5 Silent Killers to Building a High Performance Culture

5 Silent Killers to Building a High Performance Culture

Thanks to our biological programming our brains like certainty and feeling safe.  When things change and we become unsure, we operate from our survival brain. This is isn’t a thinking brain, but one that acts subconsciously based on patterns, habits and biases.  The result is we make decisions based on fear and a limited perspective on what’s available to us.  

In a workplace environment, when people operate from the old survival brain, they pay lip service to new initiatives, become uncooperative, distrustful and waste time working on the wrong tasks and priorities.

The good news is that our brain actually likes to feel safe, where it operates at a more resourceful level.  This is where employees feel able to express their opinion, share ideas and information, be accountable and excited about the future.  It’s where they trust that they are safe to be themselves.

Unfortunately, as leaders, we often inadvertently send employees into the part of their brains that produce suboptimal performance.  Here are five common challenges that silently degrade trust and performance in teams and across the organisation.

1. Foggy Focus

“The key is not how to do things right, but to do the right things.”  Peter Drucker

In today’s fast moving environment, leaders often confuse “being busy on busy stuff” as a sign of success and a hallmark of leadership. Unfortunately, we aren’t effective when we are really busy.  Prioritising our time to work on the biggest impact is crucial – whether that’s our products, our people or our customers.  If we easily get sidetracked by the most demanding drama, we spread ourselves too thinly and perform tasks at an average level.

But it also affects strategy.  Leaders that lurch from one crisis to another, immersed in the day to day are at risk of making strategy decisions that are ineffectual and sometimes just plain wrong.  The danger is that employees feel neglected and are more likely to provide filtered information for fear of overwhelming you.  Being able to successfully course correct and make reality based decisions is difficult when you’re not present to what is going on in the marketplace or even with your own employees.

One of the biggest fallouts from being busy and unfocused is that employees start to distrust their leader.  Common complaints are that the leader doesn’t listen to them in meetings or take action on their suggestions.  It can even make some employees feel that their boss is too disorganised to find the time to help them, which reflects poorly on their perception of the leader’s capability.

One of the distinguishing features of successful leaders is that they have laser-like focus on working on their strategy and empowering those around them.  They do this by being completely present at meetings, asking questions that enhance their employees’ abilities to do and think more, delegate low-value tasks and ensure they work on the highest priority.  And they don’t waste time being perfect.  Perfectionism kills action and momentum.  

2. Lack of Clarity in Thought and Communication

Communication is really all about reducing anxiety and ambiguity.  When communication is vague and assumes that people are mind readers employees go into fear. Leaders that excel at communication spend a lot of time thinking about what they believe is truly important for their organisation.  Is the time worth it?  Quite simply, yes!  Clarity plus action equals speed.

According to Christine Comaford the author or Smart Tribes, leaders need to be clear in their: 

  1. WordsCommunication often gets misunderstood because of too many assumptions (eg: what people know, their abilities, how work needs to be done or the presumption of a non-existent discussion).  Explicit requests and expectations must be given to direct reports so they know what is required to be done so they stay in a positive and resourceful brain state.
  2. Vision, mission and valuesIn today’s rapidly changing world, employees look to their leaders to show them the way forward.  Employees are drowning in information, but are crying out for wisdom.  Vision involves people and encourages commitment.  Employees want leaders who can paint a vivid picture of the future and help them see how to get there.  When employees don’t understand why they need to follow a strategy and how it relates to them personally, they struggle to commit because it’s meaningless.
  3. Intentions and energy – One of the most powerful human drivers is to live in alignment with who we believe we are and whom we want to be.  When our words and actions don’t match, it creates an integrity gap.  The bigger the discrepancy the more likely you might act in ways that go against what you’re trying to achieve. It’s common for leaders to overrate how their employees or customers see them.  The fallout is that employees will subconsciously distrust your intentions.  People need to be able to read you and see consistency in your behaviours, to feel comfortable around you.  Being congruent makes it much easier to influence others to do the right thing when you do as well.

3. Lack of Accountability in Teams and with Individuals

The essence of trust in a workplace environment is that everyone is able to rely on each other to make good on their promises.   Leaders can depend upon their subordinates, marketing can rely on manufacturing and so on.  Research by Harvard Business Review reported that only 9% of managers feel that they can rely on cross-functional colleagues all of the time, and only 50% say they can rely on them most of the time.  Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own team’s failure to deliver.

Furthermore, sometimes the CEO and other leaders extend trust to others to perform and are disappointed when their employees fail to take full ownership of their roles or live up to expectations. 

To engender a culture of accountability, leaders need to role model accountability by honouring all requests and promises.   This can be difficult because it takes time, commitment and discipline.  More importantly, leaders (and organisations) must demand accountability by putting in processes where poor performance is no longer tolerated.  This includes:

  • evaluating every project (what was good/bad, what can be improved),
  • providing each individual with clear goals with clear rewards/consequences,
  • tracking results/deadlines/accountabilities weekly, and
  • articulating clear action steps at the end of meetings.

