“We want people who work well in a high performance culture” said the headhunter.

My heart sank.

One day I am going to set up a recruitment business and when I do this will be a typical role specification:

“This role requires patience, some courage and an indigestion remedy. The brand suggests a highly successful and well organised business; but frankly the reality is something you can probably work out for yourself. There is too much work, a pretty ordinary infrastructure and the same shit happens most days. That said the team is good; they’re nice people, working hard with a little bit of gallows humour. If you can get past working on an industrial estate, with no car park spaces after 830am and the sort of IT that would shame the owner of an Albanian cyber cafe in 2003, then you’ll be fine. There is a bit of management nonsense, but not too much; although you will have to work hard not to lose it with your boss when he bangs on about A.I. at the umpteenth conference he will speak at this year. Overall it’s not so bad and worth considering for the next three years of your working life…” 

“High performance culture” therefore is a phrase that for me has come to symbolise just about everything that is the undoing of a decent place to work.

First of all it is just a place of work, not some eugenics experiment to create a higher functioning life form. People are people, full of insecurity, keen to do well, wanting to be treated fairly, but above all wanting to be out of the workplace, free of stress, to spend time with family and friends.

Second, slogans do not create culture. Chief executives calling for a high performance culture have very often lost a heap of budget on consultants and have then been flattered into thinking more of their own image than the working environment of their colleagues. Any chief executive who has fostered and invested in a working environment that might be described as genuinely a great place to work would not waste their time bothering to label their efforts with such abject bollocks.

Third, no one, but no one turns up at work and resolves to make a substandard contribution. High performance is a sporting abstraction that does not exist in a complex human world. In the world of work it can only exist inside the laptop of some jumped-up business guru monetising tired clichés with prettily coloured spreadsheets and a clever looking distribution curve.

Fourth, a high performance culture is nearly always accompanied by a cascaded, rolled-out set of so called high performance behaviours. The result is primary colours on the walls and the slight whiff of a totalitarian state in every plastic message uttered by executive colleagues.

And yet there are of course great teams and I know many teams that I would love to work in. These are teams that I consider to be the epitome of a great place to work and I know they would run a million miles from the sort of HR inspired slurry storm that results in adopting phrases like “high performance culture”.

Why are these teams so good?

First there is always a genuine and visible acceptance that everyone is a real person and not a few pixels on a graph, that everyone has something good to offer, but that they also arrive each morning managing a complex hinterland as well. The work environment therefore is always made to be a kind place to work for humans.

Second, the organisation does not hide from its weaknesses, but fronts-up and tries to make things better a step at a time. An organisation that thinks it can embark on “transformational change” for example is usually an organisation that has struggled to convince its own workforce that they have a bleeding clue what to do next.

Third, when good things happen they enjoy the moment; but when mistakes are made or business goes less well these teams push on together.

Finally, these teams relish the idea that a job is a place to learn as well as to earn, so there is a meaningful investment in learning and as a result people grow in confidence, in resilience and in their ambition to repay the investment.

A high performance culture – no thank you.

A team where people work well together, gratefully supported along the way – yes please.

Paul Gilbert