The Expectation of Excellence: Creating a High-Performance Culture

By Eitan Sharir

As a leader, you don’t head to work every day intending to achieve mediocre results.  Nonetheless, are you inadvertently setting mediocre expectations through your actions or focus? Unfortunately, this is a trap that snags many organizational and business leaders.

Are You Empowering Low Performance?
As any teacher can tell you, it’s easy to focus on the problem children in the classroom, while the high performers go unnoticed. If you work in management or human resources, you know that low performers are a problem. While they have lower productivity and performance, low performers tend to know how to do just enough to not get fired.

What you may not know is the overall power and negative impact these low performers truly have over the rest of the organization. In school, high performing students don’t have many other options; they can’t leave, so they just quietly progress from grade to grade. However, in the competitive corporate world, high performers have options. They don’t have to stick around, and absent the attention, rewards and opportunities they deserve, they’ll simply leave and find their fit elsewhere. Troubling, elsewhere might very well mean the competition. So while you’re trying to fix your problem employees, your competitors could be gathering up your best and brightest to their benefit.

Furthermore, low performers can pull your average performers down to their level. Although your intention in coaching and mentoring low performers is to move your organization to higher levels of performance, you could, in fact, be accomplishing the opposite. The average performers will view the inequality of work/attention between themselves and the low performers as unfair and will eventually begin to reduce their efforts to achieve. The result: lower overall performance for the organization.

When advising companies on how to optimize their corporate culture and improve organizational performance, I have seen many clients fall into this trap again and again, but I’ve also found some ways to mitigate its impact. Drawing on that experience, let’s examine the trap more closely and explore what leaders and managers can do about it.

The Employee Performance Mix
Have you stepped back and taken the time to analyze who in your organization would fall into the high performer, average performer and low performer categories? You might be surprised to find that typically 80 per cent of employees tend to be average performers; only 10 per cent are high performers and 10 per cent are low performers.

Considering the impact of low performers, this breakdown may surprise you, but this is truly a case where the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Because low performers stand out due to their problem behaviour, they seem to take up a larger percentage of your organization. While you focus your attention on moving such a low percentage of employees from low to average performance, you may be inadvertently lowering the perception of corporate expectation.

In his Leadership with a Conscience magazine article, “Pulling the Plug on Low Performers:, Quint Studernot writes:

“Managers unwittingly align entire departments, entire companies, around (low performers) and spend an estimated 80 per cent of their supervisory time on them. You dread working with them, so you give everything to your high performers, which overloads them and creates an unfair distribution of work. Or, you keep devoting attention to them believing they’ll change, perhaps putting them on committees to try to engage them. It rarely works. Meanwhile, you alienate your good people and, eventually, find yourself in a situation where you can’t keep high performers.”

Setting an Expectation of Excellence
Instead of focusing leadership attention on developing low performers, an expectation of excellence should be set organization-wide. High performers need to be rewarded, mentored and recognized, and time and attention should be focused on moving your average performers into the high performance category.

Considering that 80 per cent of your employees tend to be average performers, imagine the impact on culture, performance and productivity if you were able to move 20 per cent of these employees into the high performance category. Consider that while the make up of high performance organizations might be split between 40 per cent high performers and 60 per cent average performers, everyone is in the process of moving towards higher performance.

In this scenario, the organization is actually setting the expectation that 80-90% of the organization is operating at a level of excellence, and those who aren’t are expected to be in the process of moving up.

The 30-60-10 Principle: Purging Low Performance
When working with clients on performance improvement, I often recommend to their management that they adopt the 30-60-10 principle to achieve the highest return on employee investment. Thirty per cent of the time is spent with the high performers, where the return on investment for every percent in improvement is the highest. Sixty per cent of the time is spent with the average performers, with the main focus on coaching, leading and supporting them to operate at the high performance levels.  Only 10 per cent of the time is spent with the low performers.

In truth, there is no place for low performers when you set an expectation for excellence in an organization.  With an expectation of excellence, every employee is expected to be fully engaged, focused and inspired by a higher purpose. In these environments, low performers simply either improve or leave.

Thus there is no room left for mitigating poor performance either. Managers need to stop overloading their high performers with work the low performers can’t handle; low performers should no longer be rewarded with time and attention. They either embrace the new culture of excellence and improve their performance, choose to leave on their own, or are phased out through employment review and termination processes.

By phasing out low performers who don’t improve:

  1. You will boost morale by following through on enforcing fairness in the workplace
  2. You will have room to attract new, high performing employees
  3. Your overall results will improve.

Developing A Culture of Excellence
The key to moving your organization from the status quo to an expectation of excellence is your corporate culture. When you build a corporate culture of excellence, you create organizational capacity and a structure that empowers, focuses and engages employees. You stop wasting a tremendous amount of time and money nurturing an outmoded culture focused on problem solving. Instead, you equip your teams with the right mindset and skills necessary to focus on creating the desired results. Moreover, organizations need to help employees develop the flexibility and resilience to deal with change, challenge and uncertainty that may arise along the way.

By implementing a three-phase process, you can start building a new culture of excellence, creating an organization where your employees feel empowered, inspired and motivated.

Phase 1: Mindset of Excellence
The first step is to create a mindset that will engage and align every employee with your vision, mission and values, and leave them speaking a common language of excellence. You will build a new capacity for growth. Your employees will think in more creative and innovate ways, and will be more able to deal with challenges and change.

Phase 2: Strategies for Excellence
With the new mindset of excellence in place, your teams will be ready to focus on achieving their specific goals and plans for performance excellence. This phase is all about growth—building the skills and competencies required to grow the business.

Phase 3: Sustaining Excellence
When the first two phases are complete, and you have a strong collective mindset of excellence in place and alignment around performance goals, it’s time to focus on developing strong leadership to ensure that the new mindset and performance skills learned are sustainable and simply become the way things are done. This is a critical step often missed in organizations—but is required to ensure that employees don’t revert back to old habits.

Changing Expectations Key to High Performance Culture
For those doubting the impact of culture on both existing and potential employees, consider Google, a company that has crafted its identity on culture from the start, and at one point was fielding 3,000 new job applications every day. Why? The reason Google has been able to attract so many top level people is that, for so many years in a row, they were awarded for having the best workplace culture.  Work hard, play hard. Google has made it work with great conditions and a very high level of expectations wherein excellence is quite simply expected.

Changing your expectations from mediocrity to excellence is essential to creating a culture of high performance. The best news is that, once your new culture of excellence is in place, your organization functions like a well-oiled machine. Your teams are motivated to create a vision that is meaningful and inspiring and also one that aligns with their own personal aspirations. They are able to deal with change, uncertainty and adversity, and they interact and collaborate to make things happen. Best of all, you have created an organization that is positioned for long-lasting success and prosperity.

Eitan Sharir is a Vancouver, BC-based corporate culture consultant, leadership coach, and founder of Dynamic Achievement Group.

(PeopleTalk: Winter 2012)

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