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Building Peak-Performance Cultures – Part Five (Cohesive and Highly Effective Teams)

February 28, 2020
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Our last four parts around building peak performing cultures are based on, and/or paraphrased from Daniel Coyle’s book Culture Code. Part Five highlights the key characteristics of cohesive and highly effective teams.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union conducted a decades-long race to build ever-more-powerful weapons and satellite systems. In both nations, teams of engineers spent thousands of hours fervently working on complicated problems that nobody had ever attempted to solve. The U.S. government decided to conduct research on why certain engineering projects were successful and others were not. One of the first people to formally attempt that research was a young MIT professor named Thomas Allen.

Allen had dual graduate degrees in computer science and management from MIT, which perfectly positioned him to pursue the government’s research project. Allen started his research by locating what he called “twin projects,” where two or more engineering firms tackled the same complex challenge, such as figuring out how to guide an intercontinental ballistic missile or communicate with a satellite. He measured the quality of their solutions, then attempted to find the factors that successful projects had in common.

One pattern was immediately apparent: The most successful projects were those driven by sets of individuals who formed what Allen called “clusters of high communicators.” The chemistry and cohesion within these clusters resembled that between Larry Page and Jeff Dean at Google. They had a knack for navigating complex problems with dazzling speed. Allen dug into the data and could find no meaningful difference that played a meaningful role in cohesion. Except for one. The distance between their desks.

At first, he didn’t believe it. Group chemistry is such a complex and mysterious process that he wanted the reason for it to be similarly complex and mysterious. But the more he explored the data, the clearer the answer became. What mattered most in creating a successful team had less to do with intelligence and experience and more to do with where the desks happened to be located. “Something as simple as visual contact is very, very important, more important than you might think,” Allen says. “If you can see the other person or even the area where they work, you’re reminded of them, and that brings a whole bunch of effects.”

Allen decided to dig deeper, measuring the frequency of interactions against distance. “We could look at how often people communicated and see where they were located in relation to each other,” he says. “We could see, just through the frequency, without knowing where they sat, who was on each floor. We were really surprised at how rapidly it decayed” when they moved to a different floor. “It turns out that vertical separation is a very serious thing. If you’re on a different floor in some organizations, you may as well be in a different country.”

When Allen plotted the frequency of interaction against distance, he ended up with a line that resembled a steep hill. It was nearly vertical at the top and flat at the bottom. It became known as the Allen Curve.

The key characteristic of the Allen Curve is the sudden steepness that happens at the eight-meter mark. At distances of less than eight meters, communication frequency rises off the charts. If our brains operated logically, we might expect the frequency and distance to change at a constant rate, producing a straight line. But as Allen shows, our brains do not operate logically. Certain proximities trigger huge changes in the frequency of communication. Increase the distance to 50 meters, and communication ceases as if a tap has been shut off. Decrease distance to 6 meters, and communication frequency skyrockets. In other words, proximity functions as a kind of connective drug. Get close, and our tendency to connect lights up. We feel safe.

Building safety isn’t the kind of skill you can learn in a robotic, paint-by-numbers sort of way. It’s a fluid, improvisational skill—sort of like learning to pass a soccer ball to a teammate during a game. It requires you to recognize patterns, react quickly, and deliver the right signal at the right time. And like any skill, it comes with a learning curve.

The curve is exacerbated by multiple locations. Organizations that operate in multiple locations, many of whom have people working out of home offices, have to be much more deliberate about making people at a distance feel connected and safe. Creating safety is about dialing into small, subtle moments and delivering targeted signals at key points. Here are a few tips on doing that:

Over-communicate Your Listening: When Coyle visited the successful cultures, he kept seeing the same expression on the faces of listeners. It looked like this: head tilted slightly forward, eyes unblinking, and eyebrows arched up. Their bodies were still, and they leaned toward the speaker with intent. The only sound they made was a steady stream of affirmations—yes, uh-huh, gotcha—that encouraged the speaker to keep going, to give them more. “Posture and expression are incredibly important,” said Ben Waber, a former Ph.D. student of Alex Pentland’s who founded Humanyze, a social analytics consulting firm. “It’s the way we prove that we’re in sync with someone.”

