Jobs and the Future of Work

How to give high performers the work environment they crave

skyscraper. Making up between 0% and 20% of the average workforce, high performers are the people who set a new standard at work

Making up between 0% and 20% of the average workforce, high performers are the people who set a new standard at work Image: Pixabay/Joe

Fresia Jackson
Lead People Scientist, Culture Amp
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  • Recent research from Culture Amp interrogates the workplace culture requirements for high performers to thrive.
  • High performers make the biggest impact on an organization in terms of their comparative output.
  • Research shows that high performers crave different things compared to poor, solid or good performers in the workplace.

Global shifts in the employee market in recent years mean high-performing employees are highly sought after.

Organizations are looking to hire – and retain – high performers, because their impact is significant. This study found that the top 1% of workers account for 10% of an organisation’s output; the top 5% account for 25% of output. We’re talking serious bang for buck.

Have you read?

Our recent research into performance in the workplace, surveying 200,000 employees across 741 companies and looking at how employees were rated by their managers, suggests high performers require a very specific culture and work environment to succeed.

Making up between 0% and 20% of the average workforce (the median is 8%), high performers are the people who set a new standard at work. While the definition of a high performer varies from company to company, most recognize that these are employees with a high level of effort and disproportionate impact. They’re often the most invaluable and hardest to replace people within an organization.

High performers make up between 0% and 20% of the average workforce
High performers make up between 0% and 20% of the average workforce. Image: Culture Amp

Here’s how to build a high-performance culture to support high performers within your organization.

Performance reviews matter

Performance reviews are important to high performers. They want to be accurately recognized and rewarded for their efforts and results, and they look to structured performance management systems as the way to facilitate this.

They want performance reviews to focus on quality and improvement, with consistent measurement, and no room for bias.

We found that when it comes to how likely high performers are to recommend their workplace to their network, the quality and consistency of performance reviews was a stand-out consideration and much more important than it was to performers at other levels.

The graph below looked at the correlation between high performers’ answers to the following questions: “I am proud to work for [Company]” and “I would recommend [Company] as a great place to work”.

What makes high performers likely to recommend their place of work?
What makes high performers likely to recommend their place of work? Image: Culture Amp

To provide high performers with the performance review structures they value, look at:

  • Providing clarity on performance expectations and goals.
  • Giving employees a voice in the performance review process.
  • Ensuring the same standards are being applied across teams.
  • Avoiding common biases by training managers on how to combat them.

A culture of constructive feedback

High performers also actively look for ongoing, constructive feedback, outside of formalized performance reviews.

While some motivating factors were common across all performance types – for example, having a sense of belonging and opportunities for career development – constructive feedback was uniquely motivating for those crème de la crème, high performers.

What motivates high performers?
What motivates high performers? Image: Culture Amp

These are people who actively crave feedback on how they can continue to improve their contribution and build on their performance. They’re open and excited about how they can do better and it’s this approach that helped them become a high performer in the first place.

While a culture of feedback is essential to building a high-performance culture within your organization, that feedback must be genuinely honest and constructive. A feedback culture of praise on a loop isn’t going to build high performance; it will frustrate your high performers, who want opportunities to improve their performance rather than just being told they are doing well or to keep up the good work.

Provide your leaders and managers with training on how to give constructive feedback so that it is motivating, well-received and supportive of a growth mindset for employees.

Recognize that performance isn’t sustainable

High performance is hard to sustain, so it’s important to recognize that the nature of performance is cyclical.

While the high performers we surveyed said they felt energized by their pace of work, they were also the least likely out of all performance categories to agree they could achieve their work during working hours.

High performers were the least likely to say they could achieve everything during work hours
High performers were the least likely to say they could achieve everything during work hours. Image: Culture Amp

This means high performers often have workaholic tendencies which can lead to burnout – it’s just not sustainable to maintain a high level of work without built-in periods of downtime or opportunities for lower levels of output.

Our CEO at Culture Amp uses this analogy when it comes to high-performance culture: think of your highest performers like a peloton bike formation. The person leading the peloton is taking the full force of the wind, making it easier for everyone else in their slipstream, but they can’t maintain this front position forever. They need to cycle in and out, with opportunities to both rejuvenate and reprieve others.

By thinking of high performance in this way, we can build organizations where high performance is recognized and awarded, but also not expected month after month, without respite.

Supporting high performers

High performers need support. Without it, their levels of performance will decline or you risk them burning out to the point of leaving.

With the right support and access to resources, you can help your highest performers continue to thrive, while also managing their stress and workload.

According to our research, receiving support when needed and being given resources to cope with stress were more important factors for high performers than for other performance groups when it comes to committing to an organization. The answers below show the factors most valued in relation to the statements “I rarely think about looking for a job at another company” and “I see myself still working at [Company] in two years’ time”.

What factors affect commitment to an organization?
What factors affect commitment to an organization? Image: Culture Amp

Employee well-being is important for all employees, but especially for those high performers. They need this support if they’re going to commit to an organization for the long haul.

Without it, they’re the most likely to see their performance decline over the space of a year, while other performance categories are more likely to be able to maintain their levels (or in the case of under-performers, to improve).

With well-being support, performance for high performers is likely to decline within a year
Without support, performance for high performers is likely to decline within a year. Image: Culture Amp

Provide managers with training on how to regularly check in on the well-being of their high-performing employees during one-to-one meetings. Actively ask them how they could be better supported or which particular things are causing them high levels of stress because personalized, proactive support is really important.

Building a high-performance culture is a long-term commitment. It’s about embedding structures that support and encourage performance, providing constructive feedback and giving high-performers opportunities to grow, but also recognizing that high performance, by its very definition, is not sustainable without support and rest.

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