A No-Fail Formula for High Performance in Highly Unpredictable Times

In brief:

  • The current business environment and state of the workforce are characterized by unprecedented levels of change.
  • Leaders must fundamentally rethink how they engage the workforce to maximize performance and efficiency.
  • To optimize the workforce and prepare the organization to cope with constant change, it’s about creating a continuous improvement culture, establishing behaviors and rituals that guide employees through transition, and driving productivity with more empathy.  

As of June 2021, there were 10.1 million open jobs in the U.S. This is happening as consumer demand for many goods and services is ramping up and U.S. worker productivity growth is slowing.

Amidst labor shortages, high rates of employee turnover, shrinking margins, shifting customer preferences, and disrupted supply chain operations—driven in large part by the pandemic—many businesses are desperate to maximize the performance and efficiency of their people just to make it to the next quarter. 

Innovative technologies, processes, and policies can help businesses become leaner and optimize the workforce for maximum performance at a minimum cost. But sustainable high-performance and efficiency are a product of people-centric strategies.

In this blog, we look at three approaches for building a workforce that enables your business to move forward through shaky conditions—now and in the future.

Make continuous improvement a cultural cornerstone of your organization

Culture is an essential factor in the success or failure of any business, especially when it comes to the performance of teams. Leaders who intentionally design a culture of continuous improvement empower and encourage teams to take calculated risks and challenge the status quo, which ultimately drives innovation and can push your organization to new levels.

To create a continuous improvement culture:

  • Implement Agile ways of working. Agile ways of working can benefit any organization in any industry. It transforms how groups collaborate, how businesses respond to changing market needs, and how they measure success. Agile is all about learning, listening, and iterating—it creates a cycle of responsiveness and adaptability that unlocks value in people, strategies, processes, and more. In an agile organization, the workforce operates in a test-and-learn environment. Moving from "command and control" environments to "test and learn" environments requires trust. Whether it’s a product, service, program, or process—the workforce is empowered and rewarded for thinking outside the norm and recommending new approaches—within the guardrails of your business. For financial services, the guardrails are regulatory in nature, while in the retail and consumer goods space, there are boundaries in place to protect workforce safety. Testing and learning also enable your workforce to deliver value, productivity, performance, and efficiency early on. So do agile learners, who are key to driving continuous improvement. Agile learners apply takeaways from experiences to improve future performance. They embrace new ideas, seize opportunities, and act even when they don't have all of the information. Part of being an agile learner is being an agile listener. Agile listeners process and think about what they heard, what they learned, and where they can set the new bar. In listening and learning, they reflect regularly on how to become more effective, and pivot accordingly, which builds engagement. Performance is all about taking in what you know now and improving it—even if just a little bit.
  • Make courage a core value. To feel comfortable taking risks in a test-and-learn environment, courage must become a part of your organization’s cultural DNA. Courage can be a key enabler of change and high performance. Just as it’s critical to eliminate the stigma around failure, you must empower employees to act courageously and challenge the status quo to keep the organization moving forward and improving continuously.
  • Promote cross-functional collaboration. Continuous improvement cultures are rarely (if ever) successful in organizations with siloed functions, departments, or teams. To create the kind of culture that drives performance, innovation, and efficiency, leaders must actively break down barriers between teams and create cross-functional, collaborative groups across the organization.

Establish guiding principles

According to recent data from Microsoft, about four in 10 employees are considering moving to a new job in 2021. With this in mind, organizations must deploy strategies to tolerate a highly mobile workforce and cope with constant change. One important way to do this is to establish behaviors and rituals—or guiding principles—that help your organization and its people navigate transition and continue moving forward no matter the circumstances. Importantly, in an agile organization, your guiding principles must be able to adapt and grow as circumstances change, to ensure you are always creating value and driving performance and efficiency.

What do we mean by guiding principles? As one example, competencies are a tangible way to communicate the expected behaviors, routines, protocols, or skills that employees need to perform effectively. They reflect the attributes that create success at work and provide the workforce with an indication of what will be valued, recognized, and rewarded.

How do you establish these anchoring behaviors that provide stability to your business and keep your organization productive through change? First, leaders must be mindful of the past, while keeping an eye on the future. They must also be willing to take risks and leave behind old practices that are no longer serving the business. And once you have these non-negotiables, your workforce must know what they are. Communicating your guiding principles consistently and frequently ensures the workforce knows what’s expected of them and can decide whether or not they want to be a part of it.

When businesses have clear guiding principles, they can more easily withstand change. It’s a lot like the junk drawer in your home; you can deal with the chaos because it’s contained with clearly defined boundaries.

Stop thinking that workplace empathy hinders productivity

A mistake many people make in the workplace is believing that empathy for colleagues and employees will hinder their productivity. While this mindset is changing, clear gaps still exist:

  • Sixty-eight percent of CEOs say they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace.
  • Both HR professionals and CEOs said they personally struggle with demonstrating empathy, and seven in 10 say it’s hard to consistently show empathy in their working life.

Though leaders remain skeptical about empathy’s impact on productivity, there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between the two. In fact, empathy is an important catalyst for driving workforce performance and efficiency. It’s about intentionally seeking to understand and share the feelings, needs, and challenges of others, which can help us become more accepting of outside perspectives and create more genuine connections. The stronger your connections are with employees, the more engaged they will be. And the more engaged your team is, the more productive they will be. Here’s how to put empathy into practice to drive performance and efficiency:

  • In order to get the best performance from your employees, treat them as people first. They need to feel valued before they will put their all into any business or initiative. One way to achieve this is by rethinking how you approach conversations with employees. More specifically, focus on growth and development. This might seem obvious, but perhaps you’re managing a distribution center and have recently implemented a system that measures workforce productivity and effort, such as engineered labor standards. It may be easy, or even natural, to focus on the numbers alone. Instead, coach from a place of empathy by seeking to understand individual aspirations. You can then leverage data to help employees see a clear path to getting there.
  • Your team is tasked with a lot. Empathetic leaders ensure employees see how their work connects to the success of the organization. With the knowledge of how their efforts impact the whole, employees will adopt a sense of ownership in their work and seek to deliver their best. Every leader should articulate the “why” so that employees see how the organization’s vision and purpose align with their individual goals. This is what drives an individual to engage, contribute, grow, and be motivated to achieve.

If you want to create a high-performing and highly efficient workforce—one that delivers exceptional results and generates lasting competitive advantage for your business—you have to focus on your people above all else. In today’s environment, the most effective leaders inspire productive workforces by building a continuous improvement culture, defining guiding principles, and embracing empathy.