Do you have the culture code?

Working together makes the world go round. Even the most brilliant geniuses among us need a helping hand now and then to get their ideas off the ground. But pulling together to achieve a common aim isn’t as easy as it looks on paper. Whether it’s in the office or on the sports field, a dysfunctional group dynamic can quickly sour the atmosphere and lead to all manner of infighting.

So what makes a team more than the sum of its parts?

Drawing on evidence ranging from a study of kindergartners building a spaghetti tower, to the way today’s most successful companies run their workplaces, Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code explores the importance of the way we interact with our teammates, while providing plenty of tips on how to avoid inadvertently throwing a wrench into the works.

Whether it’s a family, a circle of friends or work colleagues, we’re all members of different groups. And big or small, every group has its own distinctive culture. So what’s a group culture?

In essence, it’s the relationships between people working together to achieve a common aim.

Not all group cultures are alike, though. Some work well, while others are dysfunctional.

You can spot a poor group culture a mile off. If you’ve ever worked in an office or lived in a house with a defective group culture, you’ll know the atmosphere is so thick and tense that you could cut it with a knife.

That’s often the result of group members focusing on the wrong thing.

Rather than paying attention to the quality of their interactions, they struggle to determine their position within the group and spend time worrying about their own status.

As soon as you start doing that, you’re no longer focused on the work at hand; everything becomes a question of whose ideas can be criticized and which rules are open for debate. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Take a study carried out by engineer Peter Skillman. He asked groups of kindergartners, business school students and lawyers to take part in a simple competition. The aim of the exercise was to build the tallest possible structure using uncooked spaghetti, tape, a yard of string and a single marshmallow.

If you were the betting type, you’d surely put your money on the students or lawyers, right? After all, they’re the ones with the most expertise, experience and general knowledge.

As it turned out, it was the kindergartners who usually won.

So how did they prevail over their older and presumably wiser competitors?

The answer lies in group dynamics. The business school students, for example, always began by analyzing the task at hand, discussing the right strategy to follow and quietly establishing a hierarchy.

The kindergartners pursued a radically different approach. Rather than trying to figure out who was responsible for what, they simply got on with the task. Hardly wasting a word, they huddled together and started experimenting. If one attempt failed, they tried something else.

They ended up winning the competition because they were focused on interaction; they were cooperating to achieve a shared goal rather than competing amongst themselves.

So how can you make your groups more like that of the kindergartners? Imagine you’ve been assigned a complex task demanding every ounce of your skill and expertise. You’re given two choices as to where to work: your own home or a room full of complete strangers. In which setting would you be more likely to succeed?

Most of us wouldn’t hesitate – of course, it’d be much easier in your own home, right? It’s a safe environment, and the same principle applies to groups. A group performs at a much higher level if each of its members feels safe.

It’s worth thinking about the concept of safety a little. What is it and why is it so important?

Safety is ultimately about a sense of familiarity and connections. When we feel safe, we know that there aren’t unseen dangers lurking around every corner. A strong group culture nurtures that sense, and that, in turn, boosts individual performance.

Take a study conducted by Will Felps, an associate professor at the University of South Wales.

Felps instructed a man called Nick to assume different roles among various groups that had been tasked with developing a marketing plan for a company. Taking on the guise of an obnoxious idler, Nick would slack off and obstruct the progress of the group’s work. In most cases, his behavior was contagious: those around him mirrored his attitude and started behaving in the same way.

Only one group proved immune to this behavior. This was a group in which one of the members – Jonathan – consistently countered Nick’s bad attitude with warmth and positivity. By making those around him feel safe and comfortable, he helped the group perform well despite the presence of a “bad apple” among them.

This finding underscores an important point: we perform best when we receive belonging cues that bolster our perceptions of safety.

Further proof of this can be found in another study of group performance by professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland at the MIT Media Lab.

Pentland had two groups of students play the roles of bosses and employees engaged in negotiations about salary, health benefits and vacations. Pentland then used a so-called sociometer – a data-collecting sensor programmed to pick up belonging cues like eye contact, mimicry and physical proximity – to analyze the negotiations.

Paying attention to these cues allowed Pentland to gauge the sense of safety of the participants. Our brains are wired to be constantly alert and on the lookout for signs of danger, so these behavioral traits are a good indication of when we feel safe in our environment.

Pentland discovered that he could predict the outcome of the bargaining sessions just by looking at the first five minutes of the data he had gathered. It was the interaction that determined the outcome, not what was being said.

So we know that the success of groups depends on making everyone feel safe. But creating a safe environment isn’t something that can be picked up from a book. Like honing your soccer skills, it’s something that takes time and practice.

That said, there are a few tips that might help you along the way.

If you want to create a safe working environment, it’s essential that you let the people around you know that you’re listening to what they have to say.

Take an insight developed by Ben Waber, the founder of the behavior consultancy firm Humanyze. Whenever he visits companies or organizations with a successful group culture, he invariably sees the same things.

People show that they’re listening to each other; they tilt their heads toward the speaker, raise their eyebrows and hardly blink. They also use linguistic markers to show that they’re paying attention, interjecting words of affirmation like “uh-huh,” “right,” “yes” and so on.

It’s a simple and effective way of making people feel safe. Try it out sometime!

Interjecting occasionally to show you’re following someone’s train of thought isn’t the same as interrupting them, however. Great listeners know when to hold back.

That’s important because interruptions disturb the smooth flow of interactions that foster a sense of belonging and safety.

Waber also noticed this when he was looking at group dynamics. Salespeople who interrupted their potential buyers, for example, weren’t nearly as successful as those who spent more time listening to them.

Another top tip is to let people see your weaknesses. Demonstrating that you’re aware of your own imperfections and admitting that you also make mistakes early on in an interaction lays a foundation for a feeling of safety.

That’s not an easy thing to admit to, of course. Usually, we’re determined to dazzle others with our competence – but that just isn’t the best way to put others at ease. A much more effective strategy is to make others feel like you need their help.

This can be as simple as using a phrase that invites input like “I might be wrong, of course,” “did I miss anything?” or asking someone what they think.

So that’s the first key skill you need in order to create a safe environment. And that is the fundamentally the most important in my opinion. 

Check out my related post: How to hire the best candidate for the job?

Interesting reads:


  1. Thank you for this well written review. I guess teamwork is still a great idea when members work together as one. However it is not that way all the time. A lot has to do with chemistry between members and good will which often are missing.

    Liked by 1 person

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