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This is what the best teams and families do: 3 rituals from research

What makes a team effective? Is it trust? Cooperation? “Chemistry”?

You have no idea. Don’t worry — neither did I. Kinda terrifying, isn’t it? We’re all part of friendships, work teams, and families and we don’t really know what builds trust, unity, or makes a group effective.

Luckily, one very smart guy went looking for answers …

Bestselling author Dan Coyle spent the past four years studying world class teams to see what makes them great. He reviewed the research, sat down with Pixar, spent time with the Navy SEALs — heck, he even looked at the best crew of jewel thieves out there.

His excellent new book is The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

He found there were three key elements they all had in common that boosted trust, cooperation, motivation and overall performance. And they’re going to surprise you.

Let’s get to it …

1. Build safety

Safety is a lot like oxygen — you really don’t think about it unless it’s missing. And by the same token, almost nobody deliberately sets out to create it.

But it’s really hard to create trust or work together effectively when you feel like you’re going to be judged, scolded or fired for saying or doing the wrong thing.

So what produces a feeling of safety? Not words or policies or assurances. Alex Pentland at MIT says it’s “belonging cues.”

They’re a cluster of little behaviors you probably don’t pay all that much attention to. But they’re the little things people do when they care about and respect one another.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

Belonging cues are behaviors that create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group.

Pentland found they were the number one predictor of team performance — more predictive than intelligence, skill or leadership. In fact, you can ignore all the information exchanged by a group and know how well they’re going to do just by looking at belonging cues.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

It’s possible to predict performance by ignoring all the informational content in the exchange and focusing on a handful of belonging cues…

Why are these little innocuous behaviors so powerful? Because they’re operating deep down at the neuroscience level.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

When you receive a belonging cue, the amygdala switches roles and starts to use its immense unconscious neural horsepower to build and sustain your social bonds. It tracks members of your group, tunes in to their interactions, and sets the stage for meaningful engagement. In a heartbeat, it transforms from a growling guard dog into an energetic guide dog with a single-minded goal: to make sure you stay tightly connected with your people. On brain scans, this moment is vivid and unmistakable, as the amygdala lights up in an entirely different way. “The whole thing flips,” says Jay Van Bavel, social neuroscientist at New York University. “The moment you’re part of a group, the amygdala tunes in to who’s in that group and starts intensely tracking them. Because these people are valuable to you. They were strangers before, but they’re on your team now, and that changes the whole dynamic. It’s such a powerful switch- it’s a big top-down change, a total reconfiguration of the entire motivational and decision-making system.”

So make sure everyone is getting a chance to speak. That people are paying attention to one another and making eye contact. That body language is respectful and everyone feels heard. Don’t let anyone be dismissive or interrupt someone else.

Whether it’s a boardroom meeting or family dinner, everyone wants to feel like a valued member of a group and that their thoughts carry weight. And that’s conveyed not only by our voices, but by our bodies as well.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

So everyone feels safe — but how do we create trust and encourage cooperation?

2. Share vulnerability

Nobody wants to look incompetent. Parents don’t. Bosses don’t. And employees sure don’t when the boss is around.

But it’s by making ourselves vulnerable that we reveal our humanity. And that’s what builds connection and trust.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

Exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.

So showing vulnerability is step one. But research by Jeff Polzer at Harvard shows there’s also a vital step two here as well — how team members respond to vulnerability.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

Polzer points out that vulnerability is less about the sender than the receiver. “The second person is the key,” he says. “Do they pick it up and reveal their own weaknesses, or do they cover up and pretend they don’t have any? It makes a huge difference in the outcome.” Polzer has become skilled at spotting the moment when the signal travels through the group. “You can actually see the people relax and connect and start to trust. The group picks up the idea and says, ‘Okay, this is the mode we’re going to be in,’ and it starts behaving along those lines, according to the norm that it’s okay to admit weakness and help each other.”

