All businesses hope to create a high-performance culture: an environment which gives everyone the opportunity to achieve to the best of their ability. If we think of our working environment as a garden and the employees as the seeds - an analogy we think is particularly appropriate - then it’s the job of the manager (and the leadership) to create the conditions in which those employees can thrive.
Some managers - and some employees - create what we might call accidental high performance. Either the manager is a natural coach, replete with empathy and encouragement, or the employee is a truly outstanding individual who will excel, in whatever setting they’re in. For the purposes of this piece, though, we’re concerned with the 95% who don’t possess these traits.
And it’s well worth doing because although the factors which enable performance are complex and mutually dependent, they’re also easy to home in on with the right conversations and the right support structure. This summer, we conducted a detailed review of the ways in which organisations can support an ecosystem of performance enablement. Through that research, we identified the seven factors which were common to all of the businesses and managers we interviewed, and which truly support high performance.
But it’s worth pointing out that managers embrace some of these factors more readily than others. Our research showed that nearly all managers prefer to discuss the process-led, “formal” topics - for example, delivery expectations or tools - and have less effective conversations around the more informal, individual-led topics such as wellbeing or purpose. While this isn’t particularly surprising, it gives us a clear framework on which to build if we’re looking to give our managers the best chance of inspiring high performance in their people. Let’s look at these more formal topics - and the vital role of the manager - in more detail.
My Delivery Expectations
For many managers, this will be the first - and, sadly, sometimes the last - port of call: what are my employee’s tasks, and when and how effectively will they have accomplished them? From the employee’s point of view, the emphasis will be a little different.
- Am I clear on my manager’s expectations of my deliverables?
- Are they realistic, factoring in my skills and workload?
- Am I confident that my performance will be evaluated fairly?
What the employee is really looking for here is clarity: the reasonable expectation of knowing what they need to do, that they’ll be able to achieve it and that they’ll be judged fairly on the results. This is both personal (that is, seen through the lens of their own day-to-day tasks) and organisational (how those tasks help the business achieve its broader goals). That latter point is crucial. Our research showed that drawing a clear line between what an employee is doing, and how their contribution supports the business, made that employee feel valued. What part do I play? How does my part support the whole?
We noted that the best-performing businesses supported their people through regular or continuous performance conversations. They showed clear accountability, both from the employee and the manager, and were able to flex their processes to recognise individual circumstances.
Whatever work we do, we need to feel as though it has a direction. We might aspire to career progression or personal development. We might simply want to become more skilled, or to develop our skills into other areas. It’s about work, but also about growth.
- Do I have access to effective training to support my objectives?
- Do I have access to development to support my growth and progression?
- Do I have access to relevant career discussions and advice?
Although formal training - for example, in new tech - is a part of this, the opportunity to shadow or otherwise learn from experienced senior employees is arguably as important. Employees respond particularly well to knowing that their development has a clear framework: in other words, that it’s done to a plan and timetable (rather than in an ad-hoc, if-we-have-the-time way). Workers all have a story of a training course or mentoring session that had to be cancelled because “real life” - usually in the form of an urgent piece of work - got in the way. But real life will always get in the way if we allow it to.
Managers are again prominent here, with the expectation that they hold regular dialogue with their people around career progression and the skills needed to achieve it. Like any goal, clear measurement and effective resources will reassure employees that the business takes their progression seriously. The point is that expensive training can only take you so far. Setting a target, creating the right environment and discussing and measuring progress along the way: this is the way to prove to your people that their manager is committed to helping them progress.
While this may seem relatively simple - the right gear to help me do my job as effectively as I can - it’s worth diving into in a little more depth. Employees with disabilities will have specific needs. Older employees may do too. Switching to new ways of working may cause friction, with team members embracing new processes with varying levels of capability and enthusiasm.
- Do I have the right software and tech to support performance?
- Do I have the correct tools and personal equipment?
- Does my working environment meet my needs?
The pandemic has played a part here, with some employees forced to change their own living spaces into impromptu workspaces. Although there is naturally a limit to how much employers can invest in changing the working environment, recognising the challenges and working towards solutions can have a huge effect on performance and engagement. A manager can’t make someone’s spare room bigger, but they can ensure (for example) that the software they need is rolled out on time and that the right training is in place to help bed it in.
Organisations can demonstrate their commitment by removing outdated obsolete equipment; thinking about basic comfort and quality of life improvements; by opening up discussions around how to create a more effective workspace for everyone. For every employee who suggests an expensive upgrade to the furniture, you’ll see several with sensible, achievable and useful ideas on how to make things better for everyone without breaking the bank.
The manager as enabler
Our research identifies the manager as the fulcrum on which all of this is balanced, and it’s a challenging place to be. It’s no surprise that managers rely on structure and feel more comfortable dealing with absolutes. A conversation about timings and deliverables, or about the tools someone needs to do the job, is potentially far simpler than a conversation about wellbeing. But it is vital that they’re equipped to do both, because it’s also clear that an employee’s relationship with their manager defines their experience of work. It doesn’t matter how carefully the leadership craft their business objectives, or how enthusiastically the HR team works on the employee value proposition: if the manager isn’t capable of speaking to the whole person, then crucial enablers of performance will remain unexplored and you’ll only ever see a piece of their best.
Ironically, it’s perfectly possible to give managers structure no matter how “soft” or “informal” the topics are. We need to give them a framework which makes the right questions and topics second nature. We need them to feel supported so they, in turn, can support their teams. Managers are the gatekeepers of performance. An investment in making them better managers will reap dividends for employee engagement, for business performance, and for the bottom line.
You can download our latest research, Performance Enablement 2022, from the OpenBlend website.
Read on for the second part, dealing with the importance of the informal enablers which govern performance.