Cost-free cultures.

Culture, especially in high performance sport, has become a buzz word. From books to symposiums, everybody wants to understand what makes the elite successful. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. It’s good to want to learn the why, but often context is bypassed. Suddenly, sheds are swept and a no d*&$head policy implemented. That’s great – if you are an All Black steeped in exceptional tradition and cultural values that span across generations of rugby.

However, in an industry predominantly based on our relationships with players and coaches, there are simple, daily practices that should become the norm as opposed to token gestures when building a culture. A strong culture must be built on taking care daily of what truly matters – people. Taking time to talk about family, opening doors, having a coffee with a colleague with no work related discussion. Personally, I think the more you understand about someone away from work the less astigmatic our relationships are.

In his brilliant book, The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle identifies 3 skills at the heart of how humans function within successful teams:

  1. Building safety & a sense of belonging creates a comfortable working environment.
  2. Share vulnerability – no one needs to be perfect.
  3. Establish purpose through a common goal and define a clear pathway to get there.

Now, while opening a door, saying good morning to everybody, taking the time to learn about others may seem small token gestures, or assumed to be the norm, there is a neural hardwiring that gives us a sense of belonging. These small, and perhaps to some, trivial interactions are part of our hardwiring. We want to belong. We want to feel like we belong, and when it comes to belonging our brains either do or don’t feel that.

For example, a recent study by Roghanizad and Bohns (2017), found that you are 34 more likely to recieve a positive response in person than you are via email. Small interactions matter on a large scale! In a face-to-face situations our hardwired brains have more interactions do deal with. Are we safe? Do I belong? Are we sharing risk? Are we working towards the same common goal for the benefit of the team? Just these questions are impossible to answer via WhatsApp / text / email. We need to communicate in person. 

In other words, culture is not a set of traits — it’s a signaling contest. Improve your signals, improve your culture.

Daniel Coyle

Coyle uses the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as a master of building the belonging culture within his team. Popovich mastered the concept of using three belonging cues (“you are part of this group,” “this group is special; we have high standards,” and “I believe you can reach those standards”) to create his highly successful basketball team.

After defeat to Oklahoma City Thunder, Coyle observed something extraordinary at the next Spurs practice session when the legendary coach arrived:

“Popovich wasn’t yelling now. He was walking around, wearing a misshapen T-shirt from Jordan’s Snack Bar in Ellsworth, Maine, and shorts a couple sizes too big. His hair was spare and frizzy, and he was carrying a paper plate with fruit and a plastic fork, his face set in a lopsided grin. He looked less like a commanding general than a friendly uncle at a picnic. Then he set down his plate and began to move around the gym, talking to players. He touched them on the elbow, the shoulder, the arm. He chatted in several languages. (The Spurs include players from five countries.) He laughed. His eyes were bright, knowing, active.

When Popovich wanted to connect with a player, he moved in tight enough that their noses nearly touched. As warm-ups continued, he kept roving, connecting. A former player walked up, and Popovich beamed, his face lighting up in a toothy grin. They talked for five minutes, catching up on life, kids and teammates. “Love you, brother,” Popovich said as they parted”

Coyle continued that shortly after practice the Spurs team assembled in the video analysis room expecting to go over the defeat to their arch rivals, Oklahoma. But this wasn’t the case. Popovich showed the team a documentary about the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Afterwards, the coach asked the team to discuss the film. His questions were intent on drawing a connection between the historical events and his individual playing staff. What did you think of it? What would you have done in that situation?

Gregg Popovich continually sent out the three belonging cues (“you are part of this group,” “this group is special; we have high standards,” and “I believe you can reach those standards”) to his players. These actions from the legendary coach draw parallels with a study by a team of psychologists. The researchers had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback. To their surprise, the researchers were amazed to discover there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.”

What was the magical feedback?

Just 19 words:

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them”

That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.

Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals that mirror those of Gregg Popovich;  You are part of this group. This group is special; we have higher standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.

Build a culture of trust, respect and hard work, but don’t losing the humanistic element of working with people. Ultimately, the small daily interactions we have amount to big things. We do not need to start at the top of the mountain to begin to build culture, instead we must focus on the small pebbles and continually build.

“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.”



Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email (Roghanizad,M and Bohns, V, 2017)

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Coyle, 2018)

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