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Jan den Breejen

High Performance Organizations

  • 02 November 2011
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

by Jan den Breejen

Five fundaments matter to become a High Performance Organization (HPO): quality of management, openness, readiness to take action, long-term focus and continuous improvement of employees. In a HPO employees must be High Performing Individuals (HPI): focused on customers, quality and continuous improvement, inspiring each other to collaborate to achieve excellent results. HPI-employees like to be accountable for their results and take ownership.

Out of the comfort zone: make your job a challenge!

That sounds great – but corporate reality often looks a little different. Employees tend to have narrow job descriptions because a lot of organizations are designed by Frederick Taylor's principles. A rational division of labor and jobs makes organizations look efficient and effective and provides management with a feeling of control. But is that true?

Narrow job descriptions and controlling managers cause "acquired dependency", avoiding risks and waiting for permission. The Taylorian organization leads to waste of employees' creative and innovative potential.

Five Factor Model For The High Performance Organization

Research (Quelette & Wood, 1998) shows that when challenge in your job is lacking, "new behaviors" are soon replaced by "old behaviors" like dependency on your boss.

Darwin already stated that humans need challenges to stay strong and vital (The Descent of Man). It is important to get your employees out of their comfort zones and expose them to some positive challenges regarding organizational change…! Stimulate them to think for themselves, develop improvements and behave in a more entrepreneurial way at work. A great way to do so, is to combine working with practical learning.

High Performance Individuals – from followers to leaders

What you ultimately need to become a High Performance Organization are new behaviors, like openness (sharing information and speaking your mind – also when you disagree), readiness for action (not just talking about it, doing what you have planned), entrepreneurship (seeing opportunities and experimenting or even taking risks), collaboration (communicate well, allow others to do their thing, fine tuning your work to facilitate colleagues) and achieving results, getting things done!

Combining daily work with learning these new behaviors can enhance commitment and employee engagement. In these times of unpredictable and heavy competition organizations need employees who can handle complexity, dynamics at a high pace and uncertainty. We need highly skilled employees but also collaboration, creativity and results-oriented working. The only way to develop the new behaviors in today's busy and unpredictable workplace, is learning by doing. You can't control this in a school curriculum. You have to use trial and error to see what works in your organization.

Four qualities of High Performance Individuals

A recent meta-research on human behavior by Harvard professors Lawrence and Nohria (Driven, 2001) shows that humans need to develop four drivers to survive. This theory is grounded on Darwin and is called Renewed Darwinian Theory of Human Behavior.

Four drivers of human behavior are:

  1. The drive to acquire
  2. The drive for security
  3. The drive to learn
  4. The drive to belong

Darwin describes these competencies as critical factors to survival. They are also recognizable in the Competing Values Framework on which the OCAI culture survey is based. Based on the four behavior drivers, people develop these competencies:

  1. Business & Goal-oriented competencies (wanting to win, Market culture)
  2. Planning & Procedure-oriented competencies (wanting security, Hierarchy culture)
  3. Self-organizing & Creative competencies (learning by trial and error and improvising, Adhocracy culture)
  4. People & Motivation competencies (wanting to collaborate and relate, Clan culture)

Mostly, 1-2 competencies are present by nature: This is everyone's personal comfort zone or your core competencies. The other competencies are not developed: They are your "allergy" when you encounter them in others or they could be your challenge (you'd like to learn them but it doesn't feel natural).

High Performance Individuals are "four of a kind": They are able to switch between the four competencies depending on the situation. They have developed all four and will show them in behavior when necessary.

The same underlying thought – develop these four styles – grounds Organization Development. Utilizing the OCAI tool to assess current and preferred culture, the outcome shows how your organization has developed these four competencies and whether the balance is right or not (yet). In alignment with the Renewed Darwinian Theory of Human Behavior, Cameron and Quinn also found from their research that highly successful organizations are able to show competing behaviors and switch between the four culture types, leadership styles etc, when necessary. They can show contradictory behavior in response to situations.

In response to the Taylorian division of labor and the 19th century industrial management, today's highly educated professionals working in unpredictable, complex and fast-changing environments, vote for corporate cultures that are based on Self-organizing & Creative competencies (learning by trial and error and improvising, Adhocracy culture) and People & Motivation competencies (wanting to collaborate and relate, Clan culture). They need professional freedom beyond narrow job descriptions as well as accountability to achieve results on time (instead of waiting for permission), they need trial and error, and the freedom to excel and deviate when necessary, while providing their complex services and products and satisfying customer needs. If they are true professionals, they will like the challenge to develop all four competencies to be ready for whatever comes their way…

Comfort zones are less and less likely to endure – and they get smaller all the time. Thinking and acting out of the box is the new normal.

The good thing about the OCAI tool is its great starting point for change, leading to engaging workshops with participants (employees, executives, professionals) where people learn to let go of their "acquired dependency" and take ownership for the change. I'm looking forward to all those High Performance Organizations that will emerge…!


Breejen, J.D. den, De High Performance Organisatie: een integrale aanpak. Management van leren en veranderen (Kluwer, Alphen aan den Rijn 2009)

Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. (London, John Murray, 1871)

Lawrence, P. en N. Nohria, Driven. How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (London, John Wiley & Sons 2002)

Quelette, J.A. en W. Wood, Habit and Intention in Everyday Life. The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Future Behavior in: Psychological Bulletin vol. 24, nr. 1, p. 54-74.

Quinn, R.E. en K.S. Cameron, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework (San Francisco, Jossey Bass, 2011)

Waal, A.A. de, Maak van je bedrijf een toporganisatie! De vijf peilers voor het creëren van een high performance organisatie (Van Duren Media, Culemborg, 2008)

Jan den Breejen is a Dutch program manager at ISBW (Schouten & Nelissen Global) and the author of the Dutch book ´De High Performance Organisatie: een integrale aanpak. Management van leren en veranderen' (Kluwer, 2009). Sorry - book is only available in Dutch.

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