Admitting weakness is so powerful that it’s even done by the last group you’d ever expect to show vulnerability: Navy SEALs.

After SEALs complete a mission they do what’s called an “After-Action Review.” And the words most encouraged in the meeting are: “I screwed that up.”

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

AARs happen immediately after each mission and consist of a short meeting in which the team gathers to discuss and replay key decisions… “It’s got to be safe to talk,” Cooper says. “Rank switched off, humility switched on. You’re looking for that moment where people can say, ‘I screwed that up.’

By admitting weakness group members learn to trust, to be honest, and to ask for help. And by reviewing their mistakes they improve.

Coyle puts it bluntly: “…being vulnerable together is the only way a team can become invulnerable.”

(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

So we’ve got safety and trust. Now how do we get everyone on the same page and motivated?

3. Establish purpose

Purpose is about reminding a group of their shared goal — and it works best when it comes in the form of a story.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story.

Where do you start? First talk with your group and establish your priorities. Maybe you think those are clear, obvious, and don’t need to be specified…

You’re wrong.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so.

So name and rank them. How many priorities should you have? Which ones do top teams focus on?

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships – how they treat one another – at the top of the list. This reflects the truth that many successful groups realize: Their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself. If they get their own relationships right, everything else will follow.

And then create a story for your group: This is where we came from. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we stand for. These are our goals.

Might sound a little silly, but I reviewed the research on the power of stories in my own book and it’s more than compelling. (The research, not my book… Okay, well, *I* think my book’s compelling too, but I’m biased. Anyway, the research on stories is definitely compelling.)

From Barking Up The Wrong Tree:

Stories are the invisible undercurrent that promotes success in a shocking number of the most important areas of life. What best predicts the success of romantic relationships? It’s not sex or money or having the same goals. Researcher John Gottman realized that just hearing how the couple told the tale of their relationship together predicted with 94 percent accuracy whether or not they’d get divorced. What’s the best predictor of your child’s emotional well-being? It’s not great schools, hugs, or Pixar movies. Researchers at Emory University found that whether a kid knew their family history was the number-one indicator. Who finds their careers meaningful and fulfilling? Hospital cleaners who saw their jobs as “just a job” didn’t derive any deep satisfaction from their careers. But cleaners who told themselves the story that this was their “calling”— and that their work helped sick people get better— saw their jobs as meaningful.

You can tell me Batman’s origin story. Where he came from. Who he is. What he does. What he stands for. What his goals are. If the story of a fictional crimefighting billionaire in tights gets real estate in your gray matter then maybe your work team and family deserve one too, eh?

(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn how all this leads to creating the most important type of team there is…

Sum up

Here’s what the best teams and families all do:

  • Build Safety: Not the “Hard Hat Area” kind. The “it’s okay to say something stupid” kind.
  • Share Vulnerability: Did I mention my blog posts sometimes have typos? May those errors make you trust me all the more.
  • Establish Purpose: “So what’s your story?” is now a very serious question.

When you create safety, allow vulnerability and have a purpose, guess what? You have a culture. And a strong culture isn’t just some fluffy business term — it dramatically affects the bottom line.

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

A strong culture increases net income 756 percent over eleven years, according to a Harvard study of more than two hundred companies.

But having those three things also creates something else…

During Dan’s interviews with the SEALs, IDEO, the Upright Citizens Brigade and other top performing groups, one word came up again and again. The word that they all used to describe themselves…

A family.

And after four years of research, Dan found that he was applying the team principles he learned with his own “group.”

From The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups:

At home, I parented a little differently: I talked less and focused more on seeking ways to create belonging. (Card games are the absolute best.)

So three simple things can make most any group function more effectively… but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s more to be gained than just that.

To be among people who make you feel safe. To be surrounded by those who accept your weaknesses. And to be united alongside others with a meaningful purpose…

Sounds a lot like a prescription for happiness as well.

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This column first appeared at Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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