People Science
4 min read

How to build a high performing culture: Understanding Tomo


Alexis Croswell

Senior Content Marketing Manager, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 4 minutes

At the Culture First conference, Lindsay McGregor’s keynote answered three questions:

  1. What do we mean by “high performance” in an individual or an organization?
  2. What drives high performance?
  3. How do you build a culture that leads to high performance?

Defining high performance

Lindsay explains that there are two types of performance:

  1. Tactical performance. This comes from your strategy and should lay out a plan for achieving your goals.
  2. Adaptive performance. This is how well you can be creative and innovative, your ability to adapt in the moment when there is no plan to follow.

To help us understand these definitions, Lindsay provides the example of a call center:

“Have you ever been on the phone with somebody who’s reading a script to you? How does that feel? Painful. That’s a call center that has doubled down so much on the tactical performance that they’ve started to destroy people’s ability to adapt.”

“I’m guessing you’ve also been on a customer service call where you’ve asked three different representatives the same question and gotten three different answers. That’s the call center that has not spent enough time on their tactical performance. Everybody has to adapt.”

“We show tactical and adaptive performance as a yin and yang because they’re in fact opposites. And if you double down too much on one you start to destroy the other.”

Organizations must find the balance between tactical and adaptive performance in order to get high performance.

What drives performance: The motive spectrum

“There’s only one way to get both tactical and adaptive performance,” says Lindsay. Why we work determines how well we work. Lindsay shares six motives (the result of 50 plus years of research) that drive our performance. Direct motives are related to the work we do, while indirect motives are not connected to the work itself.

Direct motives

  1. Play: When you’re working or doing an act an activity simply because you love the activity itself.
  2. Purpose: When you’re working because you deeply care about the impact of your work.
  3. Potential: When you’re working because of some second order outcome of the work. Typically in the workplace this means that the job will enhance your own potential.

Indirect motives

  1. Emotional pressure: When you’re working due to guilt, shame or fear of missing out.
  2. Economic pressure: When you’re working because of a reward or to avoid a punishment.
  3. Inertia: When you’re showing up for work “today”because you showed up “yesterday” and you can’t actually explain why you’re there.

How do you put all of this into practice?

“If you have lots of play, purpose, and potential and very little emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia – that drives adaptive performance,” says Lindsay. All of these motives are put together in a framework known as Total Motivation, “Tomo” for short.

Building a culture that leads to high performance

The highest performing cultures are built upon the psychology of total motivation. Lindsay and her team researched Tomo in thousands of people and over 50 major US companies to identify different systems within companies that affect total motivation.

Here’s what matters when it comes to creating high Tomo:

  • How individual roles are designed
  • How performance management systems are shaped
  • How teams work together within an organization
  • Leaders that help each team member find play, purpose, and potential in their work

“Tomo doesn’t mean that you have to be in low stakes low pressure situations,” says Lindsay, “It means that when we have a difficult challenge we should dramatically try to reduce the emotional and economic pressure you feel. You can have very high stakes and turn that into a deep sense of purpose instead of a deep sense of anxiety.”


Want to learn more from Lindsay?

Click here to watch the full video


In the full keynote you’ll learn:

  • The defining details of an 1805 naval battle of where using adaptive performance strategies secured an unlikely victory for Britain
  • How Lindsay’s team helped a bank increase Tomo among employees
  • The results of an audience experiment on changing motivations
  • The story of the cobra effect and maladaptive performance
  • Why Microsoft’s performance review system failed
  • Examples of companies with high and low Tomo
  • What Toyota taught GM about motivating employees