We all know that humility is a moral virtue. We instinctively admire leaders who put others first, who are quick to share credit and slow to blame. But new research shows that humility is not just about being nice — it’s also smart. As this great story from Ashley Merryman demonstrates, humility is a catalyst for group growth.
As Owens and Hekman wrote in Academy of Management Journal, “Our findings suggest that humility appears to embolden individuals to aspire to their highest potential and enables them to make the incremental improvements necessary to progress toward that potential.”
It isn’t empty false praise or inflated self-esteem or tearing others down that pushes us to work to become our best selves. It’s humility.
Isn’t that terrific? It reminds me of a phrase I heard from a Navy SEALs commander during the research for the new book: a backbone of humility. I love that because it shows that humility isn’t weakness; it’s a strength.
I can’t stop watching this. (Pro tip: click to the 30-second mark)
You have to watch it a couple times to fully absorb it: four tires taken off and replaced with new ones in two seconds. Dozens of precisely coordinated actions, executed with perfect timing, as if it were a dance. The coolest part is the team’s reaction afterwards — how they go all casual, as if this were simple. Because, for them, it is!
The question: how many hours of team training built this?
Every group aspires to be the kind of place where the best idea wins. The reality is, most fall short of that goal.
The problem is, it’s really hard to argue well. Like any collision, every argument brings risk — will it damage our relationships? Hurt our status? As a result, many of us tend to avoid arguments, or (worse) engage half-heartedly, surrendering our position at the first sign of pushback.
Which raises a question: is there a better way?
The key, I think, is the way you think about the argument. We instinctively see argument as a negative — a tension that needs to be resolved. Strong cultures, however, flip that on its head. They view argument as a continual exercise, part of the never-ending process of getting feedback, locating the truth, and getting better. Argument isn’t the disruption to the status quo — it is the status quo. It’s not a problem to be solved; it’s a craft that you practice together.
I remember listening to a high-ranking member of the San Antonio Spurs front office argue with a coach over shot selection — basically, whether it was smarter to shoot open two-pointers, or to always try for a three-pointer. The two went at it, hammer and tongs, for half an hour — a loud, energetic volley of argument and ideas and numbers, each side pressing its case, offering evidence, appealing to reason and emotion. Then, when it was finished, they made plans to get dinner together. It was awesome.
So here, in no particular order, are a few tips borrowed from successful groups for the craft of arguing better:
1) Be open about it. Don’t hide behind closed doors; instead seek to hold arguments in public places, where it becomes normalized.
2) Aim to be energetic and civil. Sarcasm and personal attacks are off limits.
3) Keep it focused on the issue at hand, and don’t let one argument expand into other areas.
4) End by affirming your connection. A lot of the arguments I witnessed ended with some version of, “I’m glad we can talk like this.” This is not just a nice sound-bite; it also happens to be true.
Most meetings are bad. This is because not because people are bad or dumb — it’s because meetings bias us toward status management. Here’s the only stat you need to know: in a typical eight-person meeting, three people will do 80 percent of the talking.
But lately I’ve seen a couple of simple hacks that successful groups use to make meetings better.Here is the simplest: a meeting cheat-sheet. It’s a sheet of paper with two sentences on it: 1) TALK LESS; and 2) HELP OTHERS TALK MORE.
Here’s another: have the leader of the group call on the least-powerful person to share first. This will send a signal of connection, and defuse status management. (It’s also best if the leader gives that person some advance notice, so they can prepare).
I know, these kinds of tiny nudges seem almost too simple. But they work, because they help fight the inescapable behavioral drift that happens in life; they sweep away distraction and reconnect you to the real goals. My favorite example of this technique involves New England quarterback Tom Brady, who carries a small card in his wallet with a list of fundamentals written on it. The words aren’t complex — Keep your fingers on top of the ball, Feel like you’re throwing down a hallway, that kind of stuff. But they have an impact, because they reconnect him to the truly important things.
Every leader on the planet is looking for ways to make their groups more cohesive; to empower it to solve problems on its own. The question is, how?
The other day, I heard a cool story on how to do that by asking one simple question. The story goes like this:
A few years back, a team of Pixar engineers were using a new programming technique to solve a tough problem. All of a sudden they look up to see Ed Catmull watching them. The engineers freeze. This is Ed Freaking Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. Not just their boss, but also the most powerful person in their industry, a brilliant engineer who worked with George Lucas, Steve Jobs, and who literally invented some of the graphics tools animators use every day.
Catmull mildly asks the engineers what they’re up to, and so they tell him. Catmull nods, watches for a few minutes. Then he asks a question.
“Hey, after you’re done, would you mind coming by my office and teaching me that?”
So they did. The engineers spent a highly engaging hour walking Catmull through the new technique.
Isn’t that great? No big speeches, no memos, nothing fancy. But the engineer who told the story still got goosebumps about it, ten years later. Because in his simple, curious question, Catmull had delivered three unmistakable signals:
Learning is valued here
I’m not above you
We teach each other things
We normally think of cohesion as a trait: groups either have it or they don’t. But that’s wrong. Cohesion is a conversation. It’s an exchange of behaviors that happens over and over. Small signals — hey, would you teach me that? — that send a larger message: we are connected.
