In his 2018 best-selling book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle highlights the primary keys to successful group engagements.
For social-impact organizations working with (and for) both internal and external stakeholders, it is critical to understand and internalize the lessons outlined in this book. Here’s a rundown of the basics of Coyle’s research findings to give you a jump start on integrating these concepts into your workplace.
Three key characteristics of successful teams
Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?
Through his years of research and interviews with leaders of well-known, highly successful groups, Coyle sought to determine why certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less. Here are some of the common threads uncovered in his research:
- Safety. Successful teams demonstrate a constant display of “belonging cues” that signal to team members that they are safe and solidly connected. These cues include team members using eye contact, being attentive to one another, and embracing a collective sense of humor. Your role in building safety extends all the way from asking for feedback—and being willing to change as a result of what you hear—to mixing up where you sit during meetings to create a culture where everyone talks to everyone.
- Vulnerability. According to Coyle, “groups that intentionally create awkward, painful interactions that look like the opposite of smooth interaction … generate highly cohesive, trusting behavior necessary for smooth cooperation.” Yes, this means we must embrace failure as a way to build trust. For example, when someone shows vulnerability (“I don’t think we’re going to reach this goal” or “I’m unclear on my expected contributions”), your best first step is to reciprocate. When a colleague falters, support them just as if they had succeeded—with high fives, a smile, and an examination of what went wrong so you can all learn from it for next time. Foster team interdependence by inviting others to poke holes in your plans in order to make them stronger and more resilient.
- Shared purpose. A successful group understands not only where they are now, but exactly where they are headed. This comes as a result of frequent reminders, described by Coyle as “simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal.” In this case, frequent means daily, not annually. Your team’s priorities should be extremely clear. If they are not, you should ask your manager what they are. And in order to make sure that you all reach the goal together, prioritize relationship building as part of your own professional development.
You can contribute to a cohesive culture, even if you’re not a team leader
The elements that foster a cohesive and productive culture may be different than what you might have expected; there’s no talk of strategic goals, metrics, or operations here. Imagine, then, what it’s like to be the leader who wants to integrate these lessons into your organization.
Leading in this way—with vulnerability and openness—can be difficult for even the most seasoned managers. By changing your expectations of your manager, you can support them in being the kind of leader who is empowered to build these key tenets into your culture. Don’t expect your manager to:
- Have all of the answers
- Be perfect
- Solve problems immediately or make all of the decisions
- Play favorites among team members
- Avoid giving you feedback or telling hard truths
- Reward blind authority
- Manage all of the details
Instead, a savvy manager seeking to build a successful group culture will often stand back so that others can lead, ask others for their opinions to get all ideas on the table, and openly invite feedback in order to improve. As long as things seem to be going well and your team is on track, it’s okay to go with the flow even if it feels like an unfamiliar strategy.
The Culture Code: A must-read for your entire team
Full of vivid stories, The Culture Code represents a shift in how we each contribute to a strong, cohesive culture. It requires us all to bring more authenticity to our workplace and support our teammates in doing the same, asks us to set aside hierarchical structures, and debunks the assumption that we all understand where we’re headed after a single PowerPoint presentation from the CEO. Instead, these stories make it clear that success is built from shared experiences, shared understanding, and shared vulnerability, every day.
All of these new concepts mean this book a must-read for your entire team. Suggest it at a team meeting or ask your manager if you can set aside group time for reading and discussion. What would it be like to work in a culture characterized by safety, vulnerability, and a clear shared purpose? The best way to find out is to start creating it today.
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Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.