Build an awesome, committed culture with these eight principles
A review of “Creating the The High Performance Workplace: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment”
By Nate Johnson
Tags: engagement • accountability coaching • HR• performance• leadership coaching
A Conversation with Nate Johnson
There are programs upon programs from one guru after another for just about any subject you can think of, from weight loss to personal development to business success.
People can spend years amassing knowledge from methods that are often just slightly different from each other, thinking they would be left behind if they are not aware of the latest strategy.
I know I certainly did. I cannot begin to tell you the number of courses I bought, each new one offering a slightly altered tactic from the last one.
But when I opened my eyes to the concept of personal accountability – I say “opened my eyes” because I had seen it for a long time, I just had never noticed it – I discovered the only concept I would ever need.
How can I say this so confidently?
Because personal accountability is not a program, tactic, or method; it is a mindset. Personal accountability changes the core of who you are and how you operate. You can apply anything to it, and it will work. And it is completely within your own control.
In contrast, every “program” I had studied seemed to be more complicated than the last in order to top its competitors. Those programs eventually ended. And after I was finished, I would feel I needed to chase the next shiny object so I could stay ahead. It was exhausting. And it left me running in circles.
It is for this reason I love the principles laid down in Sue Bingham and Bob Dusin’s latest book, Creating the High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment.[i]
Personal accountability is a mindset that, once instilled in yourself and your organization, will create a culture in which each individual employee will naturally become personally accountable because they realize that they are a part of a team and they love it when their individual teammates succeed, because they know the team as a whole will succeed too.
From this mindset grows trust, mutual respect, communication, personal ownership, and a sense of personal value.
If you’ve ever played sports, you’ll understand that this is exactly how a successful team works.
And if anyone doesn’t subscribe to this team mentality, they are easily noticed and plucked from the organization.
But how do you teach – how do you replicate – a mentality or a concept? Well, Sue and Bob were kind enough to lay out eight guiding principles that any organization can and should follow to build a high-performance culture. In this review I will do my best to summarize those principles in order to give you a taste of them and how they work. I highly encourage you to read the book yourself to gain the full scope of the authors’ knowledge about this subject.
First Things First
Why did Sue and Bob write this book?
Simply because people are the sole factor that determines whether an organization remains competitive or goes the way of the dodo. Top competitors are essentially equal in all other ways.
As the authors state, “80% of what any organization does can be done equally well by any other organization. Therefore, competitive success depends upon the other 20%, which is the people.”[ii]
The problem is that most organizations are operating from a traditional mindset, reluctant to adapt out of fear of things blowing up in their face. This traditional mindset does not result in high-performing workplaces, but rather produces stifling, bureaucratic, lifeless organizations in which people are treated like mindless drones and recognized only as numbers.
So how do Bingham and Dusin suggest you ensure that that 20% is adding value to your organization and not taking away from it? They advocate that you must cultivate the right culture. After all, as Peter Drucker is reported to have said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”[iii]
The Eight Principles for Building an Unbeatable Culture
1) Lead with positive assumptions about people
“What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.” — C.S. Lewis[iv]
I had a roommate who was an amazing metalworker. She could create incredibly beautiful and captivating pieces of art from copper and wood. And much of what she made would flow wonderfully into the aesthetic of high-end homes. She had and still has the skill, craftsmanship, and artistic vision to become a very successful artist.
Instead, she’s working for someone else in a managerial position that she hates.
Why? Because her stance is that the world is not fair, everyone is an idiot, and she can’t catch a break. I would watch unbelievable opportunities sail her way only to be dashed upon the rocks of her negative assumptions that it would never work out, and that the person offering her the opportunity was a fool anyway.
In contrast, I watched a buddy of mine get to work on a film script and try to sell it with few to no connections in Hollywood. He had never pitched a script, but eventually he got into his first room. Then he got into over twenty. And all twenty prospects rejected his script. Finally, he went to his twenty-seventh meeting, which just so happened to be attended by one of the most iconic film directors and one of the hottest producers today. They loved his script. They bought it, they made the film, and my friend won an Academy Award.
That journey took three years. And never once did he express any negativity about the slow pace. He led with positive assumptions, and with each rejection he figured they had a good reason. They weren’t idiots; his script just wasn’t for them. And that behavior led him all the way to the biggest stage in the world.
The point of the book’s first principle is that if you lead by relying on negative assumptions, your assumptions will be reinforced by even the most minor example of an unfortunate event. This reinforcement will cause you to descend into further negativity, to the point where you will stall your entire organization in nonsensical bureaucracy.
If on the other hand you lead with the idea that people are hard-working and driven by personal initiative, you will see those realities. And when you do notice something wrong, it will be glaringly obvious and you can address and fix it or get rid of it if it cannot be fixed.
Your positivity and trust in your people will spread and the culture will thrive.
2) Identify and eliminate negatives
“Negatives have a very specific definition, and that is: Anything that minimizes versus maximizes a person’s feeling of value to the organization.” — Sue Bingham
No one wants to feel unvalued. It’s corrosive to your self-esteem and it seeps into all areas of your life. While most managers don’t actively make their personnel feel less than, the following four practices, while well-intentioned, can have very negative effects.