Similarly, it’s important to avoid interruptions. The smoothness of turn-taking, as we’ve seen, is a powerful indicator of cohesive group performance. Interruptions shatter the smooth interactions at the core of belonging. They are so discohesive, in fact, that Waber uses interruption metrics as sales training tools. “When you can show someone numbers that the top salespeople hardly ever interrupt people, and then rate them on that scale, you can deliver a powerful message,” he says. Of course, not all interruptions are negative: Creative sessions, for example, often contain bursts of interruptions. 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 with simple phrases like “This is just my two cents.” “Of course, I could be wrong here.” “What am I missing?” “What do you think?”
1. C. Buford, general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, is one of the most successful executives in the history of sports. But if you watch him operate, you might mistake him for an assistant. He’s a quiet, affable hound-dog Kansan who asks questions, listens keenly, and radiates humility. Early in our conversations, he brought up the looming retirements of several star players and said, “I’m absolutely terrified of the future.” He could have talked about the organization’s vaunted player selection and development systems, or the progress of the young players, or the smart trades they’d made, or the power of the culture they’d built. But he didn’t do that—he said he was terrified. This kind of signal is not just an admission of weakness; it’s also an invitation to create a deeper connection because it sparks a response in the listener: How can I help?
“To create safety, leaders need to actively invite input,” Edmondson says. “It’s really hard for people to raise their hand and say, ‘I have something tentative to say.’ And it’s equally hard for people not to answer a genuine question from a leader who asks for their opinion or their help.”

Embrace the Messenger: One of the most vital moments for creating safety is when a group shares bad news or gives tough feedback. In these moments, it’s important not simply to tolerate the difficult news but to embrace it. “You know the phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’?” Edmondson says. “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. Talk often about your future together with colleagues.

Overdo Thank-Yous: When you enter highly successful cultures, the number of thank-You’s 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 to them for allowing him to coach them. Those are his exact words: Thank you for allowing me to coach you. It makes little logical sense—after all, both Popovich and the player are amply compensated, and it’s not like the player had a choice whether to be coached. But this kind of moment happens all the time in highly successful groups because it has less to do with thanks than affirming the relationship.

For example, when I visited KIPP Infinity, a remarkable charter school in Harlem, New York, I witnessed teachers thanking one another over and over. The math teachers received T-shirts marking Pi Day as a surprise present from the administrative assistant. Then Jeff Li, who teaches eighth-grade math, sent emails to every teacher in the department expressing their appreciation for one another in their collective efforts to make KIPP a special place.

While all this thanking seems over the top, there’s strong scientific support that it ignites cooperative behavior. In a study by Adam Grant and Francesco Gino, subjects were asked to help a fictitious student named “Eric” write a cover letter for a job application. After helping him, half of the participants received a thankful response from Eric; half received a neutral response. The subjects then received a request for help from “Steve,” a different student. Those who had received thanks from Eric chose to help Steve more than twice as often as those who had received the neutral response. In other words, a small thank-you caused people to behave far more generously to a completely different person. This is because thank-yous aren’t only expressions of gratitude; they’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.

In Coyle’s research, he often observed the most powerful person in a group publicly express gratitude for one of the group’s least powerful members. For example, the chef Thomas Keller, who runs French Laundry, Per Se, and other world-class restaurants, has a habit of thanking the dishwasher at his restaurant openings, highlighting the fact that the performance of the restaurant depends on the person who performs the humblest task. Urban Meyer, who coached Ohio State football to a national championship in 2015, used this same method at the team’s post-title celebration at Ohio Stadium, which was attended by tens of thousands of students and fans. Everyone presumed he would begin the celebration by introducing the star players who had led the team to success. Instead, Meyer introduced an unheralded player named Nik Sarac, a reserve defensive back who, at the beginning of the season, had voluntarily given up his scholarship so that Meyer could give it to a player who could help the team more. Meyer spotlighted Sarac for the same reason Keller spotlighted the dishwashers—Here is the unheralded person who makes our success possible.