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 there is some truth to the notion there is a reason certain words and phrases become clichés. There are elements of truth in the words and phrases that become clichés. I try to avoid most but every once in awhile I encounter a cliché or term that has unfortunately become jargon which I actually embrace. I do so because the phrase captures something I can’t find better words to describe. Also, the real value in accurate clichés comes in the explanation, implementation and execution of the concept rather than the phrase itself. I’ve come to believe in the concept of high-performance cultures. I believe there are three essential elements of a high-performance culture in teams, organizations and relationships.


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. But they do so within the confines of values that will not be compromised, regardless of the short-term success that may result by 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 and 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 request for honest feedback. Yet when feedback is received, lasting change does not occur. Feedback is instead dismissed, rationalized or explained away by circumstances. People stop giving feedback because they realize it is not worth the risk.

On the other hand, in a true high-performance culture feedback is regularly given, received and solicited. 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. In this atmosphere feedback is welcomed and appreciated. It is evaluated to determine if change or improvement is necessary. If so, observers providing feedback do see genuine change. Feedback is offered without agendas, hidden motives or malintent. It is therefore viewed as data for improvement—nothing more, nothing less.


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.

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 are in and out of each other’s office, locker 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 and feel excitement to the 30th floor and feel like someone died. That’s a pretty good indicator of who has created a high-performance culture and who has not.

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!


  1. I agree David. I also think leaders can have passion without values. They can be passionate about money, success, power, etc. I think the combination of rightly motivated passion with vision results in the type of inspirational leadership you describe.

  2. I believe in the existence of high performance cultures, but I think that there is one thing missing from your analyis: passion. If people are passionate, they HAVE values (not necessarily those the organisation lists though), they help others and are open to feedback because achieving the goal matters to them, and they have fun because they are motivated (as you say). Where does the passion come from? A vision that inspires people to join because they believe in it. Without that vision – leadership if you prefer – you can’t do the rest.

  3. Thanks Dan. I feel the same way about values as I do about purpose & vision. If done correctly and used to truly guide decision making and behavior–powerful tools. If not, another piece of paper that goes in the drawer (or on the wall) contributing to senior executive’s cynicism around most (if not all) forms of team building intervention.

  4. Mark,
    I agree with you 100%. A Fortune 50 company I have consulted with for years actually has their values stamped on the back of the ID badges that allow access to the buildings, but 95% of the employees could not tell you what they were. It wasn’t until there was a process to manage and lead to those values and align career performance reviews to those values, that the values became more than a check box exercise.
    I also believe that cliches come from truth but over time the meaning is lost. When the cliche is spoken, the context is not understood but rather it is known that you are supposed to ‘say this at this time’, but few understand why. Not a bad thing I don’t think, but it does stir the question of whether the words themselves hold the power or the lost meaning behind its genesis. Good post!

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