We have all read dozens of books on leadership and teamwork and some of us have even written one or more ourselves. Many of those books and our observation of many boards and executive teams have taught us the importance of building deep trust and rapport to build resilient and successful boards and executive teams. But how can that deep trust and rapport be built?
Those same books and our observations have also taught us that the really resilient and successful teams have built psychological safety, shared vulnerability and forged unity around a common purpose. That sounds simple but it has proved much harder for many than you would expect, especially the sharing of vulnerability.
Unfortunately, too many of us, particularly from an older generation, like to show a bulletproof façade and that we are in control. We don’t like to let our guard down and show that we are other than perfect. But that approach prevents us from sharing even the slightest vulnerability – and unfortunately that will make it almost impossible to build the deep trust needed for teams to work through those inevitable tough times together.
Three teams that work as one
In a board context, we often refer to three teams. For a board to be highly effective and perform at the highest level the following three teams need to build psychological safety, share vulnerability and forge unity around a common purpose:
- The board
- The executive team
- The board and the executive team
Each of those teams is important in the context of a board and if any one is not working well it will lower the performance of the others and therefore of the organisation. But when all those three teams are working well and having the rigorous and constructive conversation they need, it is a beautiful thing to behold! Those three teams will all know that they are working really well when they begin to work as one.
The Culture Code
The three prerequisites we refer to above – building great teamwork, deep trust and rapport – are set out very well in Daniel Coyle’s book titled, The Culture Code. We recommend you read this book if you want to improve the way your board and executive team functions.
If you don’t have time to read the book we have put together a collection of extracts from the book and a YouTube clip you can watch.
The Big Idea: The Culture Code is based on a simple insight — great groups don’t happen by chance.
According to Daniel Coyle, they are built on three universal rules:
- Start With Safety
Great group chemistry isn’t luck; it’s about sending super-clear, continuous signals: we share a future, you have a voice.
- Get Vulnerable and Stay Vulnerable
Strong cultures don’t hide their weaknesses; they make a habit of sharing them, so they can improve together (in other words, humility).
- Roadmap Your Story (Purpose)
It’s not about nice-sounding value statements — it’s about flooding the zone with vivid narratives that work like GPS signals, guiding your group toward its goal.
This 4-minute video of the author captures the essence of The Culture Code.
These are the essentials for successful teams:
#1 Vulnerability is First
The common idea in many Western cultures, especially in the business world, is that trust is necessary before you can be vulnerable with others and with your followers as a leader. This requires that leaders must be vulnerable with their followers, which includes honesty and integrity even if they make mistakes.
In other words, we are talking about humility – we can’t possibly know everything.
#2 Followers Must Feel Safe
In tandem with the above, Coyle says that your followers need to feel safe and that they belong with your group or organisation for them to fully buy into your mission and provide their best efforts. This includes being honest with them and sending signals that they can trust you and be open about their insecurities and goals.
There is a reason why people like working from home: they feel safe and that’s what leaders need to aim for; create a home away from home so that people feel safe.
#3 Safety Breeds Cooperation
If you successfully make a safe and purposeful environment for your followers, you’ll foster a company culture that inspires people to work together. No one achieved great works on their own, and if you want your workers to trust and work well with one another they need to feel safe and led by a leader with a singular vision. Cooperation without competition is the way for companies that have strong cultures.
#4 Purpose is Clarifying
Whenever you’re outlining your objectives to your followers, a good leader striving to create a strong business culture should always keep the overall purpose of the venture first and foremost. Purpose helps your followers and you tailor the culture toward your ultimate goal without getting bogged down in short-term gains and losses.
#5 Reveal Your Failures
As a leader, one of the best ways you can show vulnerability is to reveal your own mistakes and admit when you come up short. Not only does this show your strength to your followers but it also tells your employees that is acceptable to make mistakes from time to time. This will stop your employees from trying to cover up their faults and will also cause them to trust you more fully.
#6 Keep the End Goal Simple
Whatever your guiding star ultimate goal is, it should be simple and purposeful. Don’t have your venture’s end result be a complicated achievement that can’t be easily distilled into a few sentences or less. Some up all of the beliefs and values of your team or company into a single final goal and your followers will be able to keep this in mind more easily.
#7 Keep Workers Close By
When designing your office space or deciding where most of your endeavour’s activity is going to take place, try to keep yourself and your followers close in proximity. While it’s important that everyone has their own space, keeping everyone close together increases the number of innovations and cooperation between you and your followers.
Another way of putting it is that face-to-face is a much more effective way of enhancing work, discussions, ideas, debate and overcoming hurdles. So much gets lost in digital communication.
#8 Constantly Thank Your Followers
According to Coyle, there is no limit to the amount of thank you’s and gratitude you can give to your employees. Your followers love to be recognised for their work and their achievements, so don’t hold back on letting them know exactly how proud you are and how thrilled you are with their efforts thus far.
#9 Practice Failure Drills
It’s similarly important to always have an action plan in place for when the inevitable happens and a mistake is made or you experience a pitfall. If you are prepared for any eventuality, shortcomings won’t hurt your company so much and your overall corporate culture will be able to withstand significant setbacks without imploding.
#10 Be Very Honest
In our culture, Coyle says, we often don’t really say what we mean which causes miscommunication and frustration. Instead, leaders looking to build a strong business culture will always be very direct in what they say and mean. This applies to both the praise doled out to your employees and any criticism you might have.
The disruption of the digital age has had a great impact on communication. Whilst it has increased efficiency, the digital age is limiting personal contact and the way we communicate due to the sheer volume of digital mail, text, socials etc. in addition, you never know what is going on in people’s lives. Think about all these distractions when you are communicating and how you are communicating.
#11 Eye Contact
Good leaders will make liberal use of eye contact when conversing with their followers. Eye contact makes people feel intimate and connected. Not only will this make people trust you and feel more vulnerable in your presence but they will also usually emulate the activity, causing eye contact around your culture to grow on its own.
85% of the way we communicate is without writing or speaking a word – some would argue that percentage is even higher. Physiology including voice, tonality, expressions, body language, and demeanour give out as stronger cues and messages as the written and spoken word. Action and words speak as loudly as each other.
#12 Don’t Interrupt
When you’re listening to an employee, either as they explain an idea or they are giving you feedback, don’t interrupt them. This will make them feel like they are truly listened to and will find them closer to you as a leader. This is critical for establishing an open line of communication between you and your followers and ensuring that honesty is the rule rather than the exception.
#13 Ask Questions
Finally, Coyle suggests that leaders should ask lots of questions from their followers. Questions enable your followers to talk about themselves and reveal their desires and hopes, as well as their worries. This is a great way to get feedback and build a personal connection with all of your followers at the same time.
#14 No Long Speeches
Coyle also says that rambling on during a long speech is a