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As a business leader or exec, a major concern is how to enable team members to consistently perform at a high level and collaborate effectively to achieve organizational goals.

Key to this is your organizational culture or the ideas, customs, and social behaviors that determine how work gets completed.

In my role as a people operations leader, I’m challenged with helping nurture a high-performance culture that’s sustainable over the long term.

This is my playbook for doing so.

I’ll cover:

What Is A Sustainable High-Performance Culture?

A high-performance culture is one that supports and encourages high-quality, high-velocity work that’s aligned with organizational goals and objectives.

Adding sustainability into the mix tips the scales slightly towards prioritizing employee wellbeing and ensuring that individuals can sustain working at their full potential over time i.e. not burning out.

Sustainable high-performance cultures prioritize learning and development, challenge people to do their best work, and reward those who deliver outstanding results in a fair and human-focused manner.

People who work in a sustainable high-performance culture feel supported and empowered to take on challenges they might otherwise avoid, and individuals are motivated to go the extra mile to achieve their personal and collective goals.

High performance places a premium on agility, innovation, and a drive to achieve results. Organizations that sustain a high-performance culture have clear values and goals, and everyone in the organization understands both their specific purpose and the purpose of the organization as a whole.

In a sustainable high-performance culture, people feel they work somewhere special. They’re proud to be part of the team and they're motivated to produce high-quality results.

The Benefits Of A High-Performance Culture

High-performance cultures are one of the greatest perks for people who value agility, innovation, achieving goals, and moving businesses forward. 

These are the folks who have a relentless drive for success but pay special attention to balancing the needs of employees, customers, and investors as they pave the way for new and emerging products and services.

Think of the brightest, most effective, and most innovative people you have worked with in your career.

What type of environment would these people want to work in? What characteristics make that environment unique?

It’s likely that the environment that would sustain and fuel the people you hold in the highest regard could be described as a high-performance culture. 

These cultures attract the best talent, foster innovation, and support individuals working on things that really matter to them, the organizations, and investors without adding too much bureaucracy, red tape, politics, and, frankly, nonsense.

In high-performance cultures, employee engagement and retention are high as people are actively engaged together in delivering their best work.

Characteristics Of A High-Performance Culture And How To Foster Them In Your Organization

Creating a sustainable high-performance culture is one of the most challenging things you may attempt in your working life, and the work is never over. 

It’s a continuous effort requiring long-term commitment and dedication from every member of the team—whether they know it or not!

Here I’ll outline the elements that I believe contribute to creating a sustainable high-performance culture at work and how to start building these elements into your own organization.

Remember, no two organizations are the same so, while these have worked in my experience, adaptations and iteration may be required in your organization (and I want to hear about it!). 

Characteristics of a sustainable, high-performance culture:

  1. A clear purpose and vision
  2. Shared values
  3. Supporting managers and leaders
  4. Driving clarity in organizational goals
  5. Transparency
  6. Effective communication
  7. Setting clear expectations for performance
  8. Fostering a culture of accountability and continuous feedback
  9. Empowering employees to own their work and experiment
  10. Supporting collaboration and tearing down silos
  11. Valuing and supporting employee wellness
  12. Supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion
  13. Continuously improving, adapting, and changing
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1. A clear purpose and vision

The first step to building a sustainable high-performance culture is creating a shared understanding of the organization’s purpose and vision across everyone in the organization. 

Achieving this starts with senior leadership clearly defining your organization’s purpose and vision

This is an essential step as it provides a clear direction for the organization that all employees can understand and align with. 

Vision statements are unique to each organization, but should describe what the organization hopes to achieve or influence in the future. 

Here are a few favorites I’ve heard throughout the years: 

  • Whole Foods: “To set the standards of excellence for food retailers”
  • Disney: “To be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information”
  • LinkedIn: “Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce”
    Amazon: “To be earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online”
  • Walmart: “To be the destination for customers to save money, no matter how they want to shop”
  • McDonald's: “To move with velocity to drive profitable growth and become an even better McDonald's, serving more customers delicious food each day around the world”

You’ll notice these statements talk about what the organization hopes to do and, in many cases, describe the impact they wish to achieve.

For example, Mcdonald's talks about profitable growth, not healthy consumers, and Amazon wants to be able to help customers find anything they might want to buy online. 

The vision statement guides decision-making across the organization. When each team member understands the organization's vision, they can derive their own purpose aligned to the purpose of the organization, driving motivation and commitment towards achieving the organization's goals.

