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Related: Never Split the Difference, Team of Teams
A book about creating a great culture. Actionable instructions on how to improve your own behavior, the behavior of your team, and of your organization, to build a great culture.
Highly recommended for anyone who works with others and wants to improve team performance. You will learn skills that are applicable to individual relationships too.
The list of skills to create a great culture:
To cultivate trust and safety, you should strive for the following attitude: "Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging, and I’m curious about what everybody else has to say"
Body language–things like physical touch, eye contact, energy levels–all have a big impact on culture and attitude. The best cultures and environments are almost physically addictive.
Belonging cues always send the message: "You are safe here".
Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one thing: We are safe and connected.
It's a misconception that highly successful cultures are happy, lighthearted places. At their core, they are about solving hard problems together.
Many small things–like small, cutting jokes and comments–can have an effect on the overall culture, and these things should be eliminated.
Instead, you need to focus on overcommunicating, show that you are listening to others, overdoing thank-yous, and encouraging positive behaviors.
Getting through hard things together is a great way to build teamwork.
Make sure your leaders are vulnerable first and often.
Deliver negative stuff in person.
Resist the temptation to interject while listening.
Language within the group can be important, and you should try and use it to your advantage.
Creating purpose is about clearly creating a link between two things: where you are and where you want to go.
Creating purpose is about providing a steady stream of ultra-clear signals that are aligned with where you want to go (rather than one big signal).
Most of all he radiates an idea that is something like, Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging, and I’m curious about what everybody else has to say
When I visited these groups, I noticed a distinct pattern of interaction. The pattern was located not in the big things but in little moments of social connection. These interactions were consistent whether the group was a military unit or a movie studio or an inner-city school. I made a list:
One more thing: I found that spending time inside these groups was almost physically addictive.
Yeah 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.
Their function is to answer the ancient, ever-present questions glowing in our brains: Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?
Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:
These cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here.
"While listening to the pitches, though, another part of their brain was registering other crucial information, such as: How much does this person believe in this idea? How confident are they when speaking? How determined are they to make this work?
Overall Pentland’s studies show that team performance is driven by five measurable factors:
The Relationship Maker
"A lot of coaches can yell or be nice, but what Pop does is different," says assistant coach Chip Engelland. "He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death."
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.
The feedback was not complicated. In fact, it consisted of one simple phrase.
Actually, when you look more closely at the sentence, it contains three separate cues:
The Architect of the Greenhouse
"I used to like to try to make a lot of small clever remarks in conversation, trying to be funny, sometimes in a cutting way," he says. "Now I see how negatively those signals can impact the group. So I try to show that I’m listening. When they’re talking, I’m looking at their face, nodding, saying ‘What do you mean by that,’ ‘Could you tell me more about this,’ or asking their opinions about what we should do, drawing people out."
Creating safety is about dialing in to small, subtle moments and delivering targeted signals at key points. The goal of this chapter is to provide a few tips on doing that.
Overcommunicate Your Listening: When I visited the successful cultures, I 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.
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?"
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.
Overdo Thank-Yous: When you enter highly successful cultures, the number of thank-yous you hear seems slightly over the top.
Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process: Deciding who’s in and who’s out is the most powerful signal any group sends, and successful groups approach their hiring accordingly.
Eliminate Bad Apples: The groups I studied had extremely low tolerance for bad apple behavior and, perhaps more important, were skilled at naming those behaviors.
Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces: The groups I visited were uniformly obsessed with design as a lever for cohesion and interaction.
Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice: Ensuring that everyone has a voice is easy to talk about but hard to accomplish. This is why many successful groups use simple mechanisms that encourage, spotlight, and value full-group contribution.
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.
Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback: In many organizations, leaders tend to deliver feedback using the traditional sandwich method: You talk about a positive, then address an area that needs improvement, then finish with a positive. This makes sense in theory, but in practice it often leads to confusion, as people tend to focus either entirely on the positive or entirely on the negative.
Embrace Fun: This obvious one is still worth mentioning, because laughter is not just laughter; it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.
The interaction he describes can be called a vulnerability loop. 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:
The mechanism of cooperation can be summed up as follows: Exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.
