“Your culture is your brand.”
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
“Your people are your competitive advantage.”
“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.”
There’s certainly no shortage of catchy one-liners about workplace culture, is there? Despite keeping countless leaders awake at night and companies from reaching their full potential, culture remains mostly an enigma. A mysterious people potion that organizations spend years and countless dollars trying to improve and perfect, usually coming up short and falling back on expensive (albeit sometimes very cool) employee perks as a band-aid. (Cue Oprah voice: you get a hot yoga membership! You get a hot yoga membership! YOU get a hot yoga membership!)
All kidding aside, the organizations that are relentless about creating an environment where people want to give you their best will tell you the juice is worth the squeeze. There’s nothing more powerful than a group of talented, engaged individuals working towards a common goal. And here’s the good news: the research for Daniel Coyle’s new book, The Culture Code, suggests the keys to organizational culture and creating high performing teams can be learned. It comes down to three simple things: safety, vulnerability, and purpose.
Safety is the key underpinning to workplace culture. Without it, the impact of the next two concepts (vulnerability and purpose) is diminished. Now, when I say safety I don’t mean the hard hat, steel-toed boots, shiny vest kind. I’m talking about creating an environment where people are comfortable to share ideas, make mistakes, and ultimately feel like they belong.
Not convinced of the importance of safety? If I gave you and your closest friends some uncooked spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow, could you build a taller structure than a group of kindergartners? The only rule is that the marshmallow has to form the top of the structure, but I can already tell you who will come out on top in this activity. This was an experiment Peter Skillman conducted, and kindergartners outperformed groups of CEOs, lawyers and MBA students. Their key to success? Safety. In a group of kindergartners there are no egos, interpersonal intricacies or judgment. Just a bunch of kids who feel safe with one another and are engaged in working towards a common goal, united in their sense of belonging
How do you create more safety?
Leaders can create more safety by being generous with positive and meaningful feedback (tip: go beyond just “good job”), even if it seems like too much at times. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to have individuals feel underappreciated and undervalued. Two-way communication is also key to safety - strive to invite input from your people regularly and demonstrate that you are genuinely listening. And lastly, have some fun. Teams that laugh together are more effective at solving difficult problems together.
As a leader your role is to draw people out, along with their unique skillsets. Safety is key to this and without it your people won’t feel comfortable to take risks, and those creative, innovative, and possibly game-changing ideas that could take your team or organization to the next level will go unspoken and unrealized. Empower your people to aim high and be there to catch them if they fall. Marshmallows might be soft, but leaders that create safe environments for their people to thrive in are strong (and create successful, high performing teams).
Did you say v-v-v-vulnerability?
The term vulnerability has historically been associated with being fragile, weak or soft – words that don’t exactly evoke visions of world famous leaders like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela or Steve Jobs. In fact, the first “vulnerable leader” that sprang to mind for me was Michael Scott of The Office being humiliated in front of his entire team on “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day”. Whatever springs to mind when you hear this word, it’s clear vulnerability has gotten a bad rap over the years.
However, through the work of people like Simon Sinek, Brené Brown and Daniel Coyle, vulnerability has more recently taken its rightful place as a characteristic fit for a hero. Why is vulnerability so important? The individuals on high performing teams trust each other and sharing vulnerability builds trust. We often get this backwards, thinking that before we can be vulnerable, we must trust each other first. It’s actually the opposite – lead with vulnerability, and trust will follow.
How do you share more vulnerability?
Vulnerable leaders willingly admit when they’ve made a mistake, or that they don’t have all the answers. Leading by example makes it safe for the team to do the same and opens the door to vulnerability and a culture of greater accountability. Vulnerable leaders also invite feedback about their own presence and performance and show openness to learning from others. Use phrases like, “Tell me more about that…” and “I don’t know what right answer is – what do you think?”
Vulnerability is a difficult concept for some people because our default operating mode is to protect our status. It’s true – being a vulnerable leader takes humility. Being humble doesn’t mean having a low opinion of yourself, it’s about being in service to your team and putting their needs before your own. Your job as a leader is to empower your people and bring the best out in them, not to have all the answers. In the words of the band Jimmy Eat World, who provided the soundtrack for many a late teenage night, “If you don’t know why would ya say so?”
Purpose is paramount.
All people have one thing in common when it comes to their work: a yearning for the knowledge that at the heart of what they do is something meaningful. This is commonly referred to as purpose and according to Simon Sinek, it’s the powerful “why” behind the actions an organization and its employees take. For example, the purpose of one of our favourite organizations, Creative Options Regina, is “to nurture, teach and sustain the experience of connectedness, companionship and community.” This is the common meaning that binds the employees that work there.
It’s not enough to punch the clock and pick up a paycheck. People need something to anchor why they get up and come to work in the morning. Purpose is like oxygen – without it, your people will suffocate (sometimes in silence), and their engagement and performance will suffer. The effects of this will become visible downstream and may show up in unhappy clients and underperforming results. Here’s the good news: whether you’re a front-line employee at a factory or a coder at a tech start-up, every job has meaning. The key is whether leaders and organizations are effective at discovering and connecting the dots between individual efforts and the organization’s greater mission.
How do you establish purpose?
Leaders can establish purpose by creating simple beacons that remind people of their shared goal on a daily basis, until it’s sewn into the fabric of everything they do. Plaster it on the walls and reinforce it in your team meetings and day-to-day interactions. Call it out when its being demonstrated by your employees and rally the team with appreciation and celebration. As your team or organization grows, you’ll find your existing employees have become powerful purpose machines that help instil your purpose in new team members. Leaders can take it a step further and seek to understand the personal meaning their people attach to their work and find the intersection where personal and organizational purpose meet. This is the sweet spot where people, and teams, accomplish their best work.
When it comes to words like safety, vulnerability and purpose, people tend to think you’re referring to something fanciful or fluffy. But that’s not what these concepts are about. They’re about taking concrete steps to improve the effectiveness of your team and organization, and there’s nothing fluffy about that. I challenge you to think differently about what being a leader means, and find ways to create safety, vulnerability and purpose for your teams and organizations.
Let us know in the comments how you’re currently exhibiting these 3 keys to culture in your organization, or the areas where you wish there were even greater doses of them.