Power Books
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Power Books

The Culture Code — The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

Rating — 4/5

Skill 1: Build Safety

Chapter 1: The Good Apples

  • Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.
  • Safety is not mere emotional weather but rather the foundation on which strong culture is built. The deeper questions are, Where does it come from? And how do you go about building it?
  • When you encounter a group with good chemistry, you know it instantly. It’s a paradoxical, powerful sensation, a combination of excitement and deep comfort that sparks mysteriously with certain special groups and not with others.
  • 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.
  • Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:”
  1. Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring.

2. Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued.

3. Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue.

These cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here. ”

  • We have a place in our brain that’s always worried about what people think of us, especially higher-ups. As far as our brain is concerned, if our social system rejects us, we could die. Given that our sense of danger is so natural and automatic, organizations have to do some pretty special things to overcome that natural trigger.
  • The key to creating psychological safety is to recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brains are with it. A mere hint of belonging is not enough; one or two signals are not enough. We are built to require lots of signaling, over and over. This is why a sense of belonging is easy to destroy and hard to build.
  • Team performance is driven by five measurable factors:”
  1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
  2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.

5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others.

  • Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.

Chapter 2: The Billion Dollar Day When Nothing Happened

  • Larry Page’s technique of igniting whole-group debates around solving tough problems sent a powerful signal of identity and connection, as did the no-holds-barred hockey games and wide-open Friday forums. (Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure.) They communicated in short, direct bursts. (Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.) Google was a hothouse of belonging cues; its people worked shoulder to shoulder and safely connected, immersed in their projects.
  • Google didn’t win because it was smarter. It won because it was safer.
  • Belonging feels like it happens from the inside out, but in fact it happens from the outside in. Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost-invisible cues: We are close, we are safe, we share a future.
  • Here, then, is a model for understanding how belonging works: as a flame that needs to be continually fed by signals of safe connection.
  • Cohesion happens not when members of a group are smarter but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of safe connection.

Chapter 4: How to Build Belonging

  • Food and wine aren’t just food and wine. They’re his vehicle to make and sustain a connection, and Pop is really intentional about making that connection happen.
  • The Spurs eat together approximately as often as they play basketball together. First there are the team dinners, regular gatherings of all the players. Then there are smaller group dinners, handfuls of players getting together. Then there are the coach’s dinners, which happen every night on the road before a game. Popovich plans them, picking the restaurants, sometimes two a night, to explore. These are not meals to be eaten and forgotten. At the end of the season, each coach gets a leather-bound keepsake book containing the menus and wine labels from every dinner.
  • One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted 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-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.

Chapter 6: Ideas for Action

Tips for creating safety:

  • Overcommunicate Your Listening: The key is to draw a distinction between interruptions born of mutual excitement and those rooted in lack of awareness and connection.
  • Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On — Especially If You’re a Leader: In any interaction, we have a natural tendency to try to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. If you want to create safety, this is exactly the wrong move. Instead, you should open up, show you make mistakes, and invite input.
  • Embrace the Messenger: In fact, it’s not enough to not shoot them. You have to hug the messenger and let them know how much you need that feedback. That way you can be sure that they feel safe enough to tell you the truth next time.
  • Preview Future Connection: “One habit I saw in successful groups was that of sneak-previewing future relationships, making small but telling connections between now and a vision of the future.
  • Overdo Thank-Yous: When you enter highly successful cultures, the number of thank-yous you hear seems slightly over the top. At the end of each basketball season, for example, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich takes each of his star players aside and thanks them for allowing him to coach them.
  • Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process
  • Eliminate Bad Apples
  • Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces: Create physical spaces that maximize collisions.
  • Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice: Many groups follow the rule that no meeting can end without everyone sharing something.
  • Pick Up Trash
  • Capitalize on Threshold Moments: When we enter a new group, our brains decide quickly whether to connect. So successful cultures treat these threshold moments as more important than any other. “the successful groups I visited paid attention to moments of arrival. They would pause, take time, and acknowledge the presence of the new person, marking the moment as special: We are together now.
  • Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback: In the cultures I visited, I didn’t see many feedback sandwiches. Instead, I saw them separate the two into different processes. They handled negatives through dialogue, first by asking if a person. wants feedback, then having a learning-focused two-way conversation about the needed growth. They handled positives through ultraclear bursts of recognition and praise.
  • Embrace Fun: Laughter is the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.