2. Rooting organizational decision-making and behavior in shared values

The vision and purpose guide the creation of shared values which in turn guide organizational decision-making and behavior.

The core values of an organization must reflect the purpose and vision and be clear enough for everyone to understand. 

For example, Patagonia is famous for its environmentally-focused products and activism and one of its core values is, you guessed it, environmentalism.

Defining your organization’s core values is similar to articulating the purpose and vision, but it goes deeper than purpose and vision to describe how you expect the organization to operate in both good and bad times, along with how you want individuals to make decisions on behalf of the organization at every level.

The process of creating the organization’s shared values may seem like a daunting task, but luckily others have done it before and are willing to share their experiences. 

Jack Altman, CEO of Lattice, covers how his company worked together to define its authentic and meaningful values in his book, People Strategy: How to Invest in People and Make Culture Your Competitive Advantage. Thankfully for us, he also covers how Lattice created its company values in a shorter article.

Once your shared core values are defined (hopefully it's no more than 5 values, better yet, shoot for 3), it’s time to put them into practice guiding decision-making and behavior at all levels. 

This can be done through a variety of methods, such as training sessions, team-building exercises, and regular reinforcement from leadership.

For example, you can tie employee recognition back to your core values. Say one of your values is adaptability, and someone showed great adaptability by taking on a new project outside of their normal remit, reference this in the praise.

Eventually, core values will be front of mind in decision-making across all levels of the organization.

3. Supporting your managers and leaders

Managers and leaders at all levels play a vital role in creating the kind of culture you want by acting as role models for desirable behaviors. They’re also at the heart of processes such as recruitment, performance management, and employee development.

Entrepreneurs and executives leading organizations have the responsibility to both build and support the management level and to ensure they’re aligned with the purpose, vision, and values of the organization.

Ways to support leaders are through initiatives like mentorship programs, people partner programs, and coaching.

4. Driving clarity in organizational goals

A previous organization I worked at shared all of the quarterly goals of leaders at the VP level and above. 

This visibility into goals was exceptionally helpful for me and my team of project managers as we tried to understand what was important to the business that quarter and what we could do to contribute.

In order to have a sustainable high-performance culture, everyone needs to understand the high-level collective goals of the organization and how their individual goals and tasks contribute to them.

Team and individual goal setting should be guided by the organization's overall high-level goals, and employees should then set individual goals that align with those of their team and the larger company. 

Managers and leaders should provide regular feedback and coaching to help employees stay on track and adjust their goals as needed.

Looking to further drive clarity in organizational goals? Consider using performance or goals dashboards to make goals and progress visible to everyone in the organization. 

Transparent sharing of goals not only increases awareness and accountability around goals but also helps to identify areas where additional support may be needed.

I got over this process here in my guide for how to implement an aligned goals methodology, the cascading goals model.

5. Transparency

In her work on building trust in organizations, Brené Brown tells us that “vulnerability builds trust and elevates performance.” 

In organizations, sharing vulnerabilities requires transparency, meaning transparency builds trust between employees and leadership while educating individuals about the context and current state of the organization and creating a sense of shared accountability and ownership in the organization's success.

Transparency in your organization may take the form of sharing financial information, discussing how to handle an at-risk customer, or talking about how to fix a challenge that was caused by a human mistake.

Each of these examples is an opportunity to be transparent within the organization (careful, transparency does not extend to customers all the time) and work together to solve problems out in the open through collaboration rather than in private because you don’t want other people to find out about a problem.

But transparency is not the only element needed to keep people informed, you also need effective communication. 

6. Effective Communication

Practicing effective communication means engaging directly with employees at all levels to share critical information about the company and to gather feedback from employees. 

Effective communication helps to foster a sense of understanding and engagement among team members as well as build trust that, if something happens, employees will hear about it from the organization.

Begin by establishing clear channels of communication that are accessible to all employees.

This can include regular live meetings, open Q&A policies, or digital communication platforms such as shared Slack channels, Teams Teams, Yammer walls, or a company-wide newsletter.

Whichever method you use, communicate regularly! Keep people informed about what’s going on in your organization, what high-level goals the company is trying to achieve (and how that maps to the vision, purpose, and values of the organization), and how people are working together to solve problems.

I have seen this done in a few ways: dashboards, recurring updates in casual forums, or more formalized updates in all staff meetings or the like.

7. Setting clear performance expectations

One of the things you typically hear from people in high-performance work cultures is that there are clear expectations of performance for each individual role in the organization.

