Company Culture

What High-Performing Cultures Do Differently

Kathleen O'Donnell
May 13, 2024
Table of Contents
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High-performing cultures are like the perfect pizza: even pretty good cultures satiate your hunger, but the perfect slice is transcendent. And, getting that incredible taste that’s leaps and bounds above your greasy neighborhood joint requires all the elements of the pizza working together in harmony—the perfect dough, high-quality cheese, and the secret ingredient in the sauce. When you take a bite, you can immediately tell the difference. 

But you can’t always tell what one ingredient makes it all come together—because it’s truly a combination of flavors and tastes that make it sing. 

The same is true of high-performing cultures. No one component makes a culture high-performing (remember the McLaren instead of a Toyota metaphor?). Rather, high-performing cultures are a mix of multiple essential elements that all work perfectly together to create a sum greater than its parts.

But what does a high-performing culture truly look like? It’s not as immediately apparent as the perfect slice. These teams all operate in their unique ways, but there are critical commonalities that every organization can learn from as you build your own high-performing culture. 

These five key components of high-performing cultures are must-have ingredients for any organization looking to build a winning organization.

5 key components of high-performing cultures

1. Mission 

The first essential element of high-performing cultures is a compelling and clearly defined mission. It must be more than just elegant words though—a great mission statement is one that all employees understand (no vague jargon here) and that employees across the entire organization are deeply committed to. 

Once you’ve written the perfect mission statement, that alone won’t be enough to turn your culture into a high-performing one. You’ve also got to ensure that employees are connected to that mission, and that takes ongoing (and thoughtful) effort. 

The former CEO of Best Buy, who turned the business from a failing company to a thriving one, suggests initially uniting everyone around one single powerful idea while you build a better culture. It won’t shift everything overnight, but with a great mission and leadership commitment, change can happen faster than you’d think. 

2. Goals 

Once your mission is in place, it’s time to connect it to the goals that will get your organization to that ideal state. This step ensures that you have a roadmap to get you to the next destination—that beautifully articulated mission—and that everyone knows who is responsible for each part of the journey. 

But these goals can’t be just set by individual teams, as everyone must coordinate. Company-wide alignment on those goals is critical, as well as leadership commitment and buy-in from managers (they’re major drivers of culture too). 

One change that can help drive more buy-in from employees on these goals is by getting their input and ideas on larger goals and letting them set their individual goals that align with that larger purpose. That empowerment will give employees a sense of ownership over, and connection to, the goals, ensuring everyone is moving towards them together. 

3. Engagement 

That sense of empowerment carries over to the third critical element in high-performing cultures: a highly engaged workforce, full of people who are thriving and delivering outsized impact. Highly engaged employees are the secret to any organization or team’s success because they love their work and company and go above and beyond for both. 

If most of your employees are quiet quitting, or actively disengaged, it’s pretty unlikely your company will perform. Missions and goals are great, but the people across the org who get most of the work done, work directly with your customers, and drive your results must be engaged to deliver big results. 

Increasing employment engagement is a big topic—we don’t have room to do it all justice here—but our complete Guide to Employee Engagement has everything you need to know if this is a place your organization needs to improve.  

4. Feedback 

Feedback is an underrated but absolutely essential component of high-performing cultures. After all, if employees aren’t regularly given insights about their performance, how can they commit to improving that performance and delivering at the highest level? 

Research from Bain says companies that train managers to deliver straightforward feedback, instead of being encouraged to be “nice” at the cost of honesty, create a high-performing culture. Those conversations, while tough in the moment, reflect a greater commitment to the employee’s growth, and the organization’s, too. 

But not all feedback is created equal, especially when it comes to building a better culture. Feedback needs to be timely and frequent to be effective: it should be delivered when it will have the most impact, and happen at least once per week according to Gallup research

If your managers are waiting until the annual performance review or even just a quarterly check-in, that’s not enough feedback to let employees know what’s going well and what needs improvement so they can make changes. Training managers to deliver better feedback (timely, frequent, constructive, and specific) is key, but feedback in a high-performing culture should flow all around, not just downwards. Get everyone, including managers and leaders, more comfortable giving and receiving feedback to take your culture to new heights. 

5. Evaluation 

The final ingredient in the high-performing culture sauce is periodic, structured evaluation processes for performance measurement and talent development. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, as the saying goes, so developing a fair, empowering, and effective way to measure employee performance is vital. 

Unfortunately, as anyone who has tried to develop a performance management system knows, this one can get tricky. It’s easy for bias to creep in, for short-lived fads to pop up (remember stack ranking?), and for employee and organizational performance to suffer as a result.  

But performance in thriving organizational cultures shouldn’t be managed (doesn’t sound so inspiring, does it?). It should be enabled instead. That empowers employees to take charge of their own performance, increasing autonomy and accountability and engagement. Continuous performance enablement helps everyone at your organization reach their full potential, so your culture can do the same. 

The takeaway

These five simple words point to something much larger than themselves: they contain what every high-performing culture already has, and what your company needs to aspire to create if you want to turbo-charge your culture. 

You can now see how all five components not only fit together, but enhance and complement each other to create something even greater as the end result. And that final delicious dish is your very own high-performance culture. 

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