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'High-Performance' Workspaces Can Turn Off Diverse Professionals. Why It Shouldn't.

Those two words are steeped in the idea of white supremacy, perfectionism and an impossible work-life balance.

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The two words on your job application that scare away applicants of color — “high performance.” Why do these two words hold so much baggage for diverse applicants? Well, I’ve come to understand that the words “high performance,” particularly when linked to “fast-paced” in a job application, are steeped in the idea of white supremacy, perfectionism and an impossible work-life balance.

Some people of color associate “high performance” with the expectation to be absolutely perfect in everything they do, to work themselves to death and uphold a standard of excellence that’s difficult to achieve without compromising their mental and physical well-being.

As a Black founder, I don’t want excellence to only be associated with whiteness. I believe in Black excellence and I think it’s important to change the narrative around high performance and make it something that employees of color aren’t intimidated by. But first, it’s crucial to define what high performance means for people of color in business.

Here’s how we achieve high performance at my company and why applicants of color shouldn’t be afraid of this term.

Related: What Cultivating a High-Performance Company Culture Means to 8 Business Leaders

How I frame high performance in my company

In my business, I was set on explaining and defining high-performance early on for my staff. There’s an understanding that high performance in my company means:

  • People show up and they show up consistently
  • People aren’t afraid to make mistakes as they grow better
  • Excellence entails risk-taking and going above and beyond
  • Having the right attitude towards difficult projects
  • When someone provides constructive feedback, we don’t feel shamed; we feel motivated
  • It's not just about your supervisor motivating you, rather we challenge each other to level up
  • We are supportive of each other even when we’re not feeling strong
  • Build an environment centered around collaboration, where good ideas come from any place, not just the manager or supervisor

These principles have shaped NWC and have made our staff stronger even in high-pressure situations. It’s made it okay to be human in our business but also makes us strive towards excellence when and where we can. It took some time, but I needed my team to support and buy into these principles themselves. Over the years, we’ve established certain values as a high-performance team that helps us stay focused on excellence without compromising our wellbeing.

The values that support our diverse, high-performing team

When I discuss high performance with my DEI managers, we’re often talking about the values. What guides our high-performance work culture? How can we show up and be accountable for one another without pushing each other over the edge? We stay focused on excellence and push our limits while also operating with grace and when things go wrong.

We hold these values true to our work:

  • We don’t wait for orders, we see problems, and we solve them.
  • We practice good meaning that we write and speak for impact while making sure everyone has the same understanding, and our priorities are clear.
  • We show up prepared and stay 10 steps ahead of potential issues.
  • We don’t get hit with surprises. We do the prep work ahead of time to prepare for the challenges ahead.
  • We stay focused and action-oriented.
  • We’re constantly asking ourselves, “what’s next?”
  • We ask meaningful questions that elicit insights and emotions we can use to inform our work. 
  • We believe in collaboration and understand good ideas can come from anyone.
  • We trust each other and know that good work is being done in all areas of the company whether we’re personally involved or not.
  • We’re creative problem solvers and we hustle to find solutions. We roll up our sleeves to get the job done.
  • We make our own mistakes, accept responsibility and open our hearts to accountability.
  • We think like entrepreneurs. Even when not everyone’s a CEO, we think like owners and take responsibility for the client process.
  • Most importantly, we value high performance. We seek to outdo past successes and overachieve despite limitations.

Related: The 5 Most Successful Work Environments (and the 5 Worst)

High performance, competition and healthy work culture are intertwined

In my business, high performance doesn’t mean stretching yourself too thin in order to achieve impossible goals. When I talk about high performance, I’m not talking about perfection. I’m talking about outdoing our past successes. I believe in working to excel despite limitations. The mentality is that we’re always trying to level up and create a culture where we inspire our colleagues to level up, too. 

In my mind, healthy competition is a healthy culture. When we see our fellow colleagues striving for more, reaching higher, and taking chances, it gives us permission to do the same.

Balancing psychological safety with high performance

What gets most businesses in trouble with high-performance workspaces is they’re not balancing the psychological needs of their staff with their demands for high performance. I recently wrote about this in another article on my personal blog discussing the tensions I have between business growth and DEI. But I’m certain now, that if we choose to give our employees empathy and compassion, to support them when they need to take a break, and motivate them with reasonable yet healthy competition, high-performance can be an empowering and non-intimidating scenario for people of color. 

Related: How to Create Psychological Safety Among a Team

Final thoughts

While many applicants of color will take one look at a job application with the words “high performance” and run for the hills, I think they should take a step back and have a second look. High-performance work environments aren’t a death sentence — inherently. They can be a powerful way to up the ante, challenge oneself, and really see your best work unfold. The key is for companies to communicate what high performance means and how employees can show up in the workplace. How can employees do their best work without falling into a prism of absolute perfection and total abandonment of their personal well-being? By defining what high performance means in the business, expressing empathy and compassion for employees for the well-being of the staff, and explaining how your company balances excellence with growth, you've taken a major step in hiring and retaining a more excellent staff of color.

Nika White

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Dr. Nika White is a national authority and fearless advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion.