A new approach to high performance workplaces

by External18 Feb 2013

A new approach to high performance workplacesDavid Hawkins reveals how one predictive indicator of a company’s wellbeing - and one that is rarely measured - is the strength of its relationships.

Examine any company and its reporting mechanisms, and you’ll find that financial value is determined by a profit and loss report and a balance sheet. These reveal how well the company has fared historically, and the current state of finances.

But the P&L and balance sheet tell us nothing about the company’s future success.

One predictive indicator of a company’s wellbeing - one that is rarely measured - is the strength of its relationships. Good relationships with clients, customers and the community are central to any company achieving its mission - whether that’s selling a product, providing a service, or advocating change.

Melbourne’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) serves as an extraordinary example of how a focus on building relationships has created an entrepreneurial, high performance workplace.

In 2005, the Victorian Government determined that Collingwood had the second highest crime rate in the state - 453 per cent above the state average. Unemployment was 286 per cent higher than the state average, and the suburb had more than three times the number of single parent families and double the occurrence of disability support pensioners. The gentrification of some pockets of the suburb was starkly contrasted with significant disadvantage, leading to polarisation in the community.

The government decided to adopt an innovative approach, establishing the NJC in January 2007. The Centre’s Director, Kerry Walker, arrived “just before the doors opened” with a determination to build a unique organisational culture which placed relationships front and centre.

“We established ourselves as people who could be trusted,” Kerry explains. “The community came to understand that we were honest, worked hard, and were committed to being there when times were tough, as well as when times were good.”

The NJC’s philosophy is one of restorative justice, which is an alternative way of dealing with crime and conflict. Restorative justice encourages offenders to take accountability for their actions, victims to achieve redress and the community to play a part in repairing the harm caused and preventing further offending or conflicts. It’s also about considering the ‘whole person’ and looking at the causes of crime.

From its earliest days, the NJC established a ‘narrative’ about the organisation which encompassed its vision and mission. “Our narrative was in part about the sorts of people who worked in our organisation - the lion hearts, the risk takers, those that want to live on the edge, connect, make a difference, and work with people,” Kerry says.

The Centre’s culture is apparent from the moment one sets foot in the building. “We have a high expectation about how our security staff will welcome people. Part of their job is to greet people by name and make them feel welcome. From the moment someone walks in the door, we are building a relationship,” Kerry explains.

The design of the building itself has a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The courtroom is filled with natural light, has views of the treetops and looks over the historic buildings of Collingwood. The open-plan offices ensure staff are easy to access.

“We have many correctional clients tell us that they feel trusted and trust being at the Centre. There is no security glass, furniture is not nailed down, and they are not just a number. Our first rule of service is that each interaction is to be respectful. When clients arrive, we address them by name and ask if they’d like a tea or coffee. We have a ‘talking culture’ with little signage on the walls. Instead, staff interact with people, show them where they need to go, and explain to them what they need to know. This is part of our service.

“We build trust through transparency. This means not only transparency in decision-making, but also transparency in the work we do. We make sure we are available and accessible - and the community responds to this,” Kerry says.

“A lot of anti-social behaviour occurs when people feel they don’t belong. Our philosophy is to attend to the whole person and to treat each person with respect. In doing this, we are more likely to stop the revolving door of justice,” Kerry explains.

And the result? Since opening, the crime rate in Collingwood has dropped by 30 per cent, much of which the Centre attributes to the strong working partnerships with the police, local council and the community. Recidivism rates have dropped by 12 per cent and minor criminal matters are on the decline. Completion of community-based orders is 10 per cent higher than the state average, with NJC offenders undertaking 105 hours of unpaid community work, compared to the state average of 68 hours.

Another indicator of the NJC’s success is to be found in the strength of its stakeholder relationships - something that was measured in 2012 through the Organisational Relationship Diagnostic Audit, or ORDA for short.

ORDA sprang from my ten year research project which aimed to answer a simple question: “what are the components of a relationship and how do we measure them?” I found that any relationship, whether personal or business, exchange-based or communal, can be measured by assessing three elements:

  • Governance: the way an organisation treats people and behaves when dealing with its stakeholders
  • Value: the tangible and intangible benefits that the stakeholders desire from the relationship with the organisation
  • Communication: how and what information is provided and how the organisation manages expectations.

Through detailed analysis of each component, ORDA enables organisations to accurately diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of their relationships, and quantify changes to those relationships over time. After all, if it isn’t measured, it can’t be managed.

Just as a better result in your financial audit – a stronger balance sheet or bottom line – indicate a more profitable and sustainable organisation, so too a relationship score is an indicator of goodwill and future performance. In some brave organisations, such as the Victorian Government’s rail agency, VicTrack, executive performance is assessed by ORDA and those executives are directly accountable for their ORDA scores.

“The Neighbourhood Justice Centre’s success demonstrates that an emphasis on high-quality relationships can yield extraordinary results,” says Associate Professor Amanda Pyman, Director of Monash University’s Department of Management.

“So many HR measurement tools are focused on internal factors, such as employee engagement.  While a staff satisfaction survey is a useful tool, it provides no mechanism for organisations to examine the relationships they have with their broader stakeholders. Stakeholder satisfaction is an uncomfortable area for many organisations - but it is one of the critical factors in any high-performance organisation,” Amanda adds.

With knowledge comes power, and ORDA can be a powerful tool to help organisations improve their relationships and their reputations.  In the case of the NJC, not only did it have falling crime rates as evidence of its success, but ORDA scores which demonstrated that its approach to relationships was working.

“A lot of what we do is intangible, and there is very little research or data to demonstrate the value of community courts and relationship building,” Kerry says. “The ORDA process has helped us to measure what we do and give us some extra confidence that we are making a difference.  It has validated our approach.”

The Centre’s approach is also validated in the feedback it receives from the community. The day before receiving its ORDA score, the NJC held a community forum on whether there was more to justice than crime and punishment, facilitated by a highly-regarded journalist. One person after the next rose to praise the NJC’s work and its positive impact on the community. Eventually the journalist grew tired of the ‘love in’ and exclaimed “it can’t all be good.” 

“We are doing great work - crime rates have dropped by 30 per cent,” Kerry exclaimed.

An elderly West African man raised his hand to speak. “I have to disagree with Kerry,” he said softly.

The journalist’s eyes lit up.

“The crime rate has come down much, much more than that.  We are much safer since the Justice Centre has opened.”

So, if Kerry has just one piece of advice to share with other organisations wanting to build successful relationships and transform into high-performance workplaces?

“Treat people well, and do what you say you are going to do. Simple as that,” she says.

About the author

David Hawkins has earned a reputation as one of Australia’s most respected practitioners and is currently Managing Director of Socom. He has worked on some of Australia’s highest profile public relations crises, including the Mars/Snickers extortion, the Cranbourne Methane crisis, Black Saturday Bushfires and the Indonesian mudflow incident. His work has been awarded nationally and internationally. David developed the Organisational Relationship Diagnostic Audit.  See: www.orda.net.au


  • by Gerard Campbell 4/06/2013 12:46:22 PM

    What is a good relationship development tool? We offer business teams training as a team of eight rowers and the latest research on High Performance is delivered to those teams. The teams can include key clients. We use the course to develop trust and solve an organisational objective or issue. If there is anything more innovative out there for developing strong, effective relationships I would love to hear about it?

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