What it really means to build a healthy, high-performance culture

by | Sep 30, 2021 | Culture, Leadership

I was recently lucky enough to be on a call with Mark Shapiro, the President and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, to gain insights on their approach to building excellent organizational culture. One quote from this call, above everything else, stood out to me as an unforgettable takeaway.

“To me, culture and teamwork are so important because I’m not that good. I’m not going to be better than all of us together.”

Mark Shapiro, President and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays

This sentiment both gracefully and directly pin-points why culture has gathered such a buzz over the past decade. Because like the Blue Jays, most organizations today use a “team of teams” model (i.e., many small, structured teams within the larger organization) to achieve important, scalable results – and great teamwork depends on culture. It also highlights just how far we’ve come from top-down, command and control approaches to culture development even at the highest levels of sport and business, which is a shift backed by both science and practice.

So, what is culture?

“If you establish a culture higher than that of your opposition, you will win. So rather than obsessing about the results, focus on the team.”

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In the most fundamental sense, culture is values communicated. That is, culture is a reflection of not only the values within a group, but also how values are expressed and embodied (or not expressed and embodied) on a daily basis in the environment. Eventually, when values are communicated enough, they transform into shared, unconscious assumptions (i.e., “how we do things around here”). Things like social norms, operating principles, and standards of behavior to name a few. New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, have become synonymous with high-performance culture because of their ability to communicate their values. Here’s a few examples of how they do that:

ResponsibilitySweep the shed (i.e., clean the locker room)
EffortChampions do extra (i.e., go the extra mile)
DisciplineKeep a blue head (i.e., stay calm and composed)
RespectLeave the jersey in a better place (i.e., grow the legacy of this jersey)

It’s important to notice that it’s not a rule to sweep the shed, but rather one expression of something the group collectively values – responsibility. Values are not rules to be followed, they are intentions to be lived. Values are far broader than rules in that they serve as a filter for behavior in all situations and circumstances, not just a few specific ones. For example, one of the values of an Olympic Team I work with is passion, which we define as “pushing and inspiring those around you through hard-work and positive energy”, and this applies no matter what we’re doing together. We strive to bring this brand of passion to everything from our breakfast conversations to our defensive transition on the court. 

The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to culture though, is accepting that you have one, no matter what, deliberate or inadvertent. What I mean by this is all groups have shared assumptions and norms that are rooted in values and corresponding behaviors – created either by design or indifference. Teams don’t get to choose IF they have a culture, only WHAT values their culture is based upon, and HOW they communicate them. All teams have a culture.

What are values?

“People are like water. They take the shape of what you pour them into”

Dr. Wade Gilbert

Given the essential role values play in developing great culture, it’s important to understand what they are and where they come from. Unlike skills (i.e., quickly improvable abilities that sharpen with deliberate practice and repetition) and traits (i.e., natural personality dispositions that remain relatively stable over a lifespan), values are deep rooted assumptions about one’s environment, how it works, and what matters most within in. Because the majority of our brain is designed to be wired by our experiences and environmental cues, our views and perspectives of what matters most, and what’s “important” are shaped gradually over time. These views become our values.

I share this background information on values because understanding the science of how they’re formed within individuals influences how they can be formed within teams.

How do you instil values into your culture?

“At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called “leaders” is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results”

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Leaders obviously play a critical role in establishing a group’s values, and this is no small task. In my experiences at the Olympic level, cultures either stick like glue or fade into the abyss depending on the leader’s actions. Here are 3 steps to follow when establishing values within a team or organizational environment:

1. Honor the past:

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when developing or changing culture is neglecting the past. Equally as important as where you’re trying to go as an organization is where you’ve been. Honoring the past, both the good and bad, is what allows you to not only learn from mistakes, but also to carry forward and build on values, traditions, and behaviors that are in fact effective. It also gives those who forged the first paths in the organization the respect they deserve for their work and progress. Research suggests one of the first key steps of culture change is “unfreezing” or thawing current norms, a process that requires significant belief and buy-in from all involved. Honoring the past with respect and authenticity is a great way to foster such buy-in.    

