The 3 Secrets of a Highly Successful Team Culture

What makes teams and cultures successful? Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less? How can leaders and teams create a collaborative culture, growth and solution-oriented ability?

The Marshmallow challenge

Have you ever done the Marshmallow challenge? Teams get 20 spaghetti sticks, one marshmallow and some rope and tape. The team that builds the tallest structure with the marshmallow on top within 18 minutes wins. If you would let a team of business school students and a team of kindergartners compete, who would you bet your money on? If you answered the business students, your bet would be wrong. On dozens of trials, the Kindergartner teams built structures that were on average 26 in tall, while business school students averaged no more than 10 in. The kindergartners also beat teams of lawyers (15 in) and even CEO’s (22 in).

So, what’s the secret? The students appeared to be collaborating but were actually depending on individual behavior. Moreover, they were troubled by what we call status management: who’s in charge? Can I criticize someone’s ideas? What are the rules? The kids on the other hand appear disorganized, but in fact they are collaborating, experimenting, taking risks and helping each other. And they are not competing for status.

3 essential skills

We tend to think group performance depends on intelligence, skill, experience, or strong leadership. But individual skills are not what matters; what matters is the interaction. Groups succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. Successful group culture effectively use 3 skills. We’ll set it out for you.

1. Building safety

Teams are only truly successful when all members feel safe and connected. This may sound a bit soft, but many organizations have unintentionally created a corporate jungle in which a survival of the fittest strategy predominates. Creating a safe atmosphere is a continuous process and is built up by sending social signals and generating bonds of connection and identity.

First and foremost, groups succeed because their members communicate one powerful overarching idea: we are safe and connected. This may sound like stating the obvious, but a lot of organizations unintendedly created a corporate jungle where a survival of the fittest strategy prevails. Unfortunately, our brains don’t process safety very logically. Our brains are wired tot be continually on the lookout for danger. When our amygdala senses a threat, I immediately sets off our fight or flight mode, triggering behavior that your brain thinks you need to do to survive. Unfortunately, or not, that same amygdala, also plays a vital role in building social connections. And the thing that makes it act like a guard dog or a guide dog, is it’s feeling of safety and belonging.

Safety is built overtime. It starts with consistent social behavioral cues, such as close physical proximity, eye contact, and physical touch, but also turn-taking, fewer interruptions, questions, active listening, humor, and frequent attentive courtesies. A steady pulse of such interactions helps answer ever-present questions: Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?

Belonging cues, when repeated, create psychological safety and help the brain shift from fear to connection. The cues of belonging need to be continually refreshed and reinforced. This is why a sense of belonging is easy to destroy and hard to build. Eventually, we experience a powerful switch in our minds and feel a chemistry: we are close, we are safe, we share a future.

2. Sharing vulnerability

Moving from security and connectedness to good collaboration goes through vulnerability. Vulnerability is contagious and creates trust. If someone on the team is open and gives a clear signal that he/she has weaknesses and need help, it has two effects. Others will also become more open and vulnerable, and they will actually help each other more and collaborate better.

Vulnerability is about sending a clear signal that you have weaknesses and you could use help. When this behavior becomes a model for others, you can set the insecurities aside, start trusting each other, and get to work. Vulnerability is contagious. It doesn’t come after trust – it precedes it. Like safety, it is a group muscle that is built through repeated interaction. It lets people combine their strengths to achieve a goal.  So especially if you’re a leader or a role model, it is vital that you show your fallibility early on.

3. Establishing purpose

Successful teams have a shared goal. They continuously receive and give signals that establish a connection between the present moment and a future ideal. They share their mission whenever possible and use stories to create shared goals and values. In doing so, they send a signal to team members: “This is why we work here; this is what we strive for.”

What are we working toward? Purpose is about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell their mission’s story. To do this, they build what we call ‘high-purpose environments’, 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’.

That shared future could be a goal or behavior. It can be found within everyday moments, where people can sense the message: “This is why we work; this is what we are aiming for.” Building purpose is not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite; it’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning. Successful cultures often use a crisis to crystallize their purpose. Leaders of such groups reflect on those failures and express gratitude for those moments, as painful as they were, because they helped the group discover what it could be.

Building a successful culture is like building a muscle

Building a cohesive organizational culture focused on core purpose is like building a muscle. It takes time and repeated, focused effort. Ultimately, culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.