Our clients are desperate to build high performance cultures.  Unfortunately, most efforts to do so only cause division and anxiety.  The reality is that teams cannot flourish if they do not feel safe.

Daniel Coyle knows the secrets to building a great culture and has outlined his findings in The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.  Coyle spent four years researching some of the most successful groups on the planet, groups like the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, a Navy SEAL team and the PIXAR movie studio.  Reading The Culture Code will change what you think culture is all about.

For Coyle, the secret lies in trust, empowerment, collaboration, engagement, respect, encouragement and learning – a humanistic approach rather than a systematised approach to culture and an approach which has ‘care’ for others, self and outcomes as its foundation.

What Coyle discovered is that the most successful cultures consistently demonstrate a common set of social skills that mimic the actions and free minds of children who, during experiments, consistently outperformed older, more intellectually and professionally developed groups – like we advocate in our work, the disciplinary expert is not sufficient to solve our complex, multifaceted problems and their linear problem solving does not leverage the diverse thinking required for true innovation and progress.

Coyle identified three core social skills that build successful social interactions.  These skills require the use of our ‘social brains’ more so than our ‘intellectual or cerebral brains’.  In this sense, EQ is replacing IQ as the driver of success and high performance. Sounding much like Dan Pink or Simon Sinek, the three core social skills identified by Coyle were:

  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

With these skills in mind, Coyle describes culture as:

 “A set of living relationships working together toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

Previously, when I thought about organisational culture and how to build or develop one, the logical and academic part of my brain went straight to the Cultural Web developed by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes in 1992. This web is made up of 7 elements: Paradigm; Stories; Rituals and Routines; Symbols; Organisational Structure; Control Systems; and lastly, Power Structures.

The Cultural Web is a valid framework to build or shape an organisation’s culture, however, it can be a lot to juggle, risks dehumanising relationships and can inadvertently pass on legacy behaviours. Conversely, Coyle has made building a successful culture about people, relationships and connections, about a sense of belonging and empowerment.  Mirroring Coyle’s words, we stress that the role of leaders is to make people feel valued, that they matter to the success of the team, that they are safe and that they have a future with the team.

Coyle writes that the word ‘culture’ originates from the Latin ‘cultus’ meaning ‘care’. This really helps to simplify culture and what leaders should try to demonstrate.  At its core, the book is about embracing the uniqueness of an individual, group or team and providing an environment where they can flourish and be expansive to reach their maximum potential.

In fact, according to a Harvard study of more than 200 companies, a strong culture increased net income by over 750% over a 10-year period.  For Coyle, highly successful cultures are ones that do not constrain, stifle, impose, or heavily regulate people.  Yes, we still need systems and processes to get the work done, but as we like to say, a strong culture overcomes broken processes.

In his book, Coyle discusses an experiment by Peter Skillman to build the tallest structure using spaghetti sticks.  Skillman discovered that kindergarten students constantly outperformed better credentialed groups by “trying a bunch of stuff, together.”  Business school students, CEOs, lawyers and others who are often described as “professional, rational, and intelligent” were vastly outperformed by the children.  As described above, disciplinary experts are outperformed by people working as a team and leveraging diverse thinking – where people feel safe (and valued) to contribute.

As we have all seen, it is often the best teams that win rather than the best group of highly skilled individuals.  And according to research, if people aren’t playing ball, so to speak, they can have a negative impact on performance. Coyle talks about an experiment by Will Felps at the University of NSW where he planted ‘bad apples’ in groups – ‘Jerk’, ‘Slacker’ or ‘Downer’ – and found that there was a consistent reduction in group performance by 30 – 40 %.  It was also discovered that using positive body language acts as an antidote – leaning forward, a laugh, a smile, reacting with warmth, deflecting negativity – as it takes risk out of the room and helps make it safe; the first of Coyle’s three social skills.

When trying to build a safe environment that encourages high performance, Coyle lists the following:

  1. Encourage close physical proximity through the use of group circles
  2. Encourage lots of appropriate eye contact
  3. Allow lots of questions with a focus on learning
  4. Make talking short and sweet
  5. Use humour and laughter

Over and over, we see dysfunctional groups that do not know how to collaborate safely or get the best out of the people in the room – despite their mediocre performance, low engagement scores and poor productivity they still believe that today’s complex and ambiguous problems can be solved by a group of individuals, sitting together, but working (and thinking) in isolation.

