Author Daniel Cole defines culture as "a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal". According to a Harvard study, companies aspire to have great cultures because they know they are more successful – in fact, 765% more successful over 10 years. The author spent time with successful companies, teams and even a gang of jewellery thieves to uncover how great cultures work. He discovered that a thriving culture might look and feel like magic, but it is not. He discovered that three specific skills created them:
Skill 1. Build Safety
Skill 2. Share Vulnerability
Skill 3. Establish Purpose
All great teams observed by Cole felt like a family. This feeling stems from these observable behaviours:
- Close physical proximity, often in circles
- Profuse amounts of eye contact
- Physical touch (handshakes, hugs, fist bumps)
- Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
- High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone
- Few interruptions
- Lots of questions
- Intensive active listening
- Humour, laughter
- Small, attentive courtesies (thank-you, getting coffee)
Psychological safety is created by making people feel safe through belonging cues that create safe connections in groups. They have three essential qualities:
1. Energy – they invest in the exchange that is occurring.
2. Individualisation – they treat the person as unique and valued.
3. Future orientation – they signal that the relationship will continue.
The data also revealed that successful teams exhibit five measurable factors:
1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
3. Members connect directly with one another – not just with the team leader.
4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
Note that there are no individual skills required. Instead, the success of the team rests on how the team behaves within itself.
Cohesion happens not when people are more competent but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of safe connection. The amygdala plays a part in teams. It is not just the flight or fight response. It also plays a vital role in building social connections. When you receive a belonging cue, it goes into overdrive to build and sustain your bonds. It sets the stage for meaningful interactions with your team.
How To Build Belonging
One of the best NBA coaches is Gregg Popovich. He has an authoritarian style, an old-school air force type with a bad temper, but he can make players who are selfish and lazy excel. How?
He asks questions. What do you think? What would you have done differently? He sticks up for his players and makes the little guys feel like giants – hug 'em and hold 'em. His communication has three belonging cues: -
1. Personal, up-close connection that says, 'I care about you'.
2. Performance feedback that says, 'We have high standards here'.
3. Big-picture perspective and conversations about politics and history that says, 'Life is bigger than basketball'.
The book gives an example of how he took them straight out to dinner after one of their worst defeats. There were no speeches. Instead, he acted as the father of the bride and spoke with everyone individually in intimate conversations. He filled their cups. He didn't rant and rave. R.C Buford says it's the greatest thing he has seen in sports ever.
A common misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, light-hearted places. This is not true. They are energised and engaged, but at their core, they are committed and focused on solving hard problems together, not achieving happiness.
They are characterised by:
1. High candour feedback
2. Uncomfortable truth-telling
3. Identifying where they are and where they need to be
What is the best feedback? Research has discovered 'magical feedback' for students is one sentence:
"I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know you can reach them."
In 19 words, they deliver strong belonging cues:
1. You are part of this group
2. This group is special; we have high standards here
3. I believe you can reach those standards
Design For Belonging
Founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh (who died late November, 2020), had a goal of 1000 'collisionable' hours per year. He defined collisions as "serendipitous personal encounters". He considered them the key driver of creativity, community and cohesion.
This theory is supported by the 'Allen Curve'. In communication theory, the Allen Curve is a graphical representation that reveals the exponential drop in the frequency of communication between engineers as the distance between them increases. It was discovered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Thomas J. Allen in the late 1970s.
Ideas For Action
- Overcommunicate your listening – lean in, nod, make eye contact.
- Spotlight your fallibility early on, especially if you are the leader. Invite input – 'what am I missing here?'; 'what do you think?'. These are not signals of weakness – they are an invitation to create deeper connections.
- Embrace the messenger. Don't shoot them – hug them. Make them feel safe enough to tell you the truth next time.
- Preview future connection. The coach for the St. Louis Cardinals is renowned for his ability to develop young players. He reminds the players that the guy pitching in the world series was sitting exactly where they were three years ago.
- Overdo 'thank you' in words and in writing.
- Be painstaking in the hiring process. Deciding who's in and who's out is one of the strongest signals sent to the group. To ensure they only keep the right people, Zappos has a 2k bonus if they quit after induction (10% do).
- Eliminate bad apples. The most famous example is the 'no dickheads’ policy by the All Blacks rugby union team.
- Create safe, collision-rich spaces. Bank of America discovered that the best way of relieving stress in a call centre is time away from desks to mingle and enjoy lunch with co-workers. Pixar made the same discovery and felt that it was so important that they cancelled their catering contract and produced healthy food at reasonable prices. They realised that the contractor could only make money by decreasing the quality of the food or the service. They aren't bad or greedy people. It's a structural problem. And they wanted to create collisions at lunch rather than people going their separate ways for lunch.