Management behavior based on negative assumptions.
When you approach your organization with negative assumptions, you feel you must overwatch your entire staff. Instead of limiting your focus to high-level, force multiplying decisions, you bog yourself down with micromanagement. This disempowers people because you don’t trust them. If they know their work will just be thrown out the window, they won’t work as hard because their effort never pays off.
If on the other hand, you give people more responsibility to make higher level decisions and you show you trust them, then that culture spreads and people actually want to do the best they can. You don’t have to feel you’re forcing it out of them.
Policies created to catch the minority who misbehave
No matter what policies are in place, there will always be a minority of your organization who will lie, cheat, steal or act in some nefarious way. But again, if you run even a half-decent ship, this will be only a small group of people. To create policies that apply to everyone based off a reaction to a few is to belittle the rest of your people.
Examples of these belittling policies include Attendance, Bereavement, Probationary and Progressive Discipline.
When you lead with negative assumptions, these policies logically will apply. But if you lead from positive assumptions, you’ll notice bad apples and can deal with them individually without punishing everyone else.
Policies and practices that create second-class citizens
A second class-creating practice is anything that makes another person feel they have less value than someone else. Difficult to see when you are treated like a first-class citizen, these practices are glaringly obvious when you are treated like you are second class. They include things like reserved parking, free coffee for some but not for others, separate break rooms, and so on.
These practices are often created out of best intentions, rewarding people for their role in the company by gifting them symbols of their achievements. The problem, however, is that this practice creates a divide in the company. And when that happens, organizations no longer operate like a team and your staff will feel less appreciated or trusted and will not make the autonomous decisions you want them to.
Prioritizing facilities and equipment over people
Do you have incredible bathrooms but a cheap-looking break room? When clients come over, do you show off your high-tech equipment or do you introduce them to your workers? Do you invest more in machines than in creating an environment that people love working in?
If so, then you are telling your staff that the company’s equipment is more important than its people. And what did Bingham and Dusin emphasize at the beginning of the book? That the 20% that makes the difference in how you compete is the people. All else is essentially equal.
3) Build mutual trust and respect
“Trust is only gained when one person risks and doesn’t get harmed. It grows as both people increasingly risk and don’t get harmed in the process.” — Glen Williams
Life is all about accounting for and taking risks. Driving down a two-lane highway and trusting another car will not veer into your lane is a risk. Trusting someone to babysit your kids is a risk. You can of course walk around the earth fearing everything and treating everyone like a threat, but that doesn’t sound very productive.
Instead, you may want to simply conduct yourself the best you can and trust that when (not if) problems come your way, you can deal with them. Business is no different.
If you’ve already accounted for risk, then there’s no need to react to it. So how do you build this trusting and risk-tolerant environment?
- Hire people whom you consider highly trustworthy
- Communicate to your organization that trust is a top value in the company
There will be bad eggs. You should expect to have some. But that does not mean you throw out the whole batch. You address the one bad egg and that’s it.
If you are transparent and trust others, they are likely to be transparent and trust you. Instilling this component into your culture will mean more autonomy and an empowered workforce.
If on the other hand you install cameras, lock supply closets and passive-aggressively ask people about their actions when you already know the answer, you will instill a sense of distrust that permeates and poisons the entire organization.
4) Practice open, two-way, adult-to-adult communication
“If you treat people like adults they will act like adults, but if you treat them like children they will act like children.” — Dennis Bakke
Trust and positive assumptions can seem almost naive to many people.
Sunshine and rainbows.
But it’s not complicated to operate with this mindset and lead a high-performance workplace.
Here’s how: treat people like adults
Treating people like adults means you tell them the truth and you listen to their feedback.
The alternative is treating people like children, which means you think you’ve hired children. If that’s the case, then you may want to consider looking at your own competency in creating teams.
5) Engage and involve employees
“Maverick, how ‘bout some help? Engage goddamnit!” — Iceman, Top Gun
A large part of the pleasure in reading Creating the High Performance Work Place was how the authors laid out their strategies with such stunning simplicity. There were more than a few times where I said to myself, “Why haven’t I heard this before?”
For example, when you’re trying to decide whether to engage your employees in a decision, consider Sue Bingham’s words: “…if a company or management decision affects an employee, then that employee should, on some level, be involved in that decision.”
Boom. Plain. Simple. Easy to do and no guessing involved.
It’s so important, in fact, that Bingham and Dusin believe that engagement is the most crucial of all the high-performance elements.
After all, when an employee is asked to be engaged, that means they’re trusted. When they are trusted, they will feel loyalty. With loyalty comes the desire to do a good job, which provides motivation. And the more motivation your employees are, the more engaged they will be.
High-functioning teams that hold each other accountable and can do more with less.
6) Conduct exceptional training
“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” — Mark Twain
The need for training is the desire to bridge a gap between where you are and where you want to be.
Therefore, it is not only necessary to identify the type of bridge you need, but how there came to be a gap in the first place.
