For the past ten years, I have helped startups and scale-ups build high-performance organizations (HPOs). It’s more than an occupation — it’s a preoccupation, maybe even an obsession, in part because there are still so many unanswered questions. Most experienced executives would know an HPO when they saw one, but that’s not much help when it comes to creating one from scratch.
There is really no good playbook for that, which is why I’m working on one of my own, starting with defining what it means to be an HPO.
Part of that playbook has to do with company values. We all know that values can be a powerful way of shaping your culture — or a meaningless plaque on the wall. Much has been written about how to craft your values and how to bring them to life.
But there is a different question that has been on my mind for years: Are there some values that a company must have to build a culture of high performance?
I believe there are.
Just as you can’t have life without water, and you can’t have water without the atomic elements of hydrogen and oxygen. I believe there are a few “atomic” level values that are foundational to building an HPO. If any one of them is missing, your company won’t be able to achieve the high levels of productivity and positivity that define high performance.
Based on first-hand observation of startups over many years, I’ll take a stab at what these atomic values are.
1) Intellectual Humility
Intellectual humility is the deep conviction that neither you nor anyone else has, or can have, a monopoly on the truth. No one is ever 100% right because no single person can see the complete picture. No matter how confident you are in your perspective, you remain humble enough to recognize that you might be wrong or missing a piece of the puzzle.
This doesn’t mean you don’t form strong views or advocate passionately for them. It does mean you articulate your views as hypotheses, invite others to test or challenge them, and remain as open to disconfirming evidence as to confirming. This approach is best summarized by the phrase “strong opinions, loosely held.”
2) Psychological Safety
Psychological safety has become a bit of a buzzword, which means a lot of people think it’s important but aren’t entirely clear on what it is or how you create it. As I’ve written, many workplace situations generate fear of speaking the truth. Unless your company cultivates an atmosphere of psychological safety, many truths will go left unsaid, each one potentially a missed opportunity for improvement.
Worse, the more naturally dominant voices will take over, crowding out the contributions of those who are just as smart (or smarter) but find it harder to make their voice heard. That translates to goldmines of talent left untouched right inside your company.
Empathy is the belief that the emotional experiences of people at your company matter. When a company truly values empathy, its people place importance on each other as human beings. Empathy is a key “atom” in any high-trust relationship, and these relationships are key to the success of your organization.
Candor is about being open, frank, and sincere in your communication. It doesn’t mean everyone has to say everything on their minds, but they default to transparency unless there’s a good reason not to, and they share in a way that is mindful of how the message is being received. This is a key “atom” in building and maintaining trust between your company’s leaders and the rest of your staff.
It All Adds Up To Trust: The Master Molecule
If there’s one thing you could magically create more of to boost your organization’s performance, it would be trust. Trust is the jet fuel that fires HPOs. But trust is not a value, because it isn’t a behavior: you can’t make yourself trust someone. Trust is an outcome of other behaviors…and these four atomic values are the critical ingredients needed to make it.
When a group of people consistently show intellectual humility, psychological safety, and empathy towards each other, they will create a high-trust community. That is phenomenally powerful, especially when your company is small and everyone knows each other. As you grow, you need something else to build trust among people who don’t know each other at all.
That’s where candor comes in. A commitment to sharing information openly, and being honest about what is really going on, is how you can cultivate trust with hundreds or even thousands of your colleagues. That’s why this value, although it applies to everyone, is especially important for senior executives. The more information you hold, the more impact your candor has and the more essential it is.
Atoms Into Molecules
Companies can and do espouse a wide variety of values, and they don’t have to include the atomic four explicitly. But these atomic values are the building blocks of a high-performance culture, and when they are weak, some of the most common values that companies commit to also tend to be weak. That’s because the “molecular level” values they’re hoping to create depend on these atomic values. If one essential atom is weak or missing, the chemistry just doesn’t work.
For example, teamwork requires a combination of empathy and intellectual humility, with a dose of candor thrown in. Empathy enables people to connect with and relate to each other, and intellectual humility allows them to listen deeply and build on each other’s ideas.
Innovation depends entirely on psychological safety — if people don’t feel comfortable offering constructive feedback or suggesting new ideas, it’s dead in the water. It also requires other ingredients that aren’t HPO essentials, like curiosity and audacity.
Diversity, a value we hear a lot about these days, requires psychological safety, empathy and intellectual humility. To be clear, I’m not just talking about diversity of numbers (i.e. percentage of women or BAME employees). Having a diverse group in the room doesn’t do much unless everyone feels able to contribute, and there are many reasons why they might not — not just race and gender, but also age, cultural background, personality type, language skills, and so on. Psychological safety is crucial for getting everyone to speak up, and intellectual humility and empathy help ensure that even “diverse” (e.g. unexpected) contributions are taken seriously.
Start with the Building Blocks
Now we can see why so many companies struggle to live up to their values — they’re missing some essential atoms.
For example, I’ve worked with a few software companies dominated by highly technical people who are often quite introverted. Intellectual humility is fairly common in these companies, but empathy was often in short supply. The result was that only close co-workers tended to form high-trust relationships. So, as they scaled beyond a few small teams, a fair amount of friction came into the organization.
Interestingly, some of these clients reported that their organizations started to function better once a few women came on board. Coincidence? I think not.
So, ask yourself now: which of the atomic values is weak at your company?
Don’t expect to be able to truly live your values if these non-negotiable, atomic values are weak. Instead, acknowledge the weak spots and bring them into focus. By strengthening these atomic values, day in and day out, for a period of a few months or a year, you’ll soon see how all the other aspirational values start to work better too.