- Make sure everyone has a voice. Sometimes this needs to be forced e.g. "We will hear from everyone on this". Example questions leaders can ask:
1. What do you like most about company?
2. What do you like least?
3. What would you change if you were in charge?
If you do make a change based on the responses, make sure you give the process and the person credit.
- Pick–Up The Trash. An example is the All Blacks value called "sweeping the sheds" where leaders do the menial work, like cleaning and tidying the locker rooms. The author calls this "muscular humility" – a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group.
- Capitalise On Threshold Moments. Maximise the first day of induction, like the Oklahoma NBA team who take new recruits to the museum and reflection pool.
- Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback. No one likes the 'sh*t sandwich'. Positive feedback should be given freely, in bursts. Radiate delight when spotting feedback worth praising. These moments of warm, authentic happiness will function as magnetic north, creating clarity, boosting belonging and orientating future action.
- Embrace Fun. Laughter is not just laughter. It's the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.
Two questions can unlock a group's ability to perform:
1. Anyone have any ideas?
2. Tell me what you want, and I'll help you.
The challenge is that sharing vulnerability goes against our instincts.
The Vulnerability Loop
Imagine being asked these questions :
- Where did you go to school? What was it like?
- Who is your favourite actor or actress?
- Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about something, what would you want to know?
Set B generates confession, discomfort and authenticity that break down barriers between people and tip them into a deeper connection. We intuitively know that vulnerability tends to spark cooperation and trust at some level. "People tend to think of vulnerability in a touchy-feely way, but that's not what's happening," Dr J Polzer says. "It's about sending a clear message that you could use help". He has developed the vulnerability loop:
1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability
2. Person B detects the signal
3. Person B responds by signalling their own vulnerability
4. Person A detects this signal
5. A norm is established, and closeness and trust increases.
Science has shown us that vulnerability doesn't come after trust, it proceeds it.
How to Create Cooperation in Small Groups
Coyle shares the story of Team Six (who captured Osama bin Laden), Navy Seal Dave Cooper. The team followed orders but went about developing contingent plans 'just in case'. Those plans were ultimately required. He says, "When we talk about courage, we think it's going against an enemy with a machine gun. Real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other. People never want to be the person who says, 'Wait a second, what's really going on here?' But inside the squadron, that is the culture, and that's why we were successful."
How to Create Cooperation with Individuals
Roshi Givechi, from international design firm IDEO, is considered, by many, to be the best. She radiates a contended stillness. She uses a process called 'surfacing' where she unearths team tensions and helps them gain clarity about themselves and the project. She says that she is not the conductor of the music but rather the nudger that creates conditions for good things to happen. She is subtle. She disarms people because she is open, listens and cares. She does not let things stay unclear even when they are uncomfortable. In other examples provided, the two qualities that appear are warmth and curiosity. They are polite, reserved and skilled listeners.
Ideas for Action
Be Vulnerable First and Often
Laszlo Bock, former Google exec, recommends people ask these three questions:
1. What is the one thing that I currently do that you'd like me to continue to do?
2. What is the one thing that I don't currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
3. What can I do to make you more effective?
Successful groups do not presume that cooperation will happen on its own. They establish explicit and persistent signals that cooperation is expected. Collaborate and make others successful; going out of your way to help others is the secret sauce.
Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person
It's far easier to deliver negative feedback electronically, but face to face is better as it deals with any tension and creates shared clarity and connection. An example is provided of a baseball team where if a player breaks a rule, they have to buy an expensive bottle of wine and uncork it with their manager. The act of discipline is linked to the act of re-connection.
When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments
1. The first vulnerability
2. The first disagreement
These two set the patterns for what is to come.
Listen Like a Trampoline
Effective listeners do four things:
1. They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported.
2. They take a cooperative helping stance.
3. They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge assumptions.
4. They make occasional suggestions to open alternative paths.
In Conversation, Resist the Temptation to Reflexivity Add Value
Skilled listeners do not interrupt with suggestions.
Use Candor-Generating Practices
A good after-action review uses these five questions:
1. What were our intended results?
2. What were our actual results?
3. What caused our results?
4. What will we do the same next time?
5. What will do differently?
Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty
It's a fine line, but people's feelings shouldn't be trampled.
In creating processes around vulnerability, teams struggle with emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency. There is awkwardness, and people's instincts will be to move on quickly. The pain is necessary to build a stronger team.
