An Excerpt From The Culture Code


When Two Plus Two Equals Ten

Let’s start with a question, which might be the oldest question of all: Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?

A few years ago the designer and engineer Peter Skillman held a competition to find out. Over several months, he assembled a series of four-person groups at Stanford, the University of California, the University of Tokyo, and a few other places. He challenged each group to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:

The contest had one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top. The fascinating part of the experiment, however, had less to do with the task than with the participants. Some of the teams consisted of business school students. The others consisted of kindergartners.

The business students got right to work. They began talking and thinking strategically. They examined the materials. They tossed ideas back and forth and asked thoughtful, savvy questions. They generated several options, then honed the most promising ideas. It was professional, rational, and intelligent. The process resulted in a decision to pursue one particular strategy. Then they divided up the tasks and started building.

The kindergartners took a different approach. They did not strategize. They did not analyze or share experiences. They did not ask questions, propose options, or hone ideas. In fact, they barely talked at all. They stood very close to one another. Their interactions were not smooth or organized. They abruptly grabbed materials from one another and started building, following no plan or strategy. When they spoke, they spoke in short bursts: “Here! No, here!” Their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together.

If you had to bet which of the teams would win, it would not be a difficult choice. You would bet on the business school students, because they possess the intelligence, skills, and experience to do a superior job. This is the way we normally think about group performance. We presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance in the same way we presume two plus two will combine to produce four. Your bet would be wrong. In dozens of trials, kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.

The result is hard to absorb because it feels like an illusion. We see smart, experienced business school students, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a poor performance. We see unsophisticated, inexperienced kindergartners, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a successful performance. But this illusion, like every illusion, happens because our instincts have led us to focus on the wrong details. We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.

The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? Their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem (the marshmallow is relatively heavy, and the spaghetti is hard to secure). As a result, their first efforts often collapse, and they run out of time.

The actions of the kindergartners appear disorganized on the surface. But when you view them as a single entity, their behavior is efficient and effective. They are not competing for status. They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guides them toward effective solutions.

The kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.

This book is the story of how that method works.

Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. We sense its presence inside successful businesses, championship teams, and thriving families, and we sense when it’s absent or toxic. We can measure its impact on the bottom line. (A strong culture increases net income 765 percent over ten years, according to a Harvard study of more than two hundred companies.) Yet the inner workings of culture remain mysterious. We all want strong culture in our organizations, communities, and families. We all know that it works. We just don’t know quite how it works.

The reason may be based in the way we think about culture. We tend to think about it as a group trait, like DNA. Strong, well-established cultures like those of Google, Disney, and the Navy SEALs feel so singular and distinctive that they seem fixed, somehow predestined. In this way of thinking, culture is a possession determined by fate. Some groups have the gift of strong culture; others don’t.

This book takes a different approach. I spent the last four years visiting and researching eight of the world’s most successful groups, including a special-ops military unit, an inner-city school, a professional basketball team, a movie studio, a comedy troupe, a gang of jewel thieves, and others. I found that their cultures are created by a specific set of skills. These skills, which tap into the power of our social brains to create interactions exactly like the ones used by the kindergartners building the spaghetti tower, form the structure of this book. Skill 1—Build Safety—explores how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity. Skill 2—Share Vulnerability—explains how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation. Skill 3—Establish Purposetells how narratives create shared goals and values. The three skills work together from the bottom up, first building group connection and then channeling it into action. Each part of the book is structured like a tour: We’ll first explore how each skill works, and then we’ll go into the field to spend time with groups and leaders who use these methods every day. Each part will end with a collection of concrete suggestions on applying these skills to your group.

In the following pages, we’ll spend time inside some of the planet’s top-performing cultures and see what makes them tick. We’ll take a look inside the machinery of the brain and see how trust and belonging are built. Along the way, we’ll see that being smart is overrated, that showing fallibility is crucial, and that being nice is not nearly as important as you might think. Above all, we’ll see how leaders of high-performing cultures navigate the challenges of achieving excellence in a fast-changing world. While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.

1. The Good Apples

Meet Nick, a handsome, dark-haired man in his twenties seated comfortably in a wood-paneled conference room in Seattle with three other people. To outward appearances, he is an ordinary participant in an ordinary meeting. This appearance, however, is deceiving. The other people in the room do not know it, but his mission is to sabotage the group’s performance.

