organization” information regularly and don’t shield employees from bad news. They share expectations, provide feedback and acknowledge strengths. High-performing cultures manage to strike a balance of both quality and quantity of information communicated.

4. Development: Raising the roof. As a construction project nears its finish, the roof — either literally or figuratively — is raised. The property is being developed into something new, useful and exciting.

So should it be with employees. Leaders need to create and execute an ongoing process to develop staff members in their areas of strength and interest. The best managers/leaders find ways to make every day a “development day” for their people. Specific ideas include: 

  • Stretch projects or strategic assignments,
  • Discussing development areas during 1:1 meetings,
  • Providing current and future job-related training opportunities,
  • Succession planning,
  • Internal advancement ideas, and
  • General career planning.

Leaders have these and many other methods at their disposal to grow, shape and engage employees while improving organizational performance.

5. Performance appraisals: The punch list. At the very end of a project, most contractors must complete a “punch list.” This is an itemized document reflecting precisely what needs to be finished to truly complete the project. Similarly, performance appraisals provide a summary at the end of a given term that lets employees know how well they’re meeting expectations and progressing toward their goals.

In terms of driving performance, however, an annual appraisal is your least effective tool. People want to know how they’re doing in the here and now, yet such appraisals focus largely on the past.

Performance comprises both results (what) and behavior (how). So, to do an appraisal right, you need to address both the “what” and the “how.” Set up appraisals on regular cycles and, of course, follow the golden rule: There should be no surprises! Always step in immediately when problems arise — don’t wait until the next appraisal.

6. Recognition and reward: Celebrating completion. The successful end of a construction project is generally referred to as “completion.” It’s something that contractors strive to reach efficiently and profitably. And, at least for large projects, they often celebrate when they get there successfully.

Encouragement and celebration in every organization are critical. Leaders must recognize progress as well as accomplishment of a goal, so employees know they’re on the right track and will keep striving for success. Recognition doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, what distinguishes recognition from rewards is the use of “I” words that create “intrinsic” rewards, which tend to last longer and be more meaningful to employees than monetary or “extrinsic” rewards. Intrinsic rewards include things such as:

  • Assignments of more interesting work,
  • Involvement in key projects or decisions,
  • Opportunities to work independently, and
  • Sharing information.

Another good approach might be to share success stories during staff meetings or events or in company e-mails or a newsletter (if you have one). Oral or written praise delivered in this manner can serve as a real morale booster to recipients.

Whereas recognition tends to be intangible, rewards are generally tangible. They include statues, company merchandise or plaques. Of course, rewards may also be financial — such as spot bonuses, merit raises or other monetary incentives. Remember, the more timely the recognition/reward is given, the stronger the connection to performance.

The demolition crew

We’ve listed above the six phases of building a positive culture. But what about the behaviors that can tear one down? These are just as important to identify when trying to make productive changes to your organization. As you endeavor to raise up your organization’s culture, watch out for the demolition crew:

Flawed character. Dishonesty, intentionally poor communication and blame can sabotage any culture.

Fear. Organizations that refuse to take any risks and that avoid problems and tough decisions typically don’t get far.

Unchecked power. If leaders have or need complete control over others, a culture won’t thrive. Employees will feel that collaboration is pointless.

Arrogance. Anyone with too much pride, who is unable to admit mistakes, ask for help or recognize the value of others, is more than likely a liability. These individuals can poison even the best-intentioned culture.

Ineffective coaches. At the end of every season, no matter what the sport, a number of coaches (or, in baseball, managers) are usually fired. Most of these individuals may not have been bad employees, per se. But, in their employers’ opinions, they failed to develop a winning environment for their players. This dilemma can apply to any type of organization — which doesn’t necessarily mean you should fire a bad coach, but he or she may need additional training or, in worst cases, reassignment.

You are the architect

Leaders play a key role in the process of creating a positive, high-performing culture. You are, in fact, the architect. Your behavior, attitude, language or jargon, style of dress, decision-making process, everyday work practices and strategic direction create the cultural blueprint for not only your employees, but also clients, suppliers and anyone else who comes in contact with your organization.

Thus, as a leader and architect, you’ve got to recognize the boundary lines of your existing culture, align your strategies accordingly and always be on the lookout for ways to improve it. For help assessing your culture, determining whether your leadership style/habits are aligned with your organization’s strategic objectives, and targeting effective improvements for the future, please contact us.