High-performing teams need clarity, pace and progress cues in order to reach their full potential. Here’s how HR can help them get there.
There’s a good reason we don’t drive our cars at full speed down the highway for thousands and thousands of kilometres without stopping. Okay, there are two reasons. One, that would be illegal. Two, it would seriously damage your car’s mechanics.
During the pandemic, many of us were those cars speeding down the highway. We were stuck in a culture of hyper-productivity and panic working from dawn to dusk to help our businesses survive once-in-a-lifetime business challenges (and in a bid to prove ourselves valuable enough to retain).
But driving at that speed was never something we could sustain. And now, instead of zooming down a highway, we’re navigating complex, winding roads that require us to slow down and determine new routes. But many people can’t move forward at all because they have no petrol left in the tank.
“We’re seeing incredibly high rates of burnout and mental health issues across workforces,” said Aaron McEwan FAHRI at AHRI’s 2023 National Convention and Exhibition (NCE) last week.
Gartner research, which surveyed 2280 employees across a variety of regions and sectors with strong representation from Australia, shows that employees performed well during the height of the pandemic.
“In 2022, 96 per cent of HR leaders said the vast majority of their employees were meeting or exceeding their key performance targets, but this came at an enormous cost.”
Meeting targets is great, on the surface, but McEwan says the issue lies in how they were meeting those targets.
“We’ve got 45 per cent of HR leaders who are at least moderately concerned about unsustainable [workloads and] overwork. And then there’s 14 per cent of HR leaders who are really concerned about their employees who are both complacent and completely overworked. That’s a pretty dangerous combination.
“We can’t continue to perform like we did during the pandemic.”
AHRI NCE delegates can access a range of helpful resources from the event here.
Employees can’t keep up
Developing high-performing teams is a foundational aspect of working in HR, says McEwan.
“We find high performers, we want to keep them in our organisations, we want to learn from them, and we want to teach the rest of the organisation what high performance looks like,” he says.
However, Gartner’s research shows that only a third (29 per cent) of HR leaders are confident that their organisation’s current processes are effective at helping employees achieve and sustain their current workloads.
Less than half (41 per cent) of employees described themselves as being in the optimal stage of work – that is, an environment where they feel they can give their best efforts and do so in a sustainable manner.
“There are 24 per cent of people who are sitting in the ‘at risk’ area and 21 per cent are already feeling damaged. So there’s a significant percentage of our workforce that are worried about whether or not they can keep pace.”
“I think we will talk about the pandemic being the point in time that changed people’s relationship with work dramatically.” – Aaron McEwan FAHRI, VP Research and Advisory, Gartner
This results in a loss of enterprise contribution, says McEwan.
“About 50 per cent of employment value comes from individual task performance and the other half comes from what we call ‘network performance’, which is working through others.”
Enterprise contribution drops by around a quarter and intent to stay drops to just 14 per cent when less than half of your organisation is considered to be ‘high-performing’, he says.
So what can leaders and HR do to pull back performance gains? At AHRI’s Convention, McEwan shared four things he believes could be working against organisations.
1. A lack of clarity
The key to a high-performance culture is clarity.
“You know what to do. You know how to get there. And you’ve got all the resources you need to make it happen,” says McEwan.
Without clarity, people can still perform, he says, but they’re less likely to perform well over time.
“We liken it to somebody going on a hike. You know the conditions when you start out, you can see everything in the pathway ahead, but if the weather changes and a storm rolls in, all of a sudden those conditions aren’t quite as clear. We think this is where a lot of employees are currently sitting.”
2. Employee complacency
Almost a quarter of HR leaders are at least moderately concerned about employee complacency, found Gartner. There’s an overall sense of a lack of ambition and drive among some employees at the moment after a sustained period of running on empty.
This is felt in things like the ‘quiet quitting’ phenomenon, which may just feel like a passing trend, but could actually be indicative of a longer-term shift in how employees – especially younger people – feel about their work.
“In a few years time, we’re not going to be sitting here talking about ‘quiet quitting’ or ‘the Great Resignation’, but I think we will talk about the pandemic being the point in time that changed people’s relationship with work dramatically.
“People want to work to live, rather than live to work.”
Some employees are drawing a line in the sand and putting boundaries around the discretionary effort they’ll offer.
