Engaging a High-Performance Culture

This article is based on "Driving Long-Term Engagement through a High-Performance Culture," which is featured in a 3-volume reference on employee engagement called Building High-Performance People and Organizations (Martha Finney, editor; Greenwood Publishing Group; May 2008).Culture may take top honors as the most mysterious and difficult-to-get-your-arms-around lever of employee engagement. It's amorphous and intangible. Not long ago, biologists were the only ones creating it — in Petri dishes. Organizational development experts studied it, and there were a few maverick businesspeople, like Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, who credited culture as the secret to their firm's success. Most businesspeople dismissed it as soft HR stuff — until leaders like Kelleher started getting attention for the successes they enjoyed, especially in adverse economic times.Corporate culture at its most basic level is the sum of an organization's behaviors and practices. It is there whether you have deliberately shaped it or not. It reveals itself in big and small decisions as well as daily practices ("how we do things around here") that tend to perpetuate themselves. Culture often goes unnoticed by employees (like the air you breathe), yet a healthy culture (like clean air) is essential to a healthy organization. It's potentially the most powerful engagement tool at your disposal. If you get culture right, it provides a foundation for high engagement that can sustain your workforce through good times and bad.

Key Ingredients of a High-Performance Culture

High-performance cultures are shaped around the following three components:

  • A clear, compelling corporate mission. A mission, or purpose as some firms call it, is a statement that answers the question of why the company exists: "What's your reason for being?" It needs to inspire, inform business decisions, generate customer loyalty, ignite employee passion, and motivate discretionary effort. "Making money" doesn't qualify as a mission, although profitability is essential to a firm's survival. And although a mission does not have to reflect a "save the world" tone, it does need to be aspirational and clear enough to engage employees. Its mere existence serves as the organization's North Star, providing a fixed point to which the workforce can connect.
  • Shared organizational values. Core values guide employee behavior and influence business practices as your organization delivers on its promises to customers, employees, and other stakeholders. Core values answer the question: "What are your guiding principles, your authentic, enduring 'rules of the road'?" Your business strategies shift to meet market demands. Your core values don't.
  • Shared accountability. High-performance cultures require an environment that encourages employee ownership of both the organization's bottom-line results and its cultural foundation. Culture affects everyone and is everyone's business. It's essential, then, that the entire workforce understands the core drivers of your culture and share responsibility for sustaining them.

Pitfalls to Avoid in Shaping Your Culture Copycat Cultures

The mission and organizational values at the core of your culture need to be yours. Benchmarking just doesn't work. Your culture needs to be unique if it is to be a competitive differentiator — to engage your employees in your marketplace with your business objectives. There's nothing more de-motivating than trying to be something you're not. Cultures that engage employees leverage their uniqueness while at the same time raising the bar with aspirational goals.

The Celebrity CEO on a Timeline

Beware of new leaders bent on promises of rapid culture change. The news is full of CEOs parachuting in to save a firm only to be spat out a year or two later by the very culture he or she is trying to change.

Communication Breakdowns

No news here. You can't conduct a few town hall meetings and call it a day. Just when you thought you've said it enough, say it again. Take a tip from the marketing department: Stay "on message." You may feel like a broken record, but remember that it's constant radio play that creates hit records — with everyone knowing the words and singing along. Leaders at every level have the opportunity to state and re-state what the organization stands for as well as the organization's strategy and values.


Integrity. Respect. Customer First. Innovation. Risk Taking. Who could argue with those words? But what do they look like in your organization? How can they be applied each day in every person's job? That's where two-way dialogue between employees and managers, not one-way corporate communications, matter. Engagement results when all employees understand why their jobs matter and how they can live the organization's values.

Mis-Steps at the Top

Don't think that the failures of senior leaders to model the values will go undetected. Actions speak louder than words. And though our research indicates that most employees don't feel safe challenging their leaders' decisions and behavior, our findings also suggest that they'll take stock — and move on if there's hypocrisy at the top.

Missing Links in the Middle

Culture is too amorphous and large for senior leaders to effectively maintain it without help from the front lines. Yet most managers are squeezed between the urgency to deliver business results and the need to establish a high-performance culture. If they are held accountable for business results only, or if they see culture as a senior leadership responsibility, the culture will suffer. Give them the tools and support — and accountability — they need to succeed.

Misaligned Business Practices

All the elegant messages and well-intentioned leader behaviors will be for naught if the systems and policies that keep your organization running conflict with your culture's core drivers.

Taking Culture Too Far

It's rare, but possible, to focus so much on culture that you take your eye off your market. Consider Levi-Strauss — touted for its workplace breakthroughs but so internally focused that the firm forgot how to make a good and profitable pair of jeans. A solid business strategy translated into daily work priorities is a requirement for high engagement so that employees are not only enthusiastic about their work but they also focus their talents to make a difference to the bottom line.

An End Date

Culture is like a living organism that needs constant feeding and grooming. As your organization grows, recruits need to be assessed for cultural fit, new hires introduced into the culture, and employees reminded with vivid examples of the mission and core values in action. Leaders need to communicate, model, and model even more. If you look away, your culture will continue to grow, but not necessarily in the direction you need to ensure the high performance and high engagement you need to sustain success in your market.