THE TLNT ESSAY: How to leverage ‘high–performance psychology’ in the workplace

The 'TLNT Essay' is back! This time Justin Follin and David Greenspan, CEO and chief growth officer at BLUECASE Strategic Partners explain the concept of high performing psychology:

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Jun 18, 2024

It was legendary management consultant and writer Peter Drucker who famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” – and more than 30 years on, it’s as arguably true as it’s ever been.

The idea that no matter how solid your business strategy appears to be, it will always fail without a high-performance company culture is a compelling one.

Unfortunately, company cultures (nationwide), have struggled to break a longstanding pattern of disengagement and low-performance metrics.

Since 2002, for example, engagement has meandered at around 30%. All the strategy in the world won’t overcome the fact that 70% of workers report some level of disengagement at work.

Developing a high-performance culture is nearly impossible if a company does not address these issues.

But how should these issues actually be addressed?

High performance psychology

It’s clear to me that addressing low engagement begins with looking at the shared mindsets and beliefs that inform how a company works together.

In many cases, management and employees suffer from disempowered ways of thinking that hinder creativity, collaboration and results, and coworkers don’t communicate directly.

Oftentimes, mindset is a framing problem: What are the psychological barriers hindering high performance, and how are teammates and leaders identifying, addressing or resolving the problems that are reinforcing these barriers?

The answer is cultivating psychological safety

In 2011 Google undertook a quest to determine what made the perfect team. It was born out of the fact that in some teams, productivity and innovation were tremendous, but in others (all with seemingly the best brains around), it was not.

Its so-called ‘Aristotle Project’ studied 180 teams to determine the factors of team high performance.

What Google concluded was that the single most important determinant of a team’s performance was psychological safety.

Essentially, high-performing team members trusted and respected each other and felt they could speak freely about concerns, ideas, and mistakes without fearing negative consequences.

Oh, and yes, in case you are wondering…. lower-performing teams don’t.

What does this mean?

High-performance teams with high psychological safety almost always have that level of trust and camaraderie.

They obviously respect, listen to, and work with one another.

Their conversations are deep, meaningful and move projects forward without petty arguments.

In contrast, teams with low psychological safety have a different dynamic.

People here are polite and professional — maybe they even go to happy hours together — but everyone knows there are rifts on the team.

Perhaps one or two people dominate conversations while others quietly disagree. Decisions are rarely a consensus.

In these teams, arguments are common and circular, with the same people voicing the same opinions and creating a dreadful, tense atmosphere.

Moreover, because honest conversations don’t happen, resentments and frustration become off-the-record gossip.

Negativity increases, and engagement decreases.

This dynamic gets heightened on cross-functional teams, when members from different departments come together over a shared task.

Significantly competing priorities heighten tension, resulting in meetings that feel more like high-stakes negotiations than collaboration.

Psychological safety is low, communication falters, and everyone returns to their respective departments complaining about the “other side.”

In these environments, escalation is inevitable.

How to confront these problems

Confronting these issues seems daunting – which is why these issues are frequently swept under the carpet.

But here’s the thing. The most common consequences of a low-performance culture are communication challenges, ineffective meetings, climbing turnover rates, and other clear signs of productive teams grinding to a halt.

So, the more you bury your head in the sand and promote a “nice” culture over a healthy one, the more money (and high-performing people) your company loses.

That’s why analyzing your company culture is the first step to building healthier relationships within the organization.

The question you need to ask is ‘how do you describe your culture?

By this though, I mean not in its ideal form, but what it is right now.

Other question relate to this – such as: ‘How effective are your teams?’ and ‘What are the results of employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) surveys, and are they lower than you would like?’

It’s essential too that instead of framing the issue as a mistake to punish, reframe it as an opportunity to improve outcomes, fix mistakes, and enhance the company’s overall culture.

For it’s only ofter taking responsibility and thoroughly examining the facts, that a team can begin to rebuild its trust structures and tackle the real culprit of low-performance — disempowered mindsets within the organization.