“And I think that around 95% of organisational strategies are built on the assumption that [employees] will go above and beyond. So when they don’t, we don’t meet our organisational targets because we built that assumption into our forward planning.”
3. Change fatigue
The average employee experiences nine changes on a day-to-day basis, says McEwan. These could be operational/task changes, new processes, not having access to your colleagues or the resources that you need, etc.
“Change fatigue is at its highest rate that we’ve ever seen before,” he says.
“As a result of that, 64 per cent of employees are experiencing changes that mean they now have to work harder. And that fatigue is not just from working harder, it’s from working in more complex ways, where lots of changes are happening each day.”
4. Work has become too complicated and time-consuming
Not too many people’s job descriptions would align with the work they’re doing today, says McEwan. In many respects, that’s a good thing. It allows for fluidity and fresh opportunities to keep employees engaged in their work.
However, this is also indicative of the unforeseen complexity that our jobs have taken on in recent years. And when we encourage employees into this unknown territory without enough guidance, we’re setting them up to fail.
“I think that around 95% of organisational strategies are built on the assumption that [employees] will go above and beyond. So when they don’t, we don’t meet our organisational targets.”
“What we end up doing is creating work to do work,” says McEwan. “That’s doing significant work outside of formal workloads and goals. What that does is reduce our ability to sustain our performance by 12 per cent.”
This means that instead of having enough time to tackle our increasingly complex workloads head on with an appropriate level of clarity and pace, we get stuck in a hamster wheel of unproductive busyness, which has knock-on effects for performance.
So what’s the solution?
The solution isn’t to place a range of prescriptive measures in place or impose too many guardrails, says McEwan.
“We need to guide employee agency and clarify the conditions so employees can make better decisions without constraints.”
HR and leaders can do this by utilising different cues. The first being a ‘performance cue’.
“It’s about providing context to your decisions, so employees can determine an efficient pathway towards high performance.”
As culture export and author Shane Hatton put it in a previous article for HRM, “Put the pin on the map to show people where they’re going, but let them choose the route to get there.”
McEwan uses the example of a Canadian financial services company called Laurentian Bank.
“They’ll give employees context and background that helps them better understand and predict the implications of their work-related decisions.”
For example, when rolling out its approach to hybrid working, employees watched a video defining Laurentian’s suggested approach, which outlined the scope of decisions for teams to make. Employees also completed a survey that guided them to choose a work preference persona, which were designed to represent the major ways of working within Laurentian.
“They focus on proactive rather than reactive information, so employees have all the information they need before they have to make a decision about where they’re going to put their effort.”
McEwan says HR and managers can also use ‘pace cues’ that don’t simply encourage or promote wellness, but build it into the work itself.
“Don’t get employees to do yoga over their lunch break to recover from burnout. It’s about simple things like having a prescribed time each day where people put down their tools.”
The last example is a ‘progress cue’ – that is, how do we recognise high-performance actions in the moment, rather than waiting until the end of the year to tell employees they did a good job?
“We need signposts and rewards all throughout the year. By the time an end-of-year bonus lands in their bank account, an employee might not even remember what it was for.”
He refers to an organisation that pays small progress bonuses when employees hit key milestones on a goal, rather than waiting for the goal to be completed.
It’s also important to be cognisant of what you’re rewarding. For example, are you calling out a worker who is consistently staying back late for their ‘loyalty’ and ‘dedication’ to the business?
Not only is that reinforcing that individual’s potential work addiction, it also signals to those around them that in order to be rewarded and acknowledged for your efforts, you need to be working yourself into the ground.
Instead, think about acknowledging people for their efforts in new ways. For example:
- Call out someone who was able to develop an efficient process to reduce time spent on a task.
- Celebrate a team that has figured out a better way to communicate with each other, rather than filling people’s diaries with endless meetings.
- Acknowledge the manager who is an expert at fairly and evenly delegating tasks among their team.
- Reward the person who is making the most strategic relationships rather than working the most hours.
“If you move towards guiding employee agency, you end up with 63 per cent of employees in the optimal workers category [as opposed to 41 per cent without].”
It’s about shifting away from simply supporting employees to make the right moves to subtly guiding them to do it, he says. That’s when you unlock truly high-performing teams.
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