If you’ve read up until this point, you’ll have picked up on the theme that to have a high-functioning workplace means everyone is held to the same expectations of trust and respect and that engagement is critical for everyone affected by a decision.
In that light, it makes sense that there would be multiple levels of training to make the entire team better regardless of their experience. These levels include:
- Leadership training
- Technical or on-the-job training
- Team skills training
Continual training across the entire company helps ensure that the tide is rising the same and lifting all boats with it.
Yes, the training may be different for different levels of the hierarchy, but the important part is that everyone is getting better at their jobs and can see each other’s investments in the company.
Covering the gamut of training will help to ensure that any organization will not only have the necessary, actionable skills, but each individual will be able interact with each other in full confidence that their coworker is properly trained and can communicate effectively so that work continues to flow.
7) Ensure competitive wages and benefits
“Companies do not make money off what they don’t pay their employees.” — Sue Bingham
It’s often said about millennials that pay isn’t as important to them as feeling valued, knowing they’re making a difference and seeing that their skills are growing.
That is all true.
And so is our salary.
That’s why today’s leaders must combine competitive pay with a sense of individual value and independence. In order to achieve that, they must follow these guidelines:
- Providing competitive pay based on market data
- Separating the value of the job from the value of the person
- Maintaining a simple compensation structure across the board
- Being transparent regarding the structure and market data survey results
One more time: what was it that Bingham and Dusin started their book with? The 20% difference between competitive and noncompetitive companies is employees.
Anyone can try to poach one of your employees with higher pay. But that job is made much more difficult when your employee wants to work for you for more reasons than just pay.
If an offer is too good, okay, you will lose some valued staff.
But you can mitigate those losses with a bulletproof culture where everyone works together, where your employees have high amounts of autonomy and where everyone is fully engaged because they know their value and they are given responsibility.
8) Establish high expectations
“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.” ― Stephen R. Covey
Implementing the previous seven principles of the high-performance workplace is likely to lead your organization to naturally have high expectations of themselves. When you are given ownership of your projects and everyone is pushing and encouraging each other to do the best they can, expectations seem to rise.
But as with everything we’ve discussed, these habits and behaviors must be instilled intentionally using a formula in order to ensure they remain a part of the company foundation.
The formula starts with setting high expectations especially when recruiting. Just like hiring people for their trustworthiness, setting high expectations during the recruiting period will help to ensure your entire organization continues improving with high caliber employees.
The next step is communicating those high expectations. “Good job”, “work smarter” and the like are not good enough. You must be specific in what you expect. You must put purpose behind the task so that your employees know that what they’re doing is valuable. And you must encourage them by making it clear that you believe they can do it.
The last step is conducting proper follow up with positive reinforcement and constructive feedback. Positive reinforcement means that you get specific on what they did or how they behaved and rewarding and encouraging them for their actions. When you do this, they will be more motivated to continue improving.
Constructive feedback is meant to make good workers even better. In fact, people who are good at what they do should want constructive feedback because through positive reinforcement they are motivated to be the best they can be. When giving this feedback, again be sure to be specific. Address the action, not the person. And always ask them how they think they can improve. After all, you hired them because they’re great at what they do, perhaps they’re even better than you. Only offer your own suggestions if asked for or if completely necessary.
“Culture is about the mindset of people” ― Uday Kotak
There is a theme I’ve noticed on my journey as an accountability coach and in the books I have read written by veteran coaches: high achievement never starts with a tactic, it always come from the foundation of a strong mindset.
The same is true with Creating the High Performance Work Place.
If you’ve been paying attention, you will have noticed that the eight principles of the high-performance workplace (HPWP) all have to do with treating people with respect, expecting the most out of them, and facilitating their growth. There’s no magic formula.
Your own individual company will have specifics unique to you and your industry. Implement them without a strong, healthy mindset and you’ll have a culture of drones. Build them atop a foundation of purpose, autonomy, open communication, trust, and respect, and you will find yourself with a loyal, highly-committed workforce that gives you an unbelievable advantage.
Nate Johnson helps people take big, scary leaps.
As a former manager at Inc. Magazine, an actor, a whitewater rafting guide in New Zealand, and a cattle rancher in the Australian Outback, Nate is no stranger to the rewards gained by heeding what Joseph Campbell described as the “call to adventure.”
Nate’s mission as a coach is to help extraordinary people push themselves further than what they thought possible, to embark on their own hero’s journey, and to return changed, charged, and ready for more.
Nate’s motto for his clients and his own life comes from Hunter S. Thompson: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
[i] Bingham, Sue and Dusin, Bob. Creating the High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment, (Indie Books International, 2018)
[ii] ibid, p. 6.
[iii] See Andrew Cave, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast. So What’s for Lunch?” Forbes Magazine, November 9, 2017. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewcave/2017/11/09/culture-eats-strategy-for-breakfast-so-whats-for-lunch/#2e3a72327e0f, accessed 20 June 2019)
[iv] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, New York: Macmillan, 1966, pp. 74-75