Coyle is impressed by Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame, who set up spaces for frequent interactions or, as he puts it “collisions” where people are encouraged to mix because from those conversations or collisions, comes “creativity, community and cohesion,” creating an environment where it’s “safe to be here”.  MIT professor, Thomas Allen, creator of The Allen Curve, found that visual contact is very important and that workers who shared a location finished projects 32% quicker.

A big part of creating a safe environment is showing vulnerability and a big part of showing vulnerability is the presence of trust. What we now know is that vulnerability precedes trust, not the other way around.  So often we hear leaders say that they can only show their vulnerability when they trust their team.  Science tells us that vulnerability is key to building trust, it’s what Coyle describes as “relationships of mutual risk”.

“Exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.”

One of the obstacles to building a strong culture is our human (and incredibly strong) authority bias but as Coyle explains we can undermine this via distributed leadership, where there are multiple leaders, where everyone gets to have a say, where people are part of something greater than themselves and “in it together”.  In this environment it is safe to challenge and contributions are valued because they expand the groups’ potential.  Such a culture can make even the most mundane of roles enjoyable because people have a sense of how their roles contribute to the greater goal, that their work is acknowledged and appreciated as valuable and that even in the toughest or busiest of moments, they are all in it together.

In trying to integrate vulnerability into a culture, Coyle recommends the following:

  1. Make sure the leader is vulnerable – and do it often
  2. Over communicate expectations to help embed new behaviours – leaders vastly overestimate the penetration of expectations into the team’s consciousness
  3. When forming new groups, focus on the first vulnerability moment (like the first team meeting) and the first disagreement moment – and ensure that people feel safe to put forward opinions
  4. In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value – it takes great care to listen well
  5. Build forums aimed at eliciting honest and candid feedback on the team’s progress – again, ensure people feel safe to critique collective efforts – this helped PIXAR transform failing movies into billion-dollar successes
  6. Ensure the leader occasionally disappears – Dave Cooper of the Navy SEALs says, “The best teams tended to be the ones I wasn’t involved with, especially when it came to training … they were better at figuring out what they needed than I could ever be.”

The subject we explore with clients, more than any other, is that of ‘purpose’.  And so it is for Coyle that he describes the establishing of purpose as core to building a high performing culture – as Simon Sinek describes, it is the ‘why’ of our work, the cause or mission.  We describe purpose as the lens through which everything we do is evaluated, aligning and unifying all efforts.  Purpose is paramount for any group because it allows it to adapt, navigate and flourish in a rapidly changing world.

Johnson & Johnson established its purpose in the 1940s and captured it in a ‘credo’.  It is a lens that directs decision-making and led to the recall of 31-million Tylenol bottles across America, costing $100-million. The decision to recall products that had been poisoned, post-manufacture, was taken against all professional advice by the CEO at the time, James E Burke.  Years earlier Burke challenged his fellow executives to either recommit to the credo or “tear it off the walls because it’s an act of pretension to leave it there.”  Johnson & Johnson’s actions became the benchmark for crisis management and won so much trust (and eventual market share) that validates the importance of being true to your purpose.

In Coyle’s research, one of the ways to drive the right behaviours is to define and articulate what they are.  This is the essence of our Culture Workshops – when organisations are throwing money at agencies to come up with marketing slogans, we are showing that performance is correlated with observable, measurable behaviours (not values and certainly not slogans). Coyle talks of ‘heuristics’, cognitive short-cuts that help people know what the right behaviour is, “a simple set of rules that stimulate complex and intricate behaviours.”  Coyle shares examples like; read the customer; relentless execution; love the problem; make a charitable assumption; put us out of business with your generosity and; be an agent not a gatekeeper.  Whatever behaviours you are trying to drive it is critical that they support and give effect to your purpose.

In trying to establish purpose, Coyle recommends the following:

  1. Be ten-times as clear about priorities as you think you should be – 64% of executives think staff can name top priorities but only 2 % can
  2. Embrace the use of heuristics – make it crystal clear what behaviours are acceptable and what are not; which behaviours are helpful and which are harmful
  3. Measure what matters – as the Royal Commission into the Banking and Financial Services Industry has taught us, ensure you are driving the right behaviours
  4. Focus on bar setting behaviours – always link them back to delivering on your purpose

Cultures that focus on building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing a clear purpose are the most successful ones – they are more connected, creative, innovative, cohesive and communal – they safely challenge and embrace differences and discomfort, they have many leaders not just one and, they consistently demonstrate the right behaviours that help them to deliver on their purpose.

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