For individuals, this helps drive a feeling of accomplishment and achievement in their work and provides them with a clear footing when entering discussions around compensation and career progression.

For managers, having clear expectations for performance helps guide feedback toward being meaningful and actionable because “what good looks like” is understood and they can provide direct feedback on what needs to improve in the context of the existing expectations (this will also make HR teams happy in addition to it just being the right thing to do). 

Setting clear expectations for performance starts with outlining the specific goals and objectives for each role in the organization or on an individual employee basis.

Whether you consider the expectations for performance across roles or individuals will vary depending on the size and model of the organization, with smaller organizations (say 1-10 people) being more likely to focus on the performance expectations of the individual whereas organizations that are more distributed and >10 people will most commonly outline performance expectations by role.

Regardless of whether you’re setting expectations for performance by role or employee, the goals and objectives described should be aligned with the organization’s overall goals, vision, and purpose.

Clearly articulate what success looks like and how performance will be evaluated. This is partly a job description and partly a description of the behaviors that are expected in order for an individual to be successful in performing their role.

Personally, I like to co-create job role expectations with my individual employees.

We outline the expectations of the role, how they will contribute to achieving the goals of the organization, and how their performance will be measured.

As we move through working together, we periodically refer to these expectations and either course-correct behavior or update the expectations based on changes to the role or expectations of the individual. 

With clarity comes responsibility and accountability and, funnily enough, clarity in responsibility and performance also brings about an interesting sense of calm in some employees who would otherwise worry, “Is this good enough?”.

Note: team members are not alone in meeting performance expectations. If someone is falling short of expectations, work with them to identify if any additional coaching, training, or engagement might help them improve their performance.

It’s not enough to evaluate performance but also to contribute to creating an environment where employees have the best opportunity to succeed.

By setting clear expectations for performance, employees will understand what is expected of them, they will know if they’re hitting the mark, and what to do when they fall behind. Hopefully, they’ll sleep better at night!

8. Fostering a culture of continuous performance management

As you’ve hopefully already set performance expectations, the next step is the consistent importance of managing performance.

Steve Jobs once said: “When you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.” 

This rings true in my experience. A culture of continuous (high) performance management attracts A-plus talent and talented people love to work together.

Talented people often appreciate feedback because they’re often seeking to become even better at what they do.

Most large organizations have processes of performance management and evaluation, but I suggest taking this one step further and creating a culture of continuous feedback and continuous improvement as a cornerstone of your performance management methodology.

Great leaders know that they shouldn’t hold performance feedback until a performance review— they give it immediately or as soon as they can. Imagine if you have an employee who isn’t good at facilitating meetings, but no one ever tells them until an annual performance review. That could be almost an entire year of bad meetings! Using some example phrases for performance reviews can make the whole process easier to deliver timely feedback.

Consistent, continuous feedback and performance management are two of the core responsibilities and tasks of a manager or leader at any level, including upper management. If you’re not giving feedback, you’re not actively seeking ways to develop your people and your organization.

With this said, feedback should always be a two-way street, with non-management employees feeling enabled to provide feedback about managers, leaders, and the organization overall. 

9. Empowering employees to own their work and experiment

Do you want the best solutions possible to a problem? If so, it’s time to unleash your employee’s creativity by empowering them to own their work and experiment. 

When people feel trusted and empowered, they’re more likely to feel invested in and accountable for the success of the organization and to take the initiative to drive innovation and growth. They also feel better—autonomy and the ability to own work contribute positively to employee wellness.

This is especially important and valuable as, in creating a sustainable high-performance culture, you have hopefully already invested considerable time in aligning staff with the vision, purpose, values, and goals of the organization.

Individuals' alignment across these elements promotes creativity and innovation as employees are empowered to come up with new and unique ideas that they know align with the organization's purpose. This empowerment drives intrinsic motivation and supports employee wellness.

Sometimes, as a leader, giving employees the autonomy to own their work and experiment can be scary, especially if you have previously worked in a high-control or high-compliance environment. 

But, as John Carter, a member of the team at Bose that invented the noise-canceling headphones, points out in his People Managing People podcast “If you’re innovating, you’re going to fail. And if you don’t fail, you’re not innovating enough. So coming back to culture and the importance of really embracing failure as just an outcome that you can learn from.”

We need to give people the autonomy and latitude to try new things (assuming they are aligned with the vision, purpose, values, and goals of the organization).