Nick is the key element of an experiment being run by Will Felps, who studies organizational behavior at the University of South Wales in Australia. Felps has brought in Nick to portray three negative archetypes: the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type). Nick plays these roles inside forty-four-person groups tasked with constructing a marketing plan for a start-up. In effect, Felps injects him into the various groups the way a biologist might inject a virus into a body: to see how the system responds. Felps calls it the bad apple experiment.

Nick is really good at being bad. In almost every group, his behavior reduces the quality of the group’s performance by 30 to 40 percent. The drop-off is consistent whether he plays the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer.

“When Nick is the Downer, everybody comes into the meeting really energized. He acts quiet and tired and at some point puts his head down on his desk,” Felps says. “And then as the time goes by, they all start to behave that way, tired and quiet and low energy. By the end, there are three others with their heads down on their desks like him, all with their arms folded.”

When Nick plays the Slacker, a similar pattern occurs. “The group quickly picks up on his vibe,” Felps says. “They get done with the project very quickly, and they do a half-assed job. What’s interesting, though, is that when you ask them about it afterward, they’re very positive on the surface. They say, ‘We did a good job, we enjoyed it.’ But it isn’t true. They’d picked up on the attitude that this project really didn’t matter, that it wasn’t worth their time or energy. I’d gone in expecting that someone in the group would get upset with the Slacker or the Downer. But nobody did. They were like, ‘Okay, if that’s how it is, then we’ll be Slackers and Downers too.’”

Except for one group.

“It’s the outlier group,” Felps says. “They first came to my attention when Nick mentioned that there was one group that felt really different to him. This group performed well no matter what he did. Nick said it was mostly because of one guy. You can see this guy is causing Nick to get almost infuriated— his negative moves aren’t working like they had in the other groups, because this guy could find a way to flip it and engage everyone and get people moving toward the goal.”

We’ll call this person Jonathan. He is a thin, curly-haired young man with a quiet, steady voice and an easy smile. Despite the bad apple’s efforts, Jonathan’s group is attentive and energetic, and they produce high-quality results. The more fascinating part, from Felps’s view, is that at first glance, Jonathan doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all.

“A lot of it is really simple stuff that is almost invisible at first,” Felps says. “Nick would start being a jerk, and [Jonathan] would lean forward, use body language, laugh and smile, never in a contemptuous way, but in a way that takes the danger out of the room and defuses the situation. It doesn’t seem all that different at first. But when you look more closely, it causes some incredible things to happen.”

Over and over Felps examines the video of Jonathan’s moves, analyzing them as if they were a tennis serve or a dance step. They follow a pattern: Nick behaves like a jerk, and Jonathan reacts instantly with warmth, deflecting the negativity and making a potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe. Then Jonathan pivots and asks a simple question that draws the others out, and he listens intently and responds. Energy levels increase; people open up and share ideas, building chains of insight and cooperation that move the group swiftly and steadily toward its goal.

“Basically, [Jonathan] makes it safe, then turns to the other people and asks, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ ” Felps says. “Sometimes he even asks Nick questions like, ‘How would you do that?’ 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. It was amazing how such simple, small behaviors kept everybody engaged and on task.” Even Nick, almost against his will, found himself being helpful.

The story of the good apples is surprising in two ways. First, we tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience, not on a subtle pattern of small behaviors. Yet in this case those small behaviors made all the difference.

The second surprise is that Jonathan succeeds without taking any of the actions we normally associate with a strong leader. He doesn’t take charge or tell anyone what to do. He doesn’t strategize, motivate, or lay out a vision. He doesn’t perform so much as create conditions for others to perform, constructing an environment whose key feature is crystal clear: We are solidly connected. Jonathan’s group succeeds not because its members are smarter but because they are safer.

We don’t normally think of safety as being so important. We consider safety to be the equivalent of an emotional weather system—noticeable but hardly a difference maker. But what we see here gives us a window into a powerful idea. Safety is not mere emotional weather but rather the foundation on which strong culture is built. The deeper questions are, Where does it come from?  And how do you go about building it?

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