Skill 2: Share Vulnerability

Chapter 7: Tell me what you want, and I will help you

  • When you watch highly cohesive groups in action, you will see many moments of fluid, trusting cooperation. These moments often happen when the group is confronted with a tough obstacle — for example, a SEAL team navigating a training course, or an improv comedy team navigating a sketch.

Chapter 8: The Vulnerability Loop

  • At some level, we intuitively know that vulnerability tends to spark cooperation and trust.
  • It’s about sending a really clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help. And if that behavior becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other. If you never have that vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little microtask becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.
  • A vulnerability loop is a shared exchange of openness, it’s the most basic building block of cooperation and trust. Vulnerability loops seem swift and spontaneous from a distance, but when you look closely, they all follow the same discrete steps:
  1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.

2. Person B detects this signal.

3. Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability.

4. Person A detects this signal.

5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.

  • Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust — it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.
  • That’s why good teams tend to do a lot of extreme stuff together,” DeSteno says. “A constant stream of vulnerability gives them a much richer, more reliable estimate on what their trustworthiness is, and brings them closer, so they can take still more risks. It builds on itself.
  • Exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.

Chapter 12: Ideas for Action

  • Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often: Group cooperation is created by small, frequently repeated moments of vulnerability. “Of these, none carries more power than the moment when a leader signals vulnerability. Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:
  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?

  • The key is to ask not for five or ten things but just one,” Bock says. “That way it’s easier for people to answer. And when a leader asks for feedback in this way, it makes it safe for the people who work with them to do the same. It can get contagious.
  • Overcommunicate expecttaions: The successful groups I visited did not presume that cooperation would happen on its own. Instead, they were explicit and persistent about sending big, clear signals that established those expectations, modeled cooperation, and aligned language and roles to maximize helping behavior.”
  • Deliver the negative stuff in person: If you have negative news or feedback to give someone — even as small as a rejected item on an expense report — you are obligated to deliver that news face-to-face. This rule is not easy to follow (it’s far more comfortable for both the sender and receiver to communicate electronically), but it works because it deals with tension in an up-front, honest way that avoids misunderstandings and creates shared clarity and connection.
  • When forming new groups, on two critical moments any group’s cooperation norms to two critical moments that happen early in a group’s life. They are:

1. The first vulnerability

2. The first disagreement”

These small moments are doorways to two possible group paths: Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together? Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together?

  • Listen like a trampoline:The most effective listeners behave like trampolines. They aren’t passive sponges. They are active responders, absorbing what the other person gives, supporting them, and adding energy to help the conversation gain velocity and altitude. Good listening is about more than nodding attentively; it’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery. The most effective listeners do four things:
  1. They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported

2. They take a helping, cooperative stance

3. They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions

4. They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths.

  • In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value: This means having the willpower to forgo easy opportunities to offer solutions and make suggestions. Skilled listeners do not interrupt with phrases like Hey, here’s an idea or Let me tell you what worked for me in a similar situation because they understand that it’s not about them. They use a repertoire of gestures and phrases that keep the other person talking. “One of the things I say most often is probably the simplest thing I say,” says Givechi. “ ‘Say more about that.
  • Use cantor generating practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Red Teaming:While AARs were originally built for the military environment, the tool can be applied to other domains. One good AAR structure is to use five questions:
  1. What were our intended results?
  2. What were our actual results?
  3. What caused our results?
  4. What will we do the same next time?
  5. What will we do differently?”
  • Aim for candor, avoid brutal honesty
  • Embrace the discomfort
  • Align language with action
  • Build a wall between performance review and professional development
  • Use Flash mentoring: One of the best techniques I’ve seen for creating cooperation in a group is flash mentoring. It is exactly like traditional mentoring — you pick someone you want to learn from and shadow them — except that instead of months or years, it lasts a few hours.”
  • Make the leader occasionally disappear:

