Which wins when pressure rises — performance or culture?

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At the heart of every modern organisation is a critical balancing act – maintaining a strong cultural identity while achieving top-notch performance in today’s fast-paced and unpredictable business world. Can we ever truly ensure that culture and performance co-exist in harmony?


Experience tells us that without a robust organisational culture, things can quickly go off the rails. You end up with a lack of direction, misaligned employees with conflicting values, high turnover rates, ineffective communication and teamwork, and inconsistent customer experiences. A well-defined culture is vital for fostering a sense of purpose, ethical conduct, and the ability to adapt to change.


However, without a laser-sharp focus on performance and results, an organisation will undoubtedly struggle to achieve its goals, maintain a competitive edge, and drive growth. Ultimately, this puts long-term sustainability and success at risk.


I once worked for a company that achieved the delicate balance so many strive for. Performance was paramount, but not at the expense of culture – in fact, the culture was the secret sauce that granted us the adaptability to thrive. Decisions were decentralised, empowering those closest to the action. This wasn’t just about having a flexible culture; it was about fostering an environment where clear accountability and open communication were the norms. This approach didn’t weaken leadership – quite the opposite. It fostered a high-trust environment where decisions were made swiftly and supported firmly, embodying the “disagree and commit” philosophy. It proved that valuing people isn’t just a catchy slogan; it’s a multiplier of performance. Is this an anomaly in today’s corporate landscape? In an era where performance often reigns supreme, can culture still hold its ground?


As we navigate the ever-changing performance demands, the question we must ask ourselves is: how do we intertwine culture and performance, making each stronger to ensure that our cultural foundation remains unshaken when the performance siren calls?


Pay attention to what you measure and control

Ed Schein, a business theorist and psychologist, says we create culture every day and that the most powerful mechanism for cultural change is what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control regularly. People look to their leaders to understand how to behave during good times… and more importantly bad.


Consider the impact of tolerating bad behaviours

Culture is shaped by the worst behaviour an organisation will tolerate. We’re often happy to tolerate leaders who exhibit bad behaviours if their performance is good, but never the other way around. Acceptance of poor behaviour for performance gains undermines the integrity of a culture. It’s time to hold all leaders to the same high standards, regardless of their outcomes.


Ensure a clear link between strategy and people’s work

Only 27% of employees strongly agree that they believe in their company’s values (Gallup). When it comes to using values to realise the organisation’s mission, the statistic is even worse. Only 23% strongly agree they can apply their organisation’s values to their everyday work. People want a sense of purpose in their work and to know that their efforts matter – it’s engaging and motivating. It’s also imperative for successful delivery and performance.


The relationship between culture and performance in an organisation isn’t an either-or situation. When managed well, a strong culture and high performance can reinforce and enhance each other. An organisation’s ability to handle pressure and tough times doesn’t just rely on having a history of impressive performance numbers. It’s equally dependent on having a robust, deeply rooted culture. As we navigate the complex business world, it’s crucial to tightly integrate culture with performance. Every employee needs to not only understand the company’s values but feel empowered to truly live them out in their day-to-day work. Getting this alignment right is the key to lasting success and a true measure of a company’s overall health and vitality.



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Jacqueline Shakespeare
Written by Jacqueline Shakespeare
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