When High Performance Turns Toxic


We asked about building high performance project teams and found a recurring theme of brutal cultures and mental health issues

Whilst this CEO was interested in leadership on major projects, (big budget infrastructure, engineering and IT projects for example), we see a similar pattern in many sectors. The lessons are universal. They apply outside the project world too.

Toxic cultures stymie high performance – it’s hardly newsworthy. How come these dynamics persist – even when leaders are charged with monitoring well-being? What are we missing? What can leaders do to improve success rates?

In this extract from a podcast with Collin Smith, CEO of ICCPM, I explore how neuroscience helps answer these questions.

He sets the scene talking about the toxic cultures identified in ICCPM’s Roundtable Research.

Toxic cultures and mental health

Teams in bigger and more complex projects often have a battle rhythm characterized by cognitive overload, decision fatigue, day in day out conflict and excessive stress. This results in poor mental health or even PTSD like symptoms

Unfortunately, there’s a trend: leaders in these projects keep pushing and pushing – to the detriment of their own mental health and that of their teams. And productivity suffers.

Although these project leaders are responsible for monitoring staff well-being, at times they seem to exhibit a pride in the scar tissue they’ve acquired over decades. They tend to baton down the hatches, crack the whip and crank up the stress to get things done.

Yet our research tells us, when complex projects really get tough the opposite is needed. We need leaders at their very best in terms of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and adaptability.

We need leaders who, despite the overload and stress, can slow down rather than becoming more transactional and process driven.


That’s where the book Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience is so useful.

It talks about the human brain and how it functions, how social threat causes arousal which increases complexity, and how complexity has an impact on productivity.

Can you share some insights




Insights from neuroscience

Carole: Let me start by talking about how the brain works. When I started learning about the human brain, there were quite a few things that were new to me.

When somebody said to me ‘your brain’s number one function is to ensure your survival’ – it had simply never occurred to me before.

We’re all really familiar with the notion of the fight and flight response. We know that if we’re under extreme pressure or exposed to some kind of threat, our fight and flight response kicks in. But we only really know it in relation to physical threat. If a car comes swerving towards us down the road, we expect our fight and flight response to kick in. We know we go into autopilot- we do what’s needed in order to survive.

The idea that the brain is also wired to look for social threat to ensure survival, was new to me. And what’s more, the brain does not make any distinction between the two.”

The brain doesn’t distinguish physical and social threat

Collin: That was one of the key points I got from the book. The brain doesn’t make it any distinction between physical and social threat. It was a real Ah ha moment for me.

Carole: It’s quite jaw dropping isn’t it? And we don’t really talk about social threat.

So, for example here in the UK and much of the West there’s a fair degree of health and safety legislation. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be. But there’s not much discourse in organisations about social threat.

We don’t need to go into the detail about all the sources of social threat but here are a couple of illustrations.

We are acutely sensitized to social threat – for example, loss of status. You go into a meeting and someone addresses you in a way that makes you feel as if you’re on the back foot. It might not be intentional, but it can trigger something and make you feel a bit anxious.

Another one is uncertainty. The human brain loves certainty. Yet so much of what we’re dealing with on complex projects is uncertain and the stakes on these projects are so high.

Picture this, you get bad news from a stakeholder. They want to change something related to your project. All the things which seemed certain suddenly become uncertain. There’s a sharp intake of breath – you’ve been triggered. All of a sudden you’re anxious.

In the book I talk about the part of your brain which is very rational and very logical, the Thinking brain. Any of these social threats can to some extent, or even a great extent, take your Thinking brain offline.

It doesn’t have to be rational.  There doesn’t even have to be a real threat out there.

We’re constantly scanning what’s going on around us.  It’s about what we pick up, and how we relate it to previous experiences which may have been threatening.  All this is done below the level of consciousness.  We make connections and these dictate our responses.”

The dynamics of brutal cultures

Now let’s connect this to the brutal culture, mental health and well-being stuff that you spoke about.

Many leaders of major projects are under constant stress most of the time. Their brains are wired to be looking out for things they need to avoid. In other words, their Thinking brains are offline. And we know when Thinking brains are offline, we see things less clearly. If we can’t really see what’s going on, we start making assumptions about what is actually happening. We’re wired for survival.

The fight/ flight reflex says it all. If we’re not going to run away, we may well start fighting. And of course, that increases stress levels, and makes a brutal culture far more brutal.

Collin: And, unless you can step out of that, or identify when it is happening, you can find yourself in a self-perpetuating cycle. One of the key skills is to be able to sense when people, (including oneself) are stressed to that extent and knowing how to step out of it.


Breaking the toxic cycle starts with self-awareness

Carole: I argue it’s not one of the key skills. Having self-awareness is THE key skill. You need to be able to ask, at any time – ‘what is going on for me right now?’

What’s going on for me, means working out how I’m feeling about this

Note I use the Feeling word, which doesn’t feature in many business conversations, because answering this question helps to bring our Thinking brains online.

Once you know how you’re feeling, you can consider how other people might be feeling too. You can then move on to consider what do I have to do to

  1. bring my Thinking brain online?
  2. bring their Thinking brains online?’


Thinking brains have to be online

Our Thinking brains have to be online for us to be able to collaborate well, be high performing and motivated

They have to be online for us to inspire people and learn well.

If we’re in the brutal culture you spoke about before, where people are cracking the whip, the fight and flight response will be evoked all the time. Nobody will be feeling very good or thinking very clearly. The decisions we make will not be the right ones and performance will suffer.


Image by Sebastiaan Stam on unsplash