High-Performance Mindsets

When someone is a high-performer, one factor stands out: they are often in their “flow,” a peak performance state that occurs when time flies due to the utmost focus on accomplishing the task at hand.

In contrast, disempowered mindsets focus on destructive things. They create negativity spirals, hyper-focus on errors, and/or defeatist rhetorics.

Sometimes, defeatist mindsets exist in people you wouldn’t think of — like the “I’ll just do it on my own” people who burn themselves out and exude negativity and exhaustion onto the team.

Everyone experiences disappointment and negativity, but chronically disempowered mindsets can hamper otherwise high-performance teams.

By contrast, when someone is in a “flow” state, they have done all the necessary preparation in order to dive into an assignment or project. They are already envisioning the finish line, and are more likely to succeed when harnessing that driving energy.

Crucially, these people have trained their minds to turn away from negativity and concern to focus on constructive, actionable steps that lead to success.

The “flow” state can also exist in meetings for work teams. Have you ever been in a meeting where everything just seems to build on itself and generate new ideas? This is where everyone is suddenly on the same wavelength and is able to make decisions, move quickly, and feed off of each other’s energy and excitement.

That’s the flow we’re trying to tap into in order to create high-performance teams.

Mindsets ‘can’ be retrained

Luckily, mindsets can be retrained. When people gain self-awareness, many realize they can choose to change their mindset.

It all comes down to asking a single question: “How am I thinking about this right now?”

Widening the lens and examining our attitude or behavior often jolts our minds from a negativity spiral.

While circumstances might be out of your control, how we think about our situation is always a choice.

Thus, teams can coach each other back into a creator mindset, by training themselves out of a failure-focused mindset.

When teams choose an empowered mindset, it doesn’t mean their challenges go away. Negativity bias will still creep up, too.

The difference is that when they have the self-awareness to choose their mindset, they can get out of doom-loops faster.

Shifting from ‘Defeatist Mindsets’ to ‘High-Performance Mindsets’

Even on high performing teams, every single person will get stuck in disempowered mindsets from time to time.

We are all human beings, and we are all dealing with immense challenges.

It’s normal (and sometimes necessary) to get upset by things. However, high-performing teams are different from other teams because they help each other choose empowering mindsets in the face of adversity and build an active culture of high-performance.

An organization I know in the hospitality industry was struggling during COVID. Sharp cuts in revenue started a domino effect of investors abandoning the company, with its valuation going down. It was causing immense stress among the staff.

Predictably, employees were in fight or flight; and everyone’s attitudes were overwhelmingly defeatist.

The entire company was drowning in their low-performance mindsets as leaders scrambled, teams panicked, and the culture suffered.

The only way they could turn the ship around was to identify the teams that had the most influence on the company’s trajectory — in this case, the sales and development teams — and shift their perspective onto the problem.

They asked themselves, “How am I thinking about this right now?” Objectively, they were focused more on negative outcomes than on projecting positivity and success into the future.

If only they could widen the lens and look at other factors; the solution was there.

Once the low-performance mindset was identified, the teams got together to re-frame their thinking, asking questions such as:

– “What does wild success look like?”

– “What are other markets we could tap into to diversify?”

– “How can we cultivate discipline within our teams to pivot our market fit?”

– “Will this pivot engage employees to behave in ways that affirm our organization’s core values?”

Within weeks, everyone, from the C-Suite down, rallied behind the strategies the newly sales and development teams created while in their “flow.”

Emboldened with renewed purpose and drive, the company determined its new path and coached its teams to recognize defeatist mindsets, redirect the energy to more creative paths, and keep themselves accountable to maintaining a high-performance culture.

As a result, the year turned into one of their strongest yet.

Embracing positivity to re-frame perspectives and create transformative change seems deceptively simple, but it works.

Once the mindset clicks into place, teams experience that exhilarating “flow” state which invigorates a high-performance culture.

Training employees to engage in high-performance behaviors and thinking is a key driver of your company’s success.

By prioritizing positive psychology in your company culture, your company will bounce back from setbacks faster and achieve greater results.