Where does great culture come from? How do you get it, or turn around a culture that needs fixing?
Most people believe that culture is determined by your group’s identity—by who you are. Strong, established cultures like Disney, Google, and the U.S. Marine Corps feel so special and distinctive that they seem almost predestined. In this way of thinking, a group’s culture is a fixed quality, rooted deep within its DNA. Certain special groups possess the gift of great culture; others don’t.
I’d like to argue for a different idea:
Your Culture = Your Actions
I believe culture doesn’t depend on who you are but on what you do. Culture is not a gift you receive; it’s a skill you learn. And like any skill, it can be done well or poorly.
You’ve likely experienced both. You know the warm, energizing cohesion of strong culture, the chilly dysfunction of weak culture, and the lurching roller-coaster of the places in between. What you might not know, however, is how much power you have to control, strengthen, and transform your group’s culture—if you take the right actions.
I’ve spent the past decade studying some of the most successful, cohesive cultures on the planet—including the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, Pixar, IDEO, the San Antonio Spurs, U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, and others. In 2018, I wrote The Culture Code, which explored the science of building great culture—and which propelled me further into that world. I’ve consulted with businesses, professional sports teams, and the military, as well as top-performing groups in education, technology, and the not-for-profit sector. I’ve gone behind the scenes and studied what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Early in my journey, I began capturing and analyzing the regimen of actions great groups use to build and sustain their cultures. Every time I encountered a useful method—a cohesion-building technique, a connective habit, a chemistry-igniting tip—I jotted it down and tucked it away in a file I titled “Good Stuff.” As time went by, the file kept growing—and growing. Eventually it grew big enough that I felt compelled to assemble the tips into a useful, shareable form. To create a catalog of field-tested culture-building actions—a playbook.
Rules for Using This Book
Rule 1: Start Where You’re At
You might think, as many people do, that great cultures exist on a higher plane, a happy, friction-free world where problems and disagreements happen rarely, and that everything they touch turns to gold. Let me emphasize: This is not true. Strong cultures wrestle with plenty of problems, disagree vigorously, and fail with regularity. The difference is, strong cultures experience these problems, disagreements, and failures within bonds of strong, secure connection, and they use them as leverage to learn and improve. (See Tip 23: Kill the Happy Smoothness Fallacy). So don’t start out chasing a tension-free fantasy, because that will only lead to frustration. Instead, take a skills-based approach. Begin by reflecting on where your group is strong and where it’s weak. Are you good at creating belonging, but do you struggle with creating purpose? Are you skilled at sharing risk, but less so at giving everyone a strong sense of connection? Start by building on your strengths; then address your weaknesses.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while these tips are meant to apply to everyone, bias and unfairness can be baked into institutions and processes in a variety of insidious ways—so it’s crucial to keep diversity, equality, and inclusion at the fore when implementing any of these actions.
Rule 2: Create Conversations, Not Mandates
Some of you, particularly leaders, may be tempted to use these tips to construct a top-down culture-improvement program for your group. Resist this temptation. Groups don’t improve their culture by mere compliance; rather, theyco-create a shared path and navigate it together. Use the actions that follow to generate reflection and conversation, and see where it leads you. To that end, I’ve included a handful of activities and exercises to help you assess your group’s culture, build your game plan, and track your progress.
Rule 3: There Are No Rules
Don’t think of this book as a rigid blueprint to be followed; rather, think of it as a set of proven actions that can still be improved. Test, tweak, and customize these actions to your group’s individual needs. Figure out what works for you, and don’t sweat the rest. Culture is always changing and evolving; your job is to continually adapt, respond, and perform the actions that keep it strong and healthy.
Most of all, let go of the outdated belief that great culture is reserved only for certain groups. Culture is not magic, and it’s never written in stone. Your group’s culture consists of living relationships of working toward a shared goal, and it’s built by the actions you take together, starting now.
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