High-Performance Culture: Cliché or Reality?

High Performance Culture

I often grow weary of the clichés and jargon I encounter in sports and corporations. Yet every once in a while, I embrace a term that falls under the “cliché” or “jargon” category because the phrase captures the essence of something special in a way that no other words can. That’s why I’ve come to believe in the concept of high-performance cultures. Of course, the real value of a useful phrase comes from the explanation, implementation, and execution of the concept. In my practice, I help clients develop the three essential elements of a high-performance culture in team, organizations, and relationships.

Underlying Core Values

High-performance cultures deliver sustainable excellence over the long haul. They do not rely on the latest fad, management trend or leadership gimmick to achieve short-term results. Consistent, long-term performance is based on a set of core values. Performers in high-performance cultures want to win just as much as their competitors do. But they do so within the confines of values that will not be compromised, regardless of the short-term success that may result from looking the other way, rationalizing questionable behavior, or otherwise failing to evaluate the best course of action through the lens of core values.

Many teams and organizations develop values. However, most organizations do not consistently rely on their values to guide decision making, business decisions, or how people are treated. The creation of corporate or team values becomes a “check the box” exercise. The organization pats itself on the back for creating values and proudly displays them on the company website. Yet when you peel back the onion, you find many individuals acting counter to the created values with no repercussions or adverse consequences—that is, as long as they deliver results. True high-performance cultures deliver results and treat people in a manner they can be proud of. In fact, these cultures will not tolerate individuals who do not act from a set of core values.

Feedback-Rich Environment

In many organizations, performers shield themselves from receiving true feedback. They pay lip service to this concept by talking very publicly about their open-door policy, desire to help others, and requests for honest feedback. Yet in actuality, they tune out criticism or rationalize it by explaining away their circumstances. Their teams stop giving feedback because they realize it is not worth the risk, and the organization misses important opportunities for lasting change based on lessons learned.

On the other hand, in a true high-performance culture, team members genuinely solicit and pay attention to feedback. Not all feedback will be accurate or informed. However, in a high-performance culture, it is understood that feedback comes from a place of genuine desire to help teammates improve—individually and collectively. Feedback is offered without agendas, hidden motives, or malintent. It is therefore viewed as data for improvement—nothing more, nothing less.

In this atmosphere where feedback is welcomed and appreciated, it serves a purpose. Performers evaluate what they hear to determine if change is necessary, and they commit to improving.


Performers operating in a true high-performance culture enjoy what they do. They are energized and motivated, but also realize one must have fun in order to achieve sustainable excellence over time. They work hard not because they have to, but because they want to.

In normal times, when I begin working with a new client, I pay very close attention to the feel I get from walking around their office, floor, field site, or locker room. In high-performance cultures, you see energy, laughter, and fun. People pop in and out of each other’s offices, lockers, or workspace freely. Doors are most often open versus closed. In other cultures, people are speaking negatively about teammates behind closed doors. They do not address negative dynamics openly, often because the team leader has not created a safe environment and mechanisms for doing so. I can go from the 10th floor of an office building where I feel a sense of excitement to the 30th floor where it feels like someone died. That’s a pretty good indicator of who has created a high-performance culture and who has not.

Creating an energized environment is more difficult in these days of video conferences resulting from the pandemic. But it is important for leaders to recognize that these types of meetings are here to stay, long after COVID is a distant memory. While some feel lost without face-to-face connection with colleagues, many organizations have realized the value of increased productivity, less commuting time, and lower real estate costs of brick and mortar locations. These learnings will be continued and leveraged by organizations post-pandemic.

Expectations are key in maintaining a high degree of energy and engagement remotely. The leader must set the tone and personally demonstrate that teammates are expected to display the same level of connection and involvement on the screen as they did in person. In my own practice, I have been surprised to find that some clients are actually more engaged than when I saw them in person prior to COVID. I believe this is due to feeling more comfortable on their “home turf” than in the office. Team leaders may employ a variety of different techniques to create and sustain this involvement, such as rotating facilitators, requiring real-time images of team members instead of still photos or naming screens, and calling on each participant directly for input. I have also found standing desks extremely helpful in maintaining energy levels throughout the day while working remotely.

If you are truly committed to creating a high-performance culture as a leader, ask yourself these questions. Does my team operate from a set of core values? Do we often give and receive feedback that is welcomed and offered with truly positive intent? Do we have fun in the pursuit of excellence? If so, keep up the good work. If not, get to work!

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