Four pillars of a high performing workplace

In this viewpoint, Forum member Danny Samson identifies the four factors to achieve high performing workplaces.

One of the key differences between successful and less successful organisations is their workplace culture.

At one extreme is the high performance work culture, where most people are giving high levels of ‘discretionary work effort’, which, other things being equal, will significantly outperform a workplace where most people are just ‘going through the motions’.

I think of discretionary work effort as the difference between what high performers do relative to
those who are ‘minimalists’ in terms of work effort.

Some powerful concepts relating to performance are applied by companies such as Google, Toyota and every other organisation that achieves high workforce engagement levels and hence high employee effort and the benefits thereof.

First is respect. Respect is given by everyone to everyone, up, down and across these companies, and it is sincere.

It is not a function of seniority, but it recognises that all employees can be stimulated towards high effort levels and performance and that everyone wants to take home a sense of achievement and job satisfaction.

Second comes investment in human resource skills and capabilities, and in the best of firms, people are being developed for their next role, not just the current tasks, with employees being given a career path plan in the very best of these.

Third, I am a fan of an old and well-worn approach usually called ‘Management by Objectives’, because it gives structure, sets structured goals in place and provides for high levels of control, accountability and responsibility.

Indeed, MBO can be more than just a powerful way to give employees excellent clarity about their work roles
and tasks, but a system of MBO can become a whole hierarchy of business goals, translated into the goals of
employees at various levels.

When they are achieved, it aggregates up to the whole organisation unit achieving its objectives.

Fourth comes rewards and recognition systems, which has been a controversial topic
for many decades.

We should accept that there will never be a perfect system of variable rewards, but that doesn’t
mean they are not worth having: if they reinforce the objectives and are fitted to the overall culture of the organisation, they can be a sensible part of stimulating discretionary work effort.

Systems that work seek to achieve a number of balances between individual and team, short and longer term, and must be fair and connected to factors that are in employee’s control.

Nothing frustrates more than a sense of helplessness on the elements that drive performance evaluations and

When these four powerful pillars of workforce management are designed, strategically led and managed in an integrated manner, then high performance is the likely outcome.

Effective leaders will recognise that not all people will be suited to the system that is in place and will exercise great care in staff selection.

For example, in Mars Corp, detailed workshops are used to check for ‘fit’ of employee values with
company values and systems.

Even then, no one gets it right all the time: I observed in my work in Toyota that people either stay less than 12 months (no fit), or they absorb the culture and attune themselves to Toyota’s culture and systems and stay for multiple decades.

In every industry, there is high variance in organisational performance around the industry mean, and a good deal of it can be explained by the effectiveness of the workforce systems.

Where we see highly satisfied consumers, it is very likely the result of highly satisfied employees, which I have observed acutely to be the case across the branches of a bank or other retailer, or between firms competing in a manufacturing industry, or between divisions or agencies in the public sector.

And these elements of employee and consumer satisfaction almost always drive every other aspect of organisational performance.

I advise firms to start with a human resources SWOT analysis, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their workforce management approach across the four elements described above, then consider opportunities and threats, and plan and implement their workforce strategy.

Danny Samson is Professor of management at the University of Melbourne, and and CoEditor in Chief at Operations Management Research. As Program Director, Masters of Enterprise and of Supply Chain Management, he has developed and leads two influential Masters courses – in Enterprise, and Supply Chain Management. He is a Director of the Australian Institute of Management.

Picture: Danny Samson

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