You’re reading this blog because you’re looking for some good ideas. So here’s the best idea I have: please stop reading this immediately, and click over a remarkable place that, in my opinion, delivers more good ideas per square inch than anything else on the web: Adam Grant’s Twitter account.
As we all know, Twitter is the ultimate mixed bag. But Adam (who teaches at Wharton, writes terrific books, and, full disclosure, is a friend) is delivering something very different. Such as:
See what I mean? The man is an insight machine. He identifies a problem many people struggle with, and he points out a fresh way to think about it. Adam is the king of improving mental models. If you just printed out his tweets, you’d have one of the better leadership books written in the last 10 years.
Recently, I asked Adam how he did this. Here’s what he says: he reads a lot, and then limits himself to ten minutes per day on social media. Which is precisely the kind of insight that you might find in an Adam Grant tweet: setting tight time limits doesn’t kill creativity; it amplifies it.
At first glance, this is a bit over the top. Curry alreadyknows he’s good. Shouldn’t Kerr be challenging him? Pushing him to new heights?
The key is to realize that Kerr isn’t coaching; he’s building a bond. Let’s look more closely at how Kerr does it. Here’s what he says in one of the exchanges:
Love it. One of the things I love about you is you’re two for 11, and you have no hesitation about shooting a sixty footer… nobody in the league does that… You have so much confidence in yourself, and within games like this, you turn it on like that. That’s awesome. Amazing. I wish I had your confidence.
The first to notice here is the timing. Kerr delivers this signal in a moment of tension, just after Curry attempts an insane sixty-foot shot when he is having a bad game. It’s a moment when a lot of coaches might be questioning that decision, or perhaps joking about it — Come on, sixty feet, are you crazy? Kerr does the opposite, because he understands that these moments of tension are exactly when the bonds are built, not in the easy moments of victory.
The other thing to notice is how specifically and personally Kerr shows his appreciation. He describes Curry’s impact in detail while signaling his own vulnerability. Nobody in the league does that… I could never do that.I wish I had your confidence. He also delivers one of the most powerful signals a leader can deliver, a burst of pure delight. (And it connects: check out at the expression on Curry’s face at the 27-second mark.)
The final thing to notice is the repetition. Kerr knows it’s not enough to say these things once and presume Curry gets it. Kerr sends this relational message all the time, over and over and over, because that’s how bonds are sustained. Over-thanking and over-appreciating is not accidental — it’s required.
And here’s the cool thing: None of this is complex, or dependent on technical knowledge of any kind. It requires only an alertness for the opportunity, and the ability to deliver simple signals — we are connected. I see you. I care.
You already know that culture is the single most powerful force driving your group’s performance. The real question is, how does it work? How do you make your group’s culture better? How do you fix one that needs strengthening?
The answer, as with so many other big questions, lies in the mental models we use.
The traditional mental model is that culture is “the soft stuff” — a special, nuanced set of traits and character that groups possess. If you diagrammed this model on a whiteboard, you would create something like this:
This approach feels logical, but it brings a problem: There’s no how. It’s essentially a bunch of fuzzy, warm concepts mixed together in a fuzzy, warm cloud. This model is the reason why we find culture-building so mysterious and frustrating. When faced with a culture problem, this model offers no solutions, no plans, and no process.
There’s a better way. It’s called a behavioral model of culture, and it’s what my new book is about. Here’s how it works, in three steps.
Step 1: click this video:
These starlings represent the ultimate in group performance: cohesive, cooperative, agile. They do not possess “soft skills” of any kind; after all, their brains are the size of a grain of rice. But they can perform like this because they are good at one thing: paying continuous attention to small signals of connection, space, and direction.
Step 2: Stop thinking in terms of “values” and “mission” and “accountability,” and all those other warm, fuzzy terms. Instead, start thinking like a starling. Think about your group’s culture as a continuous set of three fundamental signals:
1) we are safely connected
2) we share accurate information
3) we know which way to move
Seen through this lens, culture is not about soft stuff — it’s about signaling. Because human brains are incredibly good at perceiving signals that we are safe (or not); whether we are being vulnerable by sharing accurate information (or not), and whether we are moving in the same direction (or not). In other words, culture is not a set of traits — it’s a signaling contest. Improve your signals, improve your culture.
Step 3: Replace your old model with this:
The three signals work together: safety and shared vulnerability reinforce each other, combining to create ever deeper connection; story provides the direction, the purpose. More important, this model provides the how — a way to solve problems.
Having problems with belonging/engagement? You should focus on flooding the zone with signals of safety and connection. Have a problem with giving good feedback and sharing the truth? Focus on signaling vulnerability and openness. Have a problem of choosing between competing priorities? Focus on filling your peoples’ windshield with signals of the group’s story and purpose. Your group’s culture doesn’t depend on who you are; it depends on what you do.
Culture isn’t magic. It’s about tuning into a series of small moments that send powerful signals: You are safe. We share risk here. We are headed this direction.
