Ny bog om team-kultur: “The Culture Code”

Boganmeldelse af Simon Tulloch, psykolog og chefkonsulent, Dansk Selskab for Patientsikkerhed

Over the last few months, I have noticed that Amy Edmondson (Harvard Profession and psychological safety ‘guru’) was regularly sharing on twitter passages and personal reflections from a book. The book was called ‘The Culture Code’ written by Daniel Coyle, and the snippets I saw inspired me to read the book myself.

The focus of the book is team culture and focuses on questions such as ‘What makes some teams high functioning and high performing, whilst others are not?’, ‘Where does great culture come from?’, ‘How do you build and sustain it in your group, or strengthen a culture that needs fixing?’

Coyle states that the aim of the book is to demystify the culture-building process by identifying the key skills that generate cohesion and cooperation, and explain how diverse groups learn to function effectively and efficiently. Drawing on examples from various industries and referring to a myriad of research evidence, Coyle offers specific strategies that trigger learning, spark collaboration, build trust, and drive positive change.

Fundamentally, Coyle argues that the critical factors that successful teams share are, firstly, they build safety, secondly, they share vulnerability, and thirdly, they establish purpose. Below is a quick taste of these factors:

1. Build a safe environment

“Groups succeed not because its members are smarter but because they are safer.”

Coyle suggests that the first platform to work on for highly successful teams is the building of safety, as it is “the foundation on which strong culture is built”. People have always needed to belong to their tribe and whether we are conscious of this or not, humans are obsessed with the one critical question: ‘Am I safe here?’ Coyle cites Amy Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety as a means of understanding this better: “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Most of us would probably agree that we’re more likely to participate in discussions and team collaborations when we’re in an environment that makes us feel safe, and with people who make us feel safe. This makes sense; if we’re not constantly worried about how we look or whether we can behave as we naturally would, we can better focus on the tasks at hand.

So how can you create an environment that feels safe for your team members (and for you)? As Coyle explains, even the simplest of gestures can make a huge impact.  Based on research by Alex Pentland at MIT’s media lab found, it is possible to observe people’s body language, and within five minutes, accurately predict the outcomes of interactions (negotiations). That’s because how close we are to our co-workers, whether we mimic their behaviour, and look into their eyes, are instant ‘tells’ of how safe we feel. Therefore, one good way to make others feel safer is to confirm you understand what they’re telling you by occasionally interjecting affirmations. Just don’t interrupt them.

These gestures may seem insignificant, but they’re actually foundational communication skills that show others you’re listening and that what they say matters. What was fascinating about those groups that built safety, is that they are also robust with their feedback and have high expectations because they share ‘belonging cues’, which Coyle describes as: “1. You are part of this group. 2. This group is special; we have high standards here. And 3. I believe you can reach those standards.”

2. Share vulnerability

“Strong cultures don’t hide their weaknesses; they make a habit of sharing them, so they can improve together.”

Having a shared vulnerability may sound like an unimportant ‘soft skill’, however creating team vulnerability is probably the most important, yet hardest skill to develop.

Coyle refers to the work of Jeff Polzer, who researches organizational behaviour at Harvard, who found that when we share our own flaws with others, something amazing happens. He calls it a ‘vulnerability loop’, in which other people detect when we signal vulnerability, they signal vulnerability in return, and thus both parties become closer and trust each other more.

Strength and leadership have been traditionally associated with looking confident and powerful. But that’s not true. As research by Brené Brown has shown, vulnerability itself is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s usually the person who takes the first step in admitting they’re not perfect, who’s perceived as a leader. Not the one who criticises others for being weak.

All of Coyle’s examples of developing the skill of team vulnerability share a common theme and that is that these moments of candour are often clunky, awkward and full of hard questions. These uncomfortable vulnerable moments, however, don’t just happen by accident, they happen by design. One such example Coyle cites is from Laszlo Bock, former Head of People Analytics at Google, who recommends leaders ask their people three questions to demonstrate their leadership vulnerability:

  1. What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
  2. What is 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?

A key take-away from this theme is that “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it.” Vulnerability not just increases trust, it’s also a way to show acceptance. If you admit no one’s perfect, people will feel okay even after making mistakes, which are inevitable when engaged in complex work towards achieving a share goal. Speaking of which…

3. Establish purpose through a common goal

In order for everyone to work together and collaborate efficiently, there must be a clear purpose, or reasons for doing what they’re doing. If team members don’t sense a clear purpose behind all their hard work, it will be difficult for them to feel truly dedicated to their tasks.

That’s why it’s important for leaders to paint a “bigger picture” that engages and motivates their team and clearly illustrates what they’re working towards. In quality improvement work, we often call this ‘The Big Why?’. The established purpose should motivate the team to take actions each day that move everyone closer towards the common goal.

In the groups that Coyle studied, they established purpose by getting rid of all the unnecessary distractions and limiting their focus to a few key priorities. Establishing purpose within these teams, with only a few critical priorities, ensures they overcome one of the major challenges of modern workplaces; not becoming distracted by all the noise, chatter and endless alternative objectives.

Daniel Coyle has a website which states the book ‘Combines leading-edge science, on-the-ground insights from world-class leaders, and practical ideas for action, The Culture Code offers a roadmap for creating an environment where innovation flourishes, problems get solved, and expectations are exceeded.’

High expectations indeed, however it’s clear why Amy Edmondson would find the book so relevant, the overlap with her focus on psychological safety in teams is clear, for example:

“One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, light-hearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candour feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.”

This could have come from ‘The Fearless Organisation’. That’s high praise indeed. Overall, I found the book is a useful, easy read with powerful stories, backed up by robust research and delivered with helpful insights and actions to help generate a culture of cohesion and cooperation in our teams. I’m glad Amy tweeted about it so often…

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11. marts 2022

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