Google is famous for embodying this characteristic of high-performance culture through its 20% time program where Googlers get to spend 20% of their time on whatever they think will most benefit Google. With this amount of ownership and experimentation, Google developed Gmail. 

Creator Paul Buchheit developed it because he understood Google’s vision, purpose, and values and he had both time and infrastructure support from Google to make it a reality.

What will be the Gmail of your organization? How will you empower your employees to own their work and experiment such that they develop value that you didn’t even see coming?

If you need help getting started trusting and empowering your employees, check out this guide from Google on encouraging innovation through autonomy and experimentation.

10. Supporting collaboration and tearing down silos

I once worked with a client on an implementation project where I learned that a member of the client’s team was reprimanded for writing an email to another member of the same company trying to solve a problem with a system.

The employee was told that they should have informed their manager of the issue, who would then inform the manager of the person that could solve the problem, and then they would get back to them… talk about wasted time. As you can imagine, I was utterly dumbfounded about how in the current era this was still occurring outside of government organizations.

Why in the world would it not be okay for me to reach out to someone who works at the same company but on a different team? We get to eat lunch in the same cafeteria and use the same conference rooms, but you’re saying I can’t write this person an email? I still don’t get it.

Sustainable high-performance cultures don’t care who talks to who (unless there’s security clearance, of course), and they surely won’t spend time reprimanding someone for trying to solve a problem in the best interest of the company.

Isolation of departments, teams, and individuals within an organization directly conflicts with the values of transparency, collaboration, effective communication, and working providing employees with enough information to work together towards shared goals.

Breaking down silos and fostering collaboration is particularly important in modern organizations which tend to operate in networks rather than hierarchies. The reality is, in today's fast-paced, complex business environments, people need to be actively encouraged to collaborate across silos throughout every area of the organization. 

A great way to get started towards tearing down silos is to intentionally create opportunities for cross-functional collaboration. 

Whenever you can, get people together from different departments or teams to collaborate on projects or discuss common challenges—you might just get new ideas and connections started!

Along the way and throughout all of your projects and engagements at work, encourage open communication.

Create an environment where each employee can feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns and asking questions. This relates back to transparency, effective communication, and continuous feedback.

If you can create a space where everyone feels encouraged to collaborate with one another, you’re well on your way to creating a sustainable high-performance culture.

11. Valuing and supporting employee wellness

Your teams won’t perform at their best if they’re stressed or burnt out. It’s always worth remembering that people have lives outside of work, families and loved ones to support, and that not all health conditions or disabilities are visible.

Supporting wellness means being flexible, understanding each individual’s situation, and building policies and systems that can support people’s mental and physical health so they remain engaged and productive in the long term.

It also means recognizing people for performance, behaviors related to your values, and loyalty.

12.  Support diversity, equity and inclusion

In business, as in nature, diversity is healthy. 

Bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives and, just as importantly, creating an environment where everyone feels supported and like they can contribute, makes good business sense (+ it’s also the right thing to do from a human perspective and makes the workplace so much more fun!).

This is a vast topic, but a good place to start is Katie Zink’s excellent article How To Set Meaningful DEI Goals And Effectively Measure Your Progress.

13. Continuously improving, adapting, and changing

In my experience, the best leaders understand that you can never really “achieve” the designation of having a sustainable high-performance culture, it is a never-ending process and endeavor to enact and uphold the elements outlined in this article.

Embracing continuous improvement starts with setting up systems and processes that facilitate learning and development. This includes providing employees with opportunities for skill development and training, encouraging feedback, and setting clear performance goals (see #7). 

Adapting and changing requires a willingness to take risks and experiment with new ideas (see #9). Employees should feel empowered to test new strategies, processes, and technologies without fear of failure. Leaders should also be open to trying new approaches and acknowledging when current methods are not working.

As the market and world change, so must organizations. Leaders I have admired have said, “What’s gotten us here won’t get us there.” They’re right.

What has worked to get us to today won’t be what is needed to advance us forward another 1,5, or 10 years. We must continuously improve, adapt, and change in order to remain competitive and uphold high-performance cultures within our organizations. 

If you have anything you want to add or talk about, feel free to reach out in the comments or find me in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders sharing knowledge and best practices to build world-class organizations.

By Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is a strategic leader focused on the intersection of people, process and technology. In her day-to-day she works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR Software Company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. She also teaches an Operations Leadership course in the MBA program at the University of Portland and is working towards completing a Doctorate at the University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership. Liz is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) by HRCI and has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting and technology firms.