Story Telling: Creating a High-performance Culture

POSTED: Aug. 30, 2017

There’s a secret to creating culture. It’s not a magic technique, but a proper perspective. Cultures are created naturally whether it’s in a department, an organization or a whole country. The questions are, what kind of culture is being created and who is guiding its creation. This perspective is crucial for two reasons:

  1. It recognizes that you are not starting from a blank slate. Creating a high-performance culture is a transformational process, not simply a formational one.
  2. It should motivate leaders to put the time, thought and effort into determining what kind of culture they want to create, and then how they should go about creating it.

A leader creating a high-performance culture needs to ask four crucial questions:

  1. What culture do we have? It’s important to understand where you’re starting from before you can determine what has to change.
  2. How was this culture created? This question determines what the organization actually values by looking at what gets rewarded and what is tolerated by leaders.
  3. What culture do we want? The answer would be, ”a high-performance culture,” of course. However, this question should look at exactly what that means in the context of your organization. In a service-based industry, high-performance could mean high-quality interactions with customers, while in a technology company it could mean efficiency in app production or market share. High performance will also look different in different departments for the same reason. High performance in the finance department will look different than high performance in the human resource department.
  4. How do we move the company from the culture we have to the culture we want? This is where things get more complicated, but simply put, this relates to honest and effective communication coupled with practicing what you preach.

Communicating Culture Through Story Telling

Honest communication is straightforward in theory, but effective communication can be far more difficult. This is especially true in the kind of communication that effectively forms culture. Communication that is effective in creating culture, inspires people to buy into the culture, its goals and underlying values. The most effective kind of communication to accomplish this goal is story telling. Story telling isn’t fiction, but it presents an honest story that reflects the culture and goals of a company, as well as the individuals. Narratives are one of the most effective ways to communicate culture in a way that people can understand, support and identify. Again, this communication is only effective if it’s honest, which means leaders have to exemplify the culture and goals they are communicating.

To create a high-performance culture, this narrative has to take into account more than just performance. If you think about an elite athlete, their performance on the field is the goal, but their coaches and trainers recognize what it takes to make them capable of performing at that level. They understand that the athlete’s hard work and practice are key, but also rest and overall well-being are crucial to perform at the athlete’s best. An exhausted running back is unlikely to gain many yards and a stressed, sleep-deprived pitcher is unlikely to have the focus and control to paint the corners. In the same way the narrative used to form a high-performance culture, has to take into account and value the employees who are performing and then back it up in practice.

Writing a Good Story

To write a story that will help transform your current organizational culture into a high-performance culture, it’s helpful to think of it like a journey. This creates a framework for the story, that recognizes where the organization is, but more importantly focuses on where it’s going and how it’s going to get there. Communicating your answers to these two questions honestly and effectively will be most successful. So how do you know how to answer those two questions well?

Where are we going? – It’s important to have a clear goal and vision of where the organization is heading. For a high-performance culture, performance goals are essential, but as I mentioned earlier those goals have to take into account the people performing. The goals you set and communicate create a shared vision and focus that a culture can be formed around. Therefore, the goals you set should be well thought out and have four specific characteristics:

  • Clear – Your goals should be clear in how they are communicated and understood. That means your goals should be real and measurable. It’s not enough to say that you want to create a high-performance organization, you have to define what that looks like: market share, product creation, etc. People can’t strive for goals or own goals that they don’t know about or understand.

  • Transparent – Transparency in clear goals is crucial to maintain employee motivation and momentum. If a company is not honest and open about their numbers with their employees, employees have no way of judging their own performance. They’re left asking what all that extra effort was for if they can’t see the results. It also provides the innate reward of reaching a goal, that leads to higher moral, motivation and performance.

  • Reasonable – Your short-, medium- and long-term goals should be reasonable. Employees will stretch to reach a goal, but only if that goal is within reason. If the goal is unreasonable, employees will either attempt to reach it and fail, harming morale, or they won’t even try knowing that the goal is unattainable no matter what they do. Reasonable also means not continually asking them to push above and beyond. A high-performance culture doesn’t mean a super human one. People have limitations and just like elite athletes, too much training or too many games leads to burn out, injuries and subpar performance.

  • Communal – The goals you set should be big picture goals for the organization as a whole, which every employee knows and can support. While the goal should be broad, the story used to communicate it should take into account the role that each department and individual plays in reaching those goals. This gives employees a feeling of ownership and purpose that will help drive performance.

How do we get there? – The key here is ‘we.’ The only way the organization will reach its goals is through the work of the individuals that make up the organization. This highlights the need to value the employees doing the performing, which in turn will increase employee ownership and employee engagement. Again, this highlights the need for an inclusive story with a unifying goal and culture that individual employees can buy into and be inspired by.

The other aspect of the ‘how’ is practical. This very simply means rewarding the individuals that best represent the organization’s culture as clearly defined in your goals. This reward can also come in the form of public recognition, which stands to further reinforce and communicate the organization’s culture and goals. It is also an opportunity to tie the individual’s contribution to the overarching goals of the organization. Celebrating success is a key tool to forming culture and motivating employees, which again leads to higher performance.

The Power of Culture

Culture is so powerful because it communicates, organizes and motivates a large group of people effectively and efficiently around a common goal. When a company is small, everyone can discuss the goals and vision of the organization directly with the CEO. They can all agree upon the vision and values. When a company is large, normal social interaction is no longer enough to communicate goals, values and culture, or organize and direct a group of people towards those goals. However, culture directed by a strong honest narrative, reinforced in practice and in leadership, can. Therefore, if you want to create a high-performing organization, then first, you need to create a high-performing culture.