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Conquer The Last 8% Of A High-Performance Culture

In the journey to team success, confronting our fears, taking risks, and communicating effectively are crucial steps. Yet, how often do we avoid having the hard conversation or making the tough decision? We’ve all been in those moments when we know what we should do, and still we don’t do it. 

Research by this week’s guest, Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry, President and Founder of Institute for Health and Human Potential, shows that we do well up to 92%, but struggle with the remaining 8% that involves putting ourselves at social risk. This need for self protection can hinder high performance despite risk-taking being a key to success.

JP unpacks how managers can foster a culture in which everyone can step into the discomfort zone and conquer the 8% that makes the difference between good and great.

Cortisol and Courage Form a High-Performance Culture

The human brain defaults to safety even when we’re not a physical risk. In fact, JP explained that the risk of social death is more scary to us than physical pain. The mental conflict between the need for risk-taking and the brain's default to protection needs an antidote. The remedy is both internal and external. Individuals need skills to be courageous and the culture must normalize being bold and taking risks. 

The challenge lies in high-stress situations, what JP calls a “last 8% moment”, in which cortisol levels surge in the brain, enhancing memory formation. The leader's responses during these moments leave lasting impressions on their team members. It’s these stories that ultimately form the team's culture. Due to the cortisol effect, these memories are much more powerful in shaping the culture than the values displayed on a website.  

To avoid the cortisol trap, leaders need the right skills. JP suggests managers gain the self-awareness to navigate these difficult moments with intention. Understanding your physical signals of stress, like a hot forehead or pit in your stomach, can help you notice when you’re in a last 8% moment. It’s also important to know your natural response to these situations. Do you avoid saying what needs to be said or make a mess by being overly aggressive? Once you have this self knowledge, you can begin acting in ways that foster a positive culture. 

Building a Last 8% Culture

JP argues that culture isn't a singular experience that permeates an organization; it is formed and thrives within teams. This means that a culture marked by high accountability and care isn't the sole responsibility of the CEO or CHRO to construct. Instead, culture is modeled and taught by leaders within the team, and those leaders need the skills to create and maintain a high performance environment.

In a high-performing team, a "last 8% culture" is built on high connection (ensuring psychological safety and valuing each voice) and high courage (embracing risk-taking). It’s about striking a balance between care, accountability, and risk-taking. This blend is what paves the way for optimal team performance.

JP’s research led to the development of a culture map which has four quadrants: low connection and high courage (transactional), high connection and low courage (family), high connection and high courage (the last 8%), and low connection and low courage (fear-based). Using this map as a guide, leaders can pinpoint what type of culture currently exists and work on improving their team’s connection and/or courage as they move to a last 8% culture.

Specifically, there are two norms that JP recommends every team embrace: Be curious and speak up. We must always start with genuine curiosity. Before speaking up, we must first understand the other person's perspective. This creates an environment in which it is safe to share openly and honestly. By first listening, we help the person feel heard and valued, and gain the information we need for a thoughtful response. Only then should we speak up and share openly from our perspective. 

Unlock Your Team’s Potential

As managers, fostering a last 8% culture on your team can unlock high performance. It starts with you modeling curiosity and being courageous during those hard moments. When you step into an 8% moment and act with intention, you move one step closer to a high performance culture. By fostering psychological safety and encouraging risk-taking, you can cultivate an environment that enhances team performance to its fullest potential.

Listen to the entire episode HERE to learn more about conflict management.

Keep up with Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry

- Follow Dr. JP on LinkedIn here

- Visit the Last Eight Percent website here

- Subscribe to the Last 8% Morning podcast here

Guest Bonus: 15% off Live Online Science of Emotional Intelligence Program

Members get 15% off the live, online Science of Emotional Intelligence program by Last Eight Percent. This program teaches you the most important skill to have in your toolkit – Emotional Intelligence. Their blended approach to learning combines pre-work, program materials, and homework assignments in their Learning Management System (LMS) with three 2-hour live online video meetings for an enriching and truly collaborative group experience.

Get this guest bonus and many other member benefits when you join The Modern Manager Podcast+ Community.


The Modern Manager is a leadership podcast for rockstar managers who want to create a working environment where people thrive, and great work gets done.

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