Align Language with Action
Groups at Pixar do not offer 'notes' on colleagues' work, they 'plus' them by offering solutions to problems. 'Project Managers' become 'Design Community Leaders'. The language matters as it continually highlights the cooperative, interconnected nature of the team.
Build a Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development
Linking the two muddies the waters. People should receive frequent yet separate feedback designed to provide them with a vivid performance snapshot and a path for improvement.
Use Flash Mentoring
You pick someone you want to learn from and follow them for a few hours.
Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear
The greatest teams are better at figuring out what they need to do on their own. The All Blacks build it in by having senior players lead sessions without input from the coaches.
The first two skills – building safety and sharing vulnerability – create an environment that ensures people feel safe and know that risks are shared. The last piece of the puzzle is this:
- What is it all for?
- What are we working towards?
Purpose isn't mythical; it's about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on a shared goal. Strong cultures tell their stories constantly and consistently.
Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental modes that drive behaviour. Our brains light up like Las Vegas when we hear stories. The deeper neurological truth is that stories do not cloak reality but create it, triggering cascades of perception and motivation.
One of the best measures of any group's culture is its learning velocity – how quickly it improves the performance of a new skill. Amy Edmondson discovered that there are five signals that determine whether they learn and succeed or not:
1. Framing. Successful teams saw new challenges as learning experiences that would benefit them. Unsuccessful teams viewed it as something else to do.
2. Roles. Good teams explained their roles and why it was important that they worked together as a team using their collective skill. Unsuccessful teams did not.
3. Rehearsal. Successful teams did elaborate dry runs. They prepared in detail, and explained new protocols. Unsuccessful teams did not.
4. Explicit encouragement to speak up. Successful teams were encouraged to speak up if they had a problem. They were coached through the feedback process. Unsuccessful teams did little coaching and, as a result, were hesitant to speak up.
5. Active Reflection. Successful teams went over performance, and suggested improvements. Unsuccessful teams didn't do this.
Note what is not on this list – experience, status, and organisational performance. What seems like repetition is navigation.
What Makes A High Performance Environment
1. Steady, ultra-clear signals aligned to a shared goal – not so much one big signal.
2. Less about inspiration and more about consistency.
3. Not big speeches, but everyday moments when people can sense the message; this is why we work; this is what we are aiming for.
How To Lead For Proficiency
Example of Union Square Café. They achieved their differentiation strategy of 'enlightened hospitality' through a synergistic set of human resource management practices:
1. Employee selection is based on emotional capabilities.
2. Respectful treatment of employees.
3. Management through a simple set of rules that simulate complex and intricate behaviours benefiting customers.
Many high performing groups focus on creating priorities, naming keystone behaviours and flooding the environment with heuristics that link the two. The All Blacks have these examples:
1. Leave the jersey in a better place
2. Keeping a 'blue-head' as opposed to a 'red-head' (calmness under pressure)
3. Pressure is a privilege
4. KBA – keep the ball alive
5. It's an honour not a job
How To Lead For Creativity
Some leaders, like those at the All Blacks, use a lighthouse method: they create purpose by generating a clear beam of signals to get from A to B. That isn't always the goal. Some companies need to get to an unknown destination. This requires creativity and innovation.
Ed Catmull of Pixar is a passionate admirer of the Japanese concept of Kaizen (continual improvement). Catmull is congenitally wary of mottos and catchphrases, but there are a few lasting 'Ed-isms' at Pixar:-
- Hire people smarter than you
- Fail early, fail often
- Listen to everyone's ideas
- Face toward the problem
- B-level work is bad for your soul
It's More Important To Invest In Good People Than In Good Ideas.
As opposed to the lighthouse approach, creative and innovative companies need an engineer of the ship; not to steer it but to rove around below deck, check for leaks, change pistons, and put a bit of oil here and there. For Catmull, leading is problem-solving.
Ideas For Action
- Name and rank your priorities
- Be 10 times clearer about your priorities as you think you should be
- Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity – they need different approaches to leadership
- Embrace the use of catchphrases
- Measure what really matters
- Use artefacts
- Focus on bar-setting behaviours (which are usually small and go unnoticed in other cultures).
A successful culture requires safety, vulnerability and purpose.
They may seem trivial, basic even, but they need to be relentlessly and vigorously applied throughout the team to work.
Belonging Cues: 1. Behaviours that create safe connections in groups.
Collisions: 1. Serendipitous personal encounters that drive creativity, community, and cohesion.
Culture: 1. From the Latin word 'cultus', which means care. 2. A set of living relationships working toward a shared goal.
Muscular Humility: 1. A mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group.
Psychological Safety: 1. When our brains stop worrying about dangers and sift into connection mode.
Purpose: 1. Creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on a shared goal.