What It Really Means to Build a Healthy, High-Performance Culture

by | Last updated Jun 28, 2023 | Culture

high-performance culture


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 into their approach to building an excellent high-performance culture. Above everything else, one quote from this call 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 gracefully and directly pinpoints why high-performance cultures have 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 meaningful, scalable results – and great teamwork depends on culture. It also highlights how far we’ve come from top-down, command and control approaches to high-performance culture development, even at the highest levels of sport and business, a shift backed by science and practice.


So, What is a High-performance 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.”

From the book “Legacy: What the all blacks can teach us about the business of life”

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 behaviour, to name a few. New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, has become synonymous with high-performance culture because of their ability to communicate its values. Here are a few examples of how they do that:


Value: Communicated:
Responsibility Sweep the shed (i.e., clean the locker room)
Effort Champions do extra (i.e., go the extra mile)
Discipline Keep a blue head (i.e., stay calm and composed)
Respect Leave 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 behaviour 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.” 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 remember about culture 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 rooted in values and corresponding behaviours – 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.


Now, 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 a high-performance 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. Because most 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’ve formed within individuals influences how they can be formed within teams. More on values in Why culture is bigger than 3 words on a wall.


How do we Instill Values Into a High-performance 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”

Influencer: The new science of leading change

Leaders play a critical role in establishing a group’s values; this is no small task. In my experiences at the Olympic level, high-performance 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 a high-performance culture is neglecting the past. Where you’ve been is equally important as where you’re trying to go as an organization. Honouring the past, both the good and bad, allows you to not only learn from mistakes but also to carry forward and build on values, traditions, and behaviours 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 that one of the first key steps of high-performance culture change is “unfreezing” or thawing current norms, which requires significant belief and buy-in from all involved. Honouring 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 high-performance culture – that is, believe in it, live it, and protect it – give them a real stake in its creation. Most leaders and CEOs who choose not to empower their people, do so because of a lack of trust, which starts a vicious 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 every behaviour 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 replicate it. As the leader, your behaviour strongly dictates what’s acceptable. You’re the bar. You can interpret this as an unfair, harsh reality or 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 organization’s 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 suit and, ultimately, the entrenchment of the values and corresponding behaviours needed to achieve the high-performance culture you want and great results.  



About the author

Bryce Tully, Chief Executive Officer at innerlogic.

He holds a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He has worked as a Mental Performance Consultant with various Canadian Olympic teams for over a decade, including a most recent appearance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Bryce’s mission is to create the world’s best high-performance culture management experience and help organizations worldwide reap the tremendous benefits of enhancing and building their culture.



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