How to Lead a High-Performing Culture Through Uncertainty

The pandemic has disrupted the way most organisations operate – and how staff operate within them. The routines and rituals we all took for granted less than two years ago have been replaced by a hastily constructed cocktail of socially distanced connections and Zoom-fuelled meetings. To thrive in a post-Covid world, the need for companies to work out more creative ways for their teams to collaborate will be paramount.
Diane Nowell
Dec 17, 2021

High-performance organisations stand out because of their workplace culture: a complex accumulation of the many actions and interactions honed over years – often over decades – that elevate and inspire excellence.

Efficient and well resourced, usually with a diverse roll call of engaged, productive and highly motivated employees and an effective and supportive leadership team that nurtures innovation, high-performance workplaces not only work but are also great places to work.

Replicating this performance culture without the bedrock of a shared workspace calls for a complete rethink of existing practices. Planning and delivering a strategy that makes sound business sense within a supportive operational climate for team members only loosely moored to a physical location is challenging – to say the least.

Feelings of disconnect and mistrust are certain to bubble to the surface, as employees struggle to remain engaged while navigating the pitfalls of increasingly transactional relationships and departmental silos. Managing teams through a short-term crisis is one thing, creating and consolidating a more nuanced, longer-term response against an extended backdrop of adversity is a much bigger task.

So, what can leaders and organisations do to shape a successful new culture of performance in a changed world?

Redefine team dynamics

To date, establishing a high-performing culture has largely relied on the personal and professional alchemy created within tightly-knit teams sharing a workspace and a collegiate sense of purpose.

While the shift towards hybrid or remote working can often be seen solely in terms of the limitations it brings to forging this team spirit, it’s important to also acknowledge the opportunities it presents by widening the talent pool to include more diverse voices.

At Headspring’s recent Learning Xchange event, Ryan Mills, HR Director (EMEA), Oracle Corporation spoke of the need to embrace a fresh approach to team building:

‘We’ve always defined high-performing teams in terms of having the right people in the right place at the right time,’ Ryan explains.

‘Enforced remote and hybrid working has made us re-examine this assumption, enabling us to look at talent more broadly and allowing us to consider employees we may have previously ruled out due to their location.’

It’s true that old routines must give way to new in order to realise the potential of these new relationships, with greater emphasis on the development of robust peer-to-peer support networks and employee resource groups. Indeed, encouraging co-creation at grassroots level could introduce a more agile and powerful team dynamic into the corporate mix.

Rebalance the contract

As most companies transition to a hybrid model, it’s the perfect time to review work tasks from the perspective of what is best achieved in person and what can be accomplished equally successfully from a remote location.

In a hybrid model, this means everyone has the chance to recalibrate their approach to work, focusing not on the minutiae of the traditional daily processes, but on the important things – on the desired outcomes.

David Jestaz is Faurecia University and HR Transformation VP. At the Learning Xchange panel, David emphasised the need to drill down to the essentials:

‘Long-term hybrid work undoubtedly presents challenges but if we review them with honesty and transparency, we can rebalance our approach accordingly.

We need to abandon those old rules and bureaucratic details that aren’t serving us and look instead at creating new rituals that facilitate problem-solving.’

Letting go of a redundant hierarchical structure is a theme echoed by fellow panellist and CHRO of CaixaBank, Xavier Coll:

‘Our emphasis over the years on promoting company-wide values of trust, humility, and collective responsibility has given us the confidence to pursue a more flexible style of leadership that’s less about control and more about empowerment – letting our people do their work.

‘We can choose to take the best lessons from this period of crisis and use them to shape the future.’

Reframe the leadership role

This imperative to encourage and empower workforces means that the last 20 months has also been a time of evolution for business leaders.

Moving, virtually overnight, from traditional hierarchies and well-defined roles and responsibilities towards a more collaborative and flexible team model has seen leaders juggling competing priorities, while trying to maintain performance levels.

Learning Xchange panellist Ruth Kudzi is a leadership coach and founder of Optimus Academy. Ruth emphasised that the organisations navigating the pandemic most successfully are those whose leaders are agile enough to step confidently into a new leadership style that promotes and supports greater autonomy, encouraging co-creation at a grassroots level.

Effective leaders are also the ones who are modelling a new way of showing up:

‘How leaders are in front of others makes the biggest difference,’ says Ruth.

‘If leaders are working from home with the kids around, it gives permission for others to be open and vulnerable. New policies can codify these operational changes but lived experience counts.’

Enabling and encouraging employees to bring their authentic selves to work – cutting through to what’s important – is a key leadership quality in these troubled times.

Offering high-performing teams the space and autonomy to engage in social and professional interactions that allow genuine, authentic relationships to develop also helps to create the psychological security we all crave and sets the stage for greater success.

Facing an uncertain future

In a changed world, organisations will have to work harder than ever to establish, maintain and foster a high-performing team culture built on autonomy, competence, and relatedness. It’s easy to be distracted by the many economic, practical and ideological challenges ahead but if we open our minds to the possibilities, we can explore fresh opportunities to rebuild a different – perhaps a healthier and happier – future. By redrawing our boundaries and expectations, this could, in fact, be a rare chance to redefine the world of work for good, with a new sense of purpose at its core.

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant