Balancing Performance with Employee Expectations

The landscape of the modern workplace has undergone a significant transformation over the past 50 years. Historically, traditional community institutions such as churches and local neighbourhoods once stood at the centre of one’s sense of purpose and belonging.

In the current era, individuals are more frequently seeking to fulfil these fundamental human needs within the workplace and employers are becoming a primary source of identity and community for many in today’s workforce.

This evolution reflects a more profound change in societal values and expectations, where work-life integration has become more pronounced.

The Emerging Role of Employers

For employers, this shift brings with it a unique set of challenges, particularly in tight economic climates fraught with recession and inflation. Employers are expected to deliver more than just financial remuneration. The pressure is on them to provide enriching, growth-oriented experiences and opportunities for their employees while navigating the constraints of a strained economy.

The crux of the challenge lies in how employers can effectively balance these heightened employee expectations with the need to sustain a high-performance culture. In times of economic hardship, when resources are limited and the pressure to perform is high, finding this balance becomes even more crucial.

Employers must innovate and strategise to create environments that drive performance and cater to their employees’ evolving needs and aspirations.

This balancing act involves redefining workplace culture, investing in employee development, and fostering an atmosphere of psychological safety and trust. It also means embracing flexibility, encouraging creativity, and recognising individual contributions.

The goal is to create a symbiotic relationship where the workplace becomes a hub of personal and professional growth, and employees, in turn, are motivated to contribute their best, driving the organisation forward even in challenging economic times.

Beyond Perks: Cultivating high-performing teams

While free meals and gym memberships contribute to a pleasant work environment, they don’t necessarily foster a deep-seated high-performance culture. Employers must explore more substantial elements to drive team effectiveness and employee engagement.

This was exemplified by Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’. The project examined various aspects of more than 180 teams within Google. They analysed gender balance, shared interests, educational backgrounds, and how much team members socialised outside of work. However, none of these factors seemed to predict team success reliably.

The breakthrough came when the focus shifted to ‘group norms’. Group norms dictate how members behave in a team setting, often overriding individual tendencies in favour of the collective norms of the group.

The researchers discovered that psychological safety, a concept defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson as a ‘shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,’ was the most critical factor for team success accounting for a 36% differentiator in revenue performance. An environment of psychological safety fosters open communication and collaboration, crucial for problem-solving and innovation.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

Some managers erroneously think that instilling fear can enhance performance. Yet, studies indicate that fear actually redirects resources away from brain areas tasked with learning new information and problem-solving. This diversion impedes both the capacity for creativity and the learning process, illustrating that fear is counterproductive to growth and innovation.

On the other hand, when employees are free from the fear of negative consequences to voice ideas, admit mistakes, and ask questions, it fosters an open communication and collaboration environment.

Psychological safety is often misinterpreted. It does not mean perpetual agreement or unconditional support; it’s about respectfully ensuring honest and constructive communication.

Psychological safety provides the foundation for a workplace where learning from mistakes is encouraged, leading to innovation and growth. It ensures that failures, when they do occur, become opportunities for learning rather than sources of blame.

The Key to High Performance

Psychological safety is essential for breaking down barriers in teamwork and communication, yet it alone does not guarantee high performance. Maintaining high standards is equally important for achieving true excellence.

The coexistence of psychological safety and high standards creates an ideal environment for innovation and growth. It allows for a culture where learning from mistakes is accepted and encouraged, leading to continual improvement and creative breakthroughs.

Leaders must understand that psychological safety and high standards are not conflicting concepts but rather complementary forces that, when combined, significantly enhance team performance.

Leaders have a vital role in upholding this balance. They are tasked with setting high standards and ensuring these are met consistently. Their responsibility extends beyond expectation-setting; they must actively inspire and motivate their teams to strive for these standards. Support, coaching, constructive feedback, and appropriate recognition are all part of this leadership approach. Such a strategy promotes a culture of ongoing improvement and drives the pursuit of excellence within the team.

Balancing Psychological Safety and Accountability

One of the critical tasks for leaders is to balance creating a supportive environment and applying the right amount of pressure to ensure high performance standards. This balance is key to keeping team morale and motivation high and driving success without stress or burnout.

Source: Amy Edmondson. The Fearless Organisation. 


Leaders must navigate different workplace ‘zones’ effectively:

Achievement zone: Leaders encourage teams to set and surpass challenging goals, creating a supportive environment that resembles coaching athletes. Success in this zone depends on leaders who lead by example and build trust within the team.

Anxiety zone: Though these teams are often high-performing, focusing on results over people can create a toxic work environment, leading to stress and burnout. Competition is emphasised over collaboration, and the environment becomes psychologically damaging.

Abatement zone: In this zone, psychological safety is present, but accountability is lacking. Teams may feel comfortable, but there’s little incentive for innovation or proactive problem-solving. As a result, productivity and performance suffer.

Apathy zone: Low in both psychological safety and accountability, these teams often experience conflict and lack motivation. Leadership styles in this zone are typically authoritative and emotionally volatile, creating an unsafe and unproductive work environment.

Navigating these zones requires a nuanced approach from leaders. They must identify their team’s current zone and take appropriate actions to steer towards the Achievement zone, where both psychological safety and accountability are optimised.

Strategies to Achieve this Balance

Fostering open communication: Leaders should encourage a culture where team members feel safe to express their ideas, concerns, and feedback. This involves actively listening to employees and acknowledging their contributions, enhancing psychological safety.

Setting clear expectations: Employees should understand what is expected of them and how their work contributes to the organisation’s objectives.

Providing constructive feedback: Feedback should be timely, specific, and constructive. Rather than focusing on criticism, leaders should guide employees towards improvement and learning, fostering a growth mindset.

Encouraging professional development: Offering opportunities for learning and development help employees enhance their skills and grow within the organisation, which drives higher performance.

Recognising and rewarding performance: Acknowledging and rewarding high performance is vital for motivating employees and reinforcing the importance of maintaining high standards.

Leading by example: Leaders must model the behaviour they expect from their team. Commitment, integrity, and a high work ethic sets a positive example for the team.

Addressing issues promptly: When performance issues arise, it is important to address them directly and constructively to prevent a slide into the Anxiety or Abatement zones.

Promoting well-being: Leaders should be mindful of their team’s workload and stress levels to prevent burnout. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance is key to maintaining high morale and performance.

Balancing psychological safety with accountability is a dynamic and ongoing process. Effective leaders constantly assess and adjust their approach to ensure their teams operate in an environment that fosters high performance, innovation, and job satisfaction. By skillfully managing this balance, leaders can cultivate teams that are productive, resilient, engaged, and aligned with the organisation’s goals.