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5 Traits Define a High-Performance Culture—Does Your Company Have Them?

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

You know them when you see them—organizations that are a notch above their competitors in just about every way. They win more business, expand more efficiently, attract better employees, operate with more precision, and are more resilient to change.

Stellar leadership is a common characteristic among businesses that continuously dominate the market. But even the most talented CEOs can’t drive excellence by themselves. The other crucial ingredient that all leading companies share is a high-performance culture.

What Is Company Culture and Why Is It Important?

Before we identify the traits of a high-performance culture, it’s important to understand what company culture is—and isn’t. Unfortunately, the definition is murky because myths and misinformation about culture abound.

For example, some companies claim to have a great workplace culture because they offer appealing perks like game rooms, stocked refrigerators, and pet-friendly environments. Employees may love these extras, but they have nothing to do with the actual culture of the organization—and in fact, they may mask low-performance dynamics.

Authentic company culture is much more basic, and it exists whether window-dressing perks are offered or not. It’s evident in people’s conduct, or how they perform their jobs and interact with coworkers and the public every day. These behavioral patterns can form a strong, mediocre, or even unhealthy culture.

And as CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman points out:

“Culture, regardless of its quality, will permeate every aspect of a business. Therefore it’s critical for leaders to develop the culture they want rather than allow one to evolve by default.”

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5 Traits of a High-Performance Culture

If a championship performance is the goal, CEOs need to cultivate behaviors that drive these five characteristics in their company’s culture:

  1. Engagement
  2. Development
  3. Collaboration
  4. Accountability
  5. Agility
1. Engagement

Gallop identifies the three personas of engagement as engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. They define engaged staff members as people who are “highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological ‘owners,’ drive high performance and innovation, and move the organization forward.” It’s no wonder that highly successful companies prioritize employee engagement.

Much of what propels a staff member’s engagement is a feeling of purposefulness and meaning in their job role. Their attachment can begin by feeling aligned with a company’s core values. But they won’t develop sustained engagement unless CEOs structure their company culture to activate those values. Leaders can accomplish this by coaching the behaviors that instill a sense of belonging and empowerment.

Employees also feel more engaged when they understand how their role contributes to organizational goals. Beginning with the onboarding process, leaders who routinely connect the dots between the employee’s job and the big picture help team members feel valued, inspired, and proud of what they do.

2. Development

High-performance organizations promote an ongoing learning environment so their people can adapt to and meet shifting needs. To accomplish this, their leaders encourage and provide support for formal and informal development, giving staff the tools they need to grow and further the company’s ability to compete and win.

They not only provide the means for their people to stay on the cutting edge of industry trends and the technology needed to maximize their company’s potential. They also leverage their culture to help people develop the soft skills that accelerate professional growth and enable them to be valuable contributors.

Seeking continuous improvement is another hallmark behavior of a high-performing culture. Exceptional organizations stay on top because “status quo” isn’t part of their staff’s vocabulary. Instead, such companies teach their employees to constantly examine every process, product, service, and relationship to assess how they can be better.

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3. Collaboration

The nucleus of collaboration is trust. Leaders who structure their company culture with trust-based communication behaviors provide their team with a safe environment that facilitates their ability to collaborate at a high level.

These behaviors include:

Being Transparent

Collaboration hinges on sharing information—something leaders must model if they expect transparency from their employees. CEOs who are open about their company’s challenges, plans, and tactics will gain their staff’s trust and motivate them to exchange information freely. Routine, open communication prevents silos and encourages a unified approach to attaining goals and solving problems.

Effective Listening

Leaders need to coach listening skills to capitalize on a transparent communication policy. People have to learn how to fully hear and process information to take effective and timely action. David Friedman outlines the benefits of attentive listening in his first book, Fundamentally Different.

“It’s truly amazing to witness the impact that the way in which we listen has on what we actually hear. And what we actually hear, in turn, has a significant influence on how we respond to situations. In fact, we have more opportunity to impact outcomes by effectively listening than we do by speaking.”

In the book, Friedman offers suggestions to minimize what he calls “automatic listening.” When teammates routinely practice careful listening behaviors, they develop expanded perspectives and sharpen their awareness of issues. As a result, they become better equipped to tackle challenges together.

Speaking Up

The other part of the communications equation in a high-performing culture is making employees feel comfortable voicing their opinions, concerns, and ideas. When leaders construct a blame-free, solution-focused work environment, they enable more creative problem-solving. Teams thrive when leaders embrace diverse perspectives and encourage people to speak up to move things forward in a positive way.

4. Accountability

Members of high-performing teams embrace accountability because their leaders make it a positive and powerful part of the company culture. CEOs incentivize employees to deliver results by defining behaviors that help people take ownership of their responsibilities. These might include:

When leaders guide employees to hold themselves accountable, they also reinforce the notion that teams only succeed when everyone fulfills their obligations. As staff members strive to hit personal targets, they will also encourage their teammates to see things through and be at their best. In a healthy culture, accountability becomes a team strengthener.

While a large percentage of accountability in a high-performance culture is self-driven, managers also reinforce this quality through regular check-ins with their people. They effectively use the behaviors outlined in the culture to help employees evaluate how well they are meeting their objectives and generate productive discussions about improving.

5. Agility

The behaviors engrained in a strong culture foster resilience and agility. In addition to the qualities that empower a cohesive workforce, such as a high level of communication and trust, a robust and supportive culture motivates people to be gritty and innovative. Employees operating from a secure foundation are prepared and empowered to think outside the box and address problems creatively.  

These qualities are why companies with high-performance cultures stood out during the chaotic months of the pandemic. They were already structured to adapt to and take advantage of change, and when the health crisis hit, they were poised to respond and rebound.

These dynamic companies were not just better prepared to weather what appeared to be a temporary upheaval. Instead of being merely reactive to current circumstances, they maintained a long-term view. Accordingly, their leaders appraised the situation and tapped into the strengths of their culture to enact proactive changes.

For example, many of these CEOs implemented strategies to:

As a result, their people are better equipped to withstand future disruptions and can pivot more quickly when they happen.

In a rapidly evolving world, adaptability is vital. Companies with high-performing cultures remain industry leaders because they’re able to change course and take decisive steps thoughtfully and quickly. As the authors concluded in a recent McKinsey article, “Future Proof: Solving the ‘Adaptability Paradox’ for the Long Term”:

“Adaptability moves us from enduring a challenge to thriving beyond it. We don’t just ‘bounce back’ from difficult situations—we ‘bounce forward’ into new realms, learning to be more adaptable as our circumstances evolve and change.”

Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Leaders who want their workforce to function consistently at a high level must systematically build and promote a culture that facilitates that goal. David Friedman’s second book, Culture by Design, outlines his eight-step framework to define and develop high-performing organizational culture. He explains his step-by-step method, beginning with defining the behaviors that will generate success.

Friedman developed his processes based on his experience as a CEO of two highly acclaimed companies. He went on to coach leaders across North America about improving their workplace cultures. Subsequently, he launched CultureWise, the innovative online system that allows leaders to operationalize culture in their organizations.

The renowned CultureWise process is applicable across all industries and is available in two pricing plans suitable for any budget. Schedule a call with a CultureWise representative to learn how culture can be your most significant differentiator in a highly competitive market.

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