15th June 2018 Tony Corballis

Teams like Swirling Starlings

That flock of starlings that dart and swirl across the sky in unison. What drives them. How can they possibly compute the complexities of what they are involved in? How can they have a ‘single mind’ as they do. And what about ants? Is your team like the starlings, or the ants … or is it more like trying to herd cats? How do we become more than the sum of our parts?

What your team may lack is ‘culture’.

Daniel Coyle, a former New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Talent Code: Talent isn’t Born’, builds on a century of advice on building and running groups in the world’s greatest organisations and their teams – to the great civilisation we call modernity. Indeed, amazing minds have dedicated their lives to learning about group dynamics and what works and what works against us, from the ancients through to the incredible Kurt Lewin in the early 20th century and the likes of Edgar Schein, Charles Handy, Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg. All of them gave us world-changing insights that shifted paradigms. But perhaps Coyle, in building on all this and more recent studies along with practical observations, brings us a fresh message about culture in teams. His new book is called ‘The Culture Code: The Secrets of highly Successful Groups’ and it has changed my practice.

He has data to prove that successful teams are those with culture, while failing teams are those without. As simple as that. We tend to see culture as a quality – that something we have. Something we get. But it is so much more than that.

Members of cohesive groups with culture do things differently. They pay attention to signals of connection. These are signals about sharing a sense of safety, sharing vulnerability, sharing direction, sharing stories. Coyle calls this a ‘grammar of signals’. It’s all deep in our feelings.

His explanations are replete with vivid stories, he reports, for example, on a study where groups of kindergarten kids managed to beat groups of CEOs, lawyers and MBAs time and time again, on simple tasks constructing matchstick buildings to balance a marshmallow on top. The adults look like they’re cooperating but actually they’re engaging in status management. They struggle and bitch, exhibiting a total lack of unifying, identifiable team culture. They expend energy on negotiating whose decision is top. Who answers to who. And so on. On the other hand, the chaotic, multiple collapses and subsequent hysteria in the infants’ activity do not mean failure. Their purest of innovation and freedom from social constraint ensures a growing sense of unity and focus. A clear culture becomes evident; in the end, they win every time, beating the corporate professionals.

Belonging is key. A belonging cue given to a group results in significantly greater performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a call centre team or a bunch of scientists. Meanwhile, toxic teams have members that fear reprimand, rejection, redundancy or loss.

Vulnerability is also key. There is nothing like leadership prepared to say ‘I messed up. I am sorry!’ Or sending a two-liner email: ‘Tell me one thing you don’t like about my approach and one thing you do like’.

How people are rewarded is key too, of course. And how they look is key too, in fact. Think about the exhibiting of signals of interest: open face, wide eyes and high eyebrows. And on we go. Coyle goes on to unpick all the minutia of what drives us as a social species, what trust is exactly, and how cohesion develops accordingly.

Coyle claims that if we take on this way of seeing team success, it will trigger learning, spark collaboration, build trust, and drive positive change. He has cutting-edge studies to support him, along with on-the-ground acumen gleaned from global leaders.

As a coach, when I unpack team-orientation and team-building strategies as a client’s competency, I tend to focus on certain indicators: recognising true diversity (including neurodiversity) and playing to members’ strengths; having a sense of responsibility and consequent support for the weakest link in the team – be it through individual mentoring or scaled CPD needs analysis; and establishing channels for systematic, honest and symmetrical communication, with shared goals clearly in focus.

But now I have another indicator to consider: What are you doing to develop the culture? How do you make people feel they belong? What narratives are you propagating? What is the divide between the narratives you craft and those that persist, and why? What kind of safety do your members feel?

I am very excited to bring this into my coaching conversations.

Tony Corballis, 2018

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