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High-performance culture: make it safe

High-performance culture: make it safe

  • 17 August 2021
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

What’s the secret of a high-performance culture? There’s a formula but everyone cooks differently and everyone has a different taste. True, but all humans respond to building safety, sharing vulnerability and an inspiring purpose. We are relational beings. That makes group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet! Kotter and Heskett showed this more than a decade ago: a strong culture increases net income by 765% over a 10 year-period.

Daniel Coyle studied the research and interviewed the practitioners for his book The Culture Code. It’s a great resource for my culture consulting work. Let me share some of his insights and advice.

Coyle starts with the marshmallow challenge, a great exercise that I’ve done as well. Every team gets 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, transparent tape, string and should build the highest structure with one marshmallow on top. The fascinating research shows that kindergartners outperform all other teams, including MBA’s, engineers and architects. Why does that happen?
Kindergartners experiment, spot problems, offer help and don’t talk so much. They experiment in real-time. On the other hand, adults check: who is in charge, it is okay to criticize, what are the rules here? Adults want to keep their Egos safe and secure, so they become slower, cautious and polite. Adults have also learned to think and discuss and “be smart”. 
The conclusion: individual skills matter less than collaboration and interaction. Culture is a set of relationships working towards a shared goal. It’s not something you are - it’s what you do.
So, what do we need to improve collaboration? How to go back to the quick and subconscious learning and collaborating that kindergartners show?
Coyle boils it down to:
1. Build safety
2. Share vulnerability
3. Establish purpose

The bad apple

In my book Developing a Positive Culture I emphasize the importance of interactions for organizational culture. You have a choice with every interaction: accept it or challenge it. When you accept you confirm “the way we do things around here”. People sometimes can’t believe that influencing the culture is so simple. But it starts here. Though culture is way more and deeper than interactions, the interaction patterns are a visible and workable part of culture. So, what you can do anytime, without permission or resources, regardless of your position, is influencing the daily interactions in your team. These are “micro” interventions in the culture that can spread as they are copied by others (without a huge, “macro” culture program). You can do so for better or worse.

The experiment by Will Felps shows exactly that. He brought in an actor in teams who played the roles of:
the jerk - aggressive, defiant
the slacker - less effort as possible
the downer - a depressive type
Felps found that one such a type reduces the performance in groups with 30-40% That’s incredible! However, there was one outlier team that performed well - mostly because of one person, Jonathan. Jonathan responded with warmth, deflecting negativity and then asked simple questions to engage the others. He listened intently and responded to them. Immediately, energy levels increased. Basically, Jonathan was making it safe after the jerk, slacker or downer’s remarks. Next, he engaged the team again to work on the task.

This experiment and other research shows: The interaction pattern of successful groups is in tiny acts and interactions of social connection. They are not trivial but crucial. You may not be aware of these tiny interactions. 

Belonging cues

High-performance teams show:

Close physical proximity, eye contact, touch, short energetic exchanges, turn-taking, high levels of mixing between all members, lots of questions, few interruptions, active listening, humor, and thank-you’s. How’s that for your team? It may have diminished since the pandemic as we had to meet through online video calls. But even without close proximity and touch, what can you do to increase turn taking, eye contact, open questions, active listening…?

Alex Pentland of MIT Dynamics Lab filmed groups doing the Marshmallow challenge and counted the social cues with software. His research shows that belonging cues are behaviors that create a safe connection in groups. In great teams, he noticed a focus on:

Energy: team members invest in what happens right now (they are present, not checking their phones).
Individual: they treat everyone as a valued and unique person.
Future orientation: they signal that the relationship will continue.

Pentland could predict the performance of groups while ignoring the content of the interaction, just by counting the social cues. It’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you interact. He says: “Individuals behave as jazz musicians, forming a web of unconscious actions and reactions to complement the others in the group.”

As our scanner for danger is always on (the amygdala), organizations have to do a lot to overcome this natural trigger. We are built to require lots of signaling and repetition of belonging cues to feel safe. This is not rational, but wired by the amygdala and the limbic system that doesn’t use language.

However, when you perceive a belonging cue the amygdala switches roles from scanning for danger to sustaining bonds with those safe others. It tunes into the individuals in your group, tracks them and their interactions, reinforcing positive cues, creating a feeling of rapport and belonging. The amygdala turns from a watch-dog into a guide dog to help you stay with your group and truly belong. 

People before high performance

The basis culture message is: we are close, we are safe, we share a future.

We need to feel safe and included. We are relational beings. The puzzle experiment also showed this: you get to solve a puzzle and receive a note from a former participant before you begin. The note is not really helpful, but it’s a social-belonging cue. You work harder and solve more, because you feel connected and someone cared about you.
Likewise, another experiment indicated that even thinking about your ancestors makes you smarter. It helps you feel connected to a group and thus, boosts both intelligence, creative thinking and autonomy. You need to belong to a group.

Belonging is a verb. Culture should be a verb, really. It’s a relationship and you have to keep it going with countless belonging cues and continuous interactions. 
High performance starts with a people orientation.

How to improve the safety and belonging cues in your interactions and culture?

Over-communicate your listening: listen, give affirmations, yes, uh-huh, do not interrupt.
Spotlight your fallibility, especially as a leader: don’t hide your weaknesses, but say: I could be wrong here, what do you think?
Embrace the messenger: you need to hear bad feedback, thank the courageous people who share it
Preview future connection: One day, we’ll look back at this and… (view the journey together, we’re in this together)
Overdo thank-you’s: people who receive thanks are more inclined to help random others as well Eliminate bad apples: zero tolerance for bad behavior
Create safe spaces that foster random connections and encounters; help people cross-pollinate ideas and energy

© Marcella Bremer, 2021. All rights reserved.

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