It’s time to kick ass!
The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
Our team has been going on for a year and a half at this point. Somehow, I expected that by now our organization’s structure and goals would be clear and easy to work on. I expected wrong. For the past year or so, I feel we’ve been going mostly downhill both in teamwork and business. The biggest dysfunction probably being our unpleasant organization culture. The book Culture Code well summarizes it; if the atmosphere is tense and thick, the members are focusing on the wrong things. To be honest, I don’t really know how to feel about this statement considering our team. I do support the idea, but at the same time I feel we have focused as a team on the right things. Then again, have we all committed to the same things? Yes, we have recognized the problems and yes, we’ve spent countless hours trying to make it all work, but so far, the results aren’t flattering. And even after all this, somehow there still exists hope of a better tomorrow. I have already written how leadership and self-development play a leading role in a well-functioning organization, but now I will get more into the ground level of how a successful organization culture can be built. And here are some insights from the Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.
As said, our culture has been very oppressive, which has led to a state of stagnation and uncertainty. Many members have started questioning the whole “being in the right place” thought. One major stumbling block to our teamwork has been the lack of a mutual direction and goal. The first half a year we did pretty much enjoy of a honeymoon phase and we had somewhat structured mission along with a vision that we worked towards together. But after the first summer spent mostly apart, we had to start rebuilding our team in the autumn again. When it didn’t happen in a heartbeat, frustration and anxiety started raising their heads; why aren’t we “doing” anything? By the end of last year, we had a recipe of disaster on our hands. Rather than paying attention to the quality of our actions, we struggled to determine our positions within the team and spent time worrying about our own statuses. This took our focus off the work at hand and everything started becoming a question of whose idea can be criticized and rules were open for debate.
Peter Skillman, an engineer, carried out a study. The aim was to build the tallest possible structure using uncooked spaghetti, a yard of string, glue and a single marshmallow. The teams competing with each other were a group of kindergartners, business students and lawyers. You’d think the students and lawyers are not only smarter, but also more talented in various ways compared to the small kids. Well, not in this case. Most of the times the kindergartners won, because they didn’t waste time in analyzing the task, discussing what is the best strategy or build chains of command. They started solving the problem with curious minds and after one experiment failed, they tried another one. This is something we have discussed also in our team. Instead of doing together and building our culture from the actions (that we should be practicing at all times), we spend all the time we have together as a team analyzing our strategies and building possible scenarios based on the actions we have yet taken.
Whereas most of us would succeed in a complex task if it was carried through at our own home rather than a room full of strangers, a team succeeds also better in a safe surrounding. Now what is safety? One thing in our team we have learnt is that a single word everyone usually takes for granted, might actually mean a whole different thing depending on the recipient. Safety is a strength and a necessity for a well-functioning team, but how should it be experienced? The book defines safety as a sense of familiarity and connections which in return creates a trust of no danger lurking around to cause harm to anyone. If a team manages to nurture this feeling, not only does the trust within a team build ever stronger but it boosts individual performance!
Even if the overall sense of safety is well built, a single “bad apple” may water down the positivity inside the team. It is true not all individuals work equally well on a chemistry level, but if there are certain individuals who can cause fuss with their attitude, how should this be met? According to a professor from the University of South Eales, Will Felps, consistently countering a bad attitude with warmth and positivity works much better and more far-reaching than ignoring or blaming the ill behaving individual. And this all comes down to the receival of belonging cues that establish safety. In another study carried out by Alex Pentland from the MIT Media Lab it was discovered that interaction between individuals had a bigger impact in building the sense of safety, rather than what was said between one another. The interaction included eye contact, mimicry and physical proximity. This all tracks back to the human brain being built to be constantly alert for danger and looking out for signs of danger.
Founder of the behavior consultancy company Humanyze, Ben Waber has shared his insights of teams that have successfully built a safe environment. The first notion is that people not only listen, but they really show that they are listening. This includes keeping an intense eye contact with the one who’s speaking and using words of affirmation like “right”, “uh-huh” and so on. Secondly, people who show their own incompleteness and lay out on the open their weaknesses set an optimal ground for safety. Not only because of building up the safe environment should individuals show their weaknesses, but also because it causes mirroring inside the team.
Mirroring means picking up behavior that others carry out. Once the space is made for showing vulnerability and weaknesses it multiplies and becomes a habit to the one’s included in that space. Rather than driving people to feel more insecure or not trusting themselves or others, this both builds trust and allows individuals to develop themselves and their know-how much more, than exaggerating or showing off to make a point and seem more competent. Also, displaying personal vulnerability and that way admitting that an individual needs help at times from the others results in co-operation and that again results in more fruitful outcomes. A great example is the plane crash in 1989 by Al Haynes. Mid-flight an engine exploded and rather than trying to cope with situation alone, the pilot asked help from others who again asked help from others. Despite 100 people dying, a little less 200 were saved. This accident was simulated later on multiple times and not a single scenario resulted in saving as many lives as the crew that day did.
A sense of purpose is at simplest a set of beliefs and values backing up peoples’ actions. It shapes a team’s identity and shows to the outside world what it stands for. Co-operative cultures can’t do without it. Through a shared sense of purpose, the behavior of individuals in a team is aligned. Because this shared purpose is so vastly important, companies often try to build a high-purpose environment. This means that the action of the team and individuals are guided by a repeated purpose that is the one thing, that should be on top of everyone’s mind. It can be visualized as a bridge creating a continuum from present to the future. And whereas a visual of a goal can be more effective to clarify it and keep it at mind, a story may be even more powerful. Stories in general actively engage the human mind to pondering on the cause and effect rather than just facts or statistics.
Phew, quite something isn’t it? Just writing this essay and knowing tomorrow we have an important training session coming ahead of our team’s vision, I can take all of this knowledge to use and see how it works out. I’m not waiting for a miracle, but I can do my part to show the way. As a final observation from this book, building a successful team is pretty much of repetition and training. And along training comes falling, getting back up and finally kicking some ass!