The Nyquist Method
Nyquist by all accounts possessed two important qualities. The first was warmth. He had a knack for making people feel cared for; every contemporary description paints him as “fatherly." The second quality was a relentless curiosity. In a landscape made up of diverse scientific domains, he combined breadth and depth of knowledge with a desire to seek connections.
(The best way to find the Nyquist is usually to ask people: If I could get a sense of the way your culture works by meeting just one person, who would that person be?) If we think of successful cultures as engines of human cooperation, then the Nyquists are the spark plugs.
She uses the idea of dance to describe the skills she employs with IDEO’s design teams: to find the music, support her partner, and follow the rhythm.
They asked her [Givechi] to create modules of questions teams could ask themselves. For example, here are a few:
Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often: As we’ve seen, 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. As Dave Cooper says, "I screwed that up" are the most important words any leader can say.
Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:
"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
Overcommunicate Expectations: 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: This was an informal rule that I encountered at several cultures. It goes like this: 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.
When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments:
Listen Like a Trampoline: Good listening is about more than nodding attentively; it’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery.
In Conversation, Resist the Temptation to Reflexively Add Value: The most important part of creating vulnerability often resides not in what you say but in what you do not say. This means having the willpower to forgo easy opportunities to offer solutions and make suggestions.
Yeah Use Candor-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:
Some teams also use a Before-Action Review, which is built around a similar set of questions:
Red Teaming is a military-derived method for testing strategies; you create a "red team" to come up with ideas to disrupt or defeat your proposed plan. The key is to select a red team that is not wedded to the existing plan in any way, and to give them freedom to think in new ways that the planners might not have anticipated.
Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty: Giving honest feedback is tricky, because it can easily result in people feeling hurt or demoralized. One useful distinction, made most clearly at Pixar, is to aim for candor and avoid brutal honesty. By aiming for candor—feedback that is smaller, more targeted, less personal, less judgmental, and equally impactful—it’s easier to maintain a sense of safety and belonging in the group.
Embrace the Discomfort: One of the most difficult things about creating habits of vulnerability is that it requires a group to endure two discomforts: emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency. Doing an AAR or a BrainTrust combines the repetition of digging into something that already happened (shouldn’t we be moving forward?) with the burning awkwardness inherent in confronting unpleasant truths. But as with any workout, the key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group.
Align Language with Action: Many highly cooperative groups use language to reinforce their interdependence. For example, navy pilots returning to aircraft carriers do not “land" but are “recovered." IDEO doesn’t have "project managers"—it has "design community leaders." Groups at Pixar do not offer “notes" on early versions of films; they “plus" them by offering solutions to problems. These might seem like small semantic differences, but they matter because they continually highlight the cooperative, interconnected nature of the work and reinforce the group’s shared identity.
Build a Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development: While it seems natural to hold these two conversations together, in fact it’s more effective to keep performance review and professional development separate.
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. Those brief interactions help break down barriers inside a group, build relationships, and facilitate the awareness that fuels helping behavior.
Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear: Several leaders of successful groups have the habit of leaving the group alone at key moments.
The Fastest Learners
This is why so many of Meyer’s catchphrases focus on how to respond to mistakes.
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.
Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be: 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.
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:
Creative skills, on the other hand, are about empowering a group to do the hard work of building something that has never existed before. Generating purpose in these areas is like supplying an expedition: You need to provide support, fuel, and tools and to serve as a protective presence that empowers the team doing the work. Some ways to do that include:
Most groups, of course, consist of a combination of these skill types, as they aim for proficiency in certain areas and creativity in others. The key is to clearly identify these areas and tailor leadership accordingly.
Embrace the Use of Catchphrases: When you look at successful groups, a lot of their internal language features catchphrases that often sound obvious, rah-rah, or corny. Many of us instinctively dismiss them as cultish jargon. But this is a mistake. Their occasionally cheesy obviousness is not a bug—it’s a feature. Their clarity, grating to the outsider’s ear, is precisely what helps them function.
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.
Use Artifacts: If you traveled from Mars to Earth to visit successful cultures, it would not take you long to figure out what they were about. Their environments are richly embedded with artifacts that embody their purpose and identity.
Yeah Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors: One challenge of building purpose is to translate abstract ideas (values, mission) into concrete terms. One way successful groups do this is by spotlighting a single task and using it to define their identity and set the bar for their expectations.
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