So here we are again, another Super Bowl week with our nation forced to confront the Belichick Conundrum. Which is this: how does this grim, cranky, secretive, ruthless, uncharismatic coach keep building a winning culture, year after year?
The usual answer: Belichick is a football Einstein, a genius who out-thinks, out-schemes, and out-adjusts everybody else. That he is, like a chess grandmaster or an ace fighter pilot, always three moves ahead of the opposing coaches. That he justsees the game differently.
It’s a tempting view. But when you look closely at how Belichick operates, he’s actually the opposite. He’s not leading like an Einstein. He’s more like the foreman of a construction job. He’s leading by focusing obsessively on small, mundane tasks.
For a glimpse inside his method, check out the Belichick Breakdowns. In the video series, Belichick analyzes half a dozen or so key plays from the previous game. You’ll notice a pattern: Belichick skips over all the amazing athletic moves, the key turnovers, and pretty much anything that you might remember from the game. Instead, he focuses exclusively and obsessively on the little moments — the perfectly executed block that turned a 3-yard run into a 4-yard run. The way a defensive player sealed off an end that led to an incompletion. He focuses, with insane precision, on routine moments where a tiny individual improvement — better technique, better timing, better awareness — boosted the team’s performance.
In fact, it’s possible to categorize the kinds of things he talks about into three buckets:
1) Is it Replicable? Is this a one-off fluke, or is it an action that can be applied in a variety of situations? Blocking technique matters on every single play. If Belichick were a guitar teacher, he wouldn’t care about that kick-ass solo — instead, he’d obsess about thumb position and finger angle, the stuff that matters on every single chord you play.
2) Is it Controllable? Is this something that has to do with effort, awareness and planning? If you watch the breakdowns, you’ll see how he makes heroes of players who pay attention, who anticipate, who get to the right spot at the right time. If Belichick were a high-school English teacher teaching Huckleberry Finn, he’d make heroes of the students who are first to spot the themes and connections in the text, because that’s about awareness and effort.
3) Is it Connective? Is it related to a successful outcome? Belichick understands that every big play is built on a scaffold of solid technique. So he focuses, like any good foreman would, on the foundational things that made success possible. Each of those small moves (the perfectly executed block) is in fact vital, because without it all the good luck (the big pass play) never happens.
This approach seems disappointing at first glance, especially in comparison to the Einstein model. But in another sense, it’s better. His success as a coach doesn’t depend on some brilliant moment insight, but rather on the sustained and relentless application of awareness, knowledge, and communication. It’s steady. It’s reliable. Above all, it works because it generates a powerful cultural message, which roughly translates as THE LITTLE STUFF IS THE BIG STUFF.
And it works. Recall that moment with 20 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX, with the Seahawks on the Patriots one-yard line, about to score the winning touchdown. The Seahawks attempted to surprise the Pats with a pass, and then this happened.
How? It turned out Belichick had worked with cornerback Malcolm Butler earlier on the week on the details of that play, from that formation. Butler remembered, recognized, cut in front of the receiver, and intercepted the ball. It might have been a great play, but it was built by great craft.
(Note: a version of this piece appeared on my blog on Jan 24, 2012)
Wanted to let you know that The Culture Code is officially out today in hardcover, ebook, and audio. Love to hear what you think; you can find me on Facebook here, LinkedIn here, and on Twitter here.
A lot of people have asked me where the idea originally came from. And there are a lot of valid answers to that question, because, like you, I bump into the mysteries of group culture all the time. But when I think back, it all started with a tennis ball.
Let me back up a sec. It was about ten years ago. I was at a ramshackle indoor tennis court outside Moscow, at a legendary club called Spartak, researching talent development systems. I was observing a dozen kids hitting balls under the supervision of an imposing 77-year-old coach named Larisa. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the outer door squeak slowly open, and a new student walks in. She’s perhaps twelve. This is her first day; she’s carrying a racquet in a plastic shopping bag. Her eyes are wide, alert, on edge.
That’s when Larisa walks over.
Larisa is all warmth. She says, Welcome, I’m glad you’re here. The girl responds shyly. And then Larisa reaches in her pocket and pulls out a tennis ball, presenting it as if it were a precious stone. Then Larisa raises her eyebrows a notch: get ready. Then it happens: Larisa tosses the ball to the girl, and the girl catches it. Larisa smiles with delight. So does the girl.
The whole exchange takes all of ten seconds. But in that toss of the tennis ball — in that simple interaction — the girl stopped being an outsider and started belonging to the tribe. Larisa transformed this ordinary moment into something powerful, a doorway. And I saw a deeper truth: all of the remarkable talent here originated with, and utterly depended on, these moments of connection, belonging, and culture.
That tennis ball sent me on this journey to find out how leaders in other groups create connection, cohesion, and chemistry. I spent the past five years visiting some of the planet’s top-performing cultures (Pixar, San Antonio Spurs, SEALs Team Six, Zappos, IDEO, and a Serbian gang of jewel thieves, among others). The book explores a new way of thinking about culture, and delivers tips on improving leadership, cohesion, and performance. It was a complete blast to research and write; I can’t wait to hear what you think.