4. Disconnection from Others

With technology changes and disruption, there has been a revolution in how we interact.  Leaders who can build rapport and influence not only bring their best self to work but also multiply the talents of their team members.  They put them into a smart brain state.

Yet, how we currently engage in relationships is still quite unevolved.  When we get insanely busy we tend to lock ourselves away (just when we need people to help us) or we see our colleagues as rivals.  Many of us still default into an “I’m right – you’re wrong” mentality or constantly compare ourselves to others, creating distrust and disrespect.  Behaviours that we have been doing for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  It’s time for us to shift how we relate to each other and how we work together.  We need to learn how to open up conversations to discover where we are philosophically aligned and what’s important to us, so we can collaborate at a higher level.  

If you’re managing your career you’re managing a series of relationships.  When a leader puts the interests and well-being of their employees above their own, they become a trusted leader.  One who is followed in a heartbeat, during bad and good times.  Real power comes not from knowledge but from networks.  Working with others enables you to get more done than you are able to do alone (no matter how brilliant you are).

Each individual differs in their propensity to trust others.  Sophisticated managers understand not everyone is the same.  They take the time to understand how to build trust with each individual.  This ensures they respect and empower each employee, thereby reducing challenging behaviours and low engagement.  It also improves connection, psychological safety and impact, reducing fear.  Having the skills to ascertain how to build trust improves a leader’s ability to build influence and rely on others, which improves their ability to get work done at a faster rate.  It also means leaders are better at judging the best people for the job and making better decisions overall.

For example, the Trust Evaluation framework enables leaders to more efficiently and strategically understand and build trust with those around them, rather than waste time and headspace trying to work out how to improve the performance of a direct report, influence their team or reach out to a distant boss or peer.  This means leaders assist others to get the results and experiences they want to ensure they’re operating in a more sophisticated and optimal brain state.

5. Generating Lacklustre or Inconsistent Results

It’s not uncommon to find teams or departments who have been performing below standard for years, yet other departments work hard to pick up the slack and have begrudgingly come to terms with not expecting too much.  Generally, if the leader or other team members are poor performers it gives license to others to perform below standard.  If there is one thing that causes distrust in an organisation, it’s when employees are allowed to continue working, even though their performance is dragging everyone down around them.  Often, the leader and company become the scapegoats because they haven’t done anything to remove the offender.

In this environment, you’ll find that people aren’t working at their full capacity and are often a bit bored and disengaged.  Most likely, their confidence and their ability to see their potential have been crushed.  Yet, introducing the concept of being a high performing team can be unsettling and a bit scary.

To improve performance, leaders need to increase certainty by focusing team members on the outcomes they want to produce.  This moves everyone into a more resourceful and positive brain state.  As results start to be achieved, team members become more confident in their abilities and the team.  It triggers the reward centre of the brain, where people become more eager to achieve and can start to see a more positive future.  It creates a virtuous cycle of goal-kicking.

Creating a learning environment where there is regular feedback, tracking of results, problem-solving and the ability to make mistakes provides the safe space people need to become performance junkies.  The more leaders use tools to improve focus, accountability, clarity and influence, the easier it is to create the right environment that helps teams, and even leaders themselves, operate from a more positive and purposeful brain state.

Business growth requires energy and intention that can cause burn out and exhaustion.  Leaders need to ensure that they manage their energy and their team members, in order to create sustainable results.  In addition, leaders must stay positive and create enthusiasm and belief in their team, when results fail to surpass expectations.  

Creating a High Performance Culture

CEOs that pride themselves on having the trust of their employees can often be disappointed when they don’t see that translating into performance, ownership and accountability.  

This requires the CEO to demand that their leaders master time, improve their ability to prioritise, have regular face time with both employees and customers, get better at forecasting to improve reality based strategic planning and deliver consistent results.

Creating a high trust culture boils down to every employee knowing they can rely on every person around them. It means everyone is committed to performing at a high level and helping their peers achieve as well.  It requires leaders who lead with trust and who follow through on promises and hold others to account.  They communicate honestly and frequently. They help employees see the meaning behind their work and that they matter.  They create a safe environment for people to speak up and be themselves.

A lack of focus, poor accountability, unclear communication, misunderstanding others, tolerating poor results or burning out employees slowly kills progress.  We can quite easily adjust the business levers of process and profit, but it really is optimising the people lever that is much harder but provides the most beneficial results long term.  Without improving people performance, mediocrity is inevitable.

Does your organisation have the trust it needs to build momentum on goals?  Take this 3 minute trust capital assessment now.

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


  1. Tegegnework Yirga 3 years ago

    thanks, yes it makes sense.

  2. Meriel Box 3 years ago

    I couldn’t agree more with these 5 Silent Killers. It makes perfect sense in order to achieve and sustain organisational effectiveness and success in a changing HE environment.

  3. Vikram Sinha 3 years ago

    An outstanding article which addresses a malaise in many companies.Fuzziness from the top leads to misalignment at each level who have their interpretation of vision,mission and goals.This is further compounded by double standards In accountability at own level and subordinate level.
    Cross functional management becomes a challenge as company goals become subordinate to functional and individual goals

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