2. Empower the present:

The science is clear on command and control cultures – they don’t work. In fact, they lead to very undesirable outcomes like resentment, discontent, burnout, narrowmindedness, turnover, and the list goes on. If you want people to champion your culture – that is believe in it, live it, and protect it – give them a real stake in its creation. Most leaders and CEO’s who choose not to empower their people do so because of a lack of trust, which is the start of a viscous mistrust cycle: because they lack trust in their people, they don’t empower them, and because they don’t empower them, they lose their trust. In short, initiate the trust cycle by empowering your people and teams to contribute and participate in the culture process whenever possible. It’s the only path to true cultural transformation.

3. Walk the walk:

The curse of leadership is bearing the weight of disproportional levels of influence in each and every behavior and decision you make. If you say one thing and do another, or lack follow through, people not only notice, they see it as the new standard – and they replicate it. As the leader, your behavior strongly dictates what’s acceptable. You’re the bar. You can interpret this as either an unfair, harsh reality, or as a huge opportunity. I suggest the latter. Use your disproportional influence to your advantage by walking the walk, and showing everyone how committed you are to the organizations values. Pay attention to them, notice them, celebrate them, challenge them, and most importantly, take ownership when you fail to live them yourself. This level of focus and vulnerability will dramatically increase the odds of everybody else following suite, and ultimately the entrenchment of the values and corresponding behaviors needed to achieve great results.  

What are some values that can help instill a healthy, high-performing culture?

In my experience, there are certain values that stand out from the rest when it comes to creating a culture that’s both healthy and high-performing, and striking this balance isn’t easy. I’ve witnessed lots of organizations achieve great short-term results at the expense of long-term health and wellness, only to later realize just how unsustainable and toxic their strategies really were. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a big difference between a healthy team and a happy team – mostly in that happy teams rarely achieve great results because they’re so focused on preserving fake harmony. And healthy doesn’t equate to rainbows and butterflies, in fact quite the opposite in some cases. It does however equate to an environment that handles difficulties with respect and integrity, and successes with humility and grace. Here are some inward facing, team-based values I’ve seen have incredible success at creating healthy, high-performing culture:


Humility leads to openness, and openness leads to learning. Lots of organizations have recently started valuing openness, or psychological safety as google puts it, however only to be met with strong egos that just play the game and go through the openness motions. People see through inauthentic behaviors easily and quickly. Humility is a deeper level value that requires egos be left at the door, often creating the path for openness and learning to truly occur. It challenges people to see their thoughts and opinions as hypotheses to be tested, not rigid facts to defended at all costs.


Candor is like openness with a little salt and pepper on it. It’s certainly about being open and honest, but it’s also about being frank and courageous when doing so. I can’t tell you how many meetings and conversations I’ve beein in knowing the real issues weren’t being discussed. This costs time, money, and gradually builds resentment and apathy in everyone. Valuing candor empowers people to level with the group bravely and confidently, ultimately creating more well-rounded conversations and decisions.

Failure (First Attempt In Learning):

The world is giving high praise to those who eventually created the Covid-19 vaccines, and for good reason, but it should also be praising those scientists who tried and failed. The failed attempts at this vaccine are equally as valuable as the final solution in that they taught others what wouldn’t work, and these failures provided a critical compass for all future attempts. Innovation is a popular value these days, but I’ve seen lots of organizations say they value innovation and then punish mistakes. How can you innovate without the freedom to fail? You can’t. Like humility, this is a deeper level value that encourages other desired behaviors like innovation, creativity, and most importantly, learning.


This may seem like an obvious one, but the ground truth in most organizations tells a different story. It’s still entirely common and acceptable for “leaders” to pin underperformances on those below them in order to mask their own leadership incompetence. And worse than that, it’s usually deemed acceptable. When this happens, it’s a sign that an organization doesn’t truly value leadership. Where I come from (Olympic sport), the head coach is responsible for the performance of the team and the buck stops with them. If the team isn’t performing, it’s up to them to own those results and formulate a solution. This is what it means to truly value leadership.


Have you ever blamed unfinished or forgotten tasks on the note taker in a meeting? If so, your team lacks follow-through (and effective meeting practices!). Follow-through is simply doing what you said you would do in the time frame you said you would do it. People shouldn’t require a personal scribe in order to follow-through on their job. Follow-through is a very effective value because it puts accountability on each individual to stay sharp and fulfil their role. Without follow-through, people repeatedly get distracted and derailed trying to manage everybody else. 

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