Skill 3: Establish Purpose

  • “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. To do this, they build what we’ll call high-purpose environments.
  • High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.
  • They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go.
  • Motivation is not a possession but rather the result of a two-part process of channeling your attention: Here’s where you’re at and Here’s where you want to go.
  • That shared future could be a goal or a behavior. (We put customer safety first. We shoot, move, and communicate.) It doesn’t matter. What matters is establishing this link and consistently creating engagement around it. What matters is telling the story.
  • The deeper neurological truth is that stories do not cloak reality but create it, triggering cascades of perception and motivation. The proof is in brain scans: When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brain light up, translating words and meanings. When we hear a story, however, our brain lights up like Las Vegas, tracing the chains of cause, effect, and meaning. Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.”

Chapter 14: The Hooligans and the Surgeons

  • “One of the best measures of any group’s culture is its learning velocity — how quickly it improves its performance of a new skill.”

Chapter 17: Ideas for Action

  • “Here’s a surprising fact about successful cultures: many were forged in moments of crisis.
  • The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to crystallize their purpose.
  • When leaders of those groups reflect on those failures now, they express gratitude (and sometimes even nostalgic desire) for those moments, as painful as they were, because they were the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be.
  • High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high; they are dug out of the ground, over and over, as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.”
  • Here are a few ideas to help you do that:
  1. Name and Rank Your Priorities: “In order to move toward a target, you must first have a target. Listing your priorities, which means wrestling with the “choices that define your identity, is the first step. 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.
  2. Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be: “Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities. “Statements of priorities were painted on walls, stamped on emails, incanted in speeches, dropped into conversation, and repeated over and over until they became part of the oxygen. “One way to create awareness is to make a habit of regularly testing the company’s values and purpose, as James Burke did with the Credo challenge. This involves creating conversations that encourage people to grapple with the big questions: What are we about? Where are we headed? Many of the leaders I met seemed to do this instinctively, cultivating what might be called a productive dissatisfaction. They were mildly suspicious of success. They presumed that there were other, better ways of doing things, and they were unafraid of change. They presumed they didn’t have all the answers and so constantly sought guidance and clarity.
  3. Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where It Aims for Creativity: “Every group skill can be sorted into one of two basic types: skills of proficiency and skills of creativity.”“Skills of proficiency are about doing a task the same way, every single time. They are about delivering machine-like reliability, and they tend to apply in domains in which the goal behaviors are clearly defined, such as service. Building purpose to perform these skills is like building a vivid map: You want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way. Ways to do that include:
  4. Fill the group’s windshield with clear, accessible models of excellence.
  5. Provide high-repetition, high-feedback training.
  6. Build vivid, memorable rules of thumb (if X, then Y).
  7. Spotlight and honor the fundamentals of the skill.”
  8. Embrace the Use of Catchphrases: “The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright: “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “Talk less, do more” (IDEO), “Work hard, be nice” (KIPP), “Pound the rock” (San Antonio Spurs), “Leave the jersey in a better place” (New Zealand All-Blacks), “Create raves for guests” (Danny Meyer’s restaurants). They’re hardly poetry, but they share an action-based clarity. They aren’t gentle suggestions so much as clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.
  9. Measure What Really Matters: “ The main challenge to building a clear sense of purpose is that the world is cluttered with noise, distractions, and endless alternative purposes. One solution is to create simple universal measures that place focus on what matters. A good example happened in the early days of Zappos, when Tony Hsieh noticed that call center workers were measured by the number of calls they handled per hour. He realized that this traditional measure was at odds with the group’s purpose and that it was driving unwanted behaviors (haste and brevity, for starters). So he banished that metric and replaced it with Personal Emotional Connections (PECs), or creating a bond outside the conversation about the product. It’s impossible, of course, to measure PECs precisely, but the goal here is not precision; it is to create awareness and alignment and to direct behavior toward the group’s mission.
  • Use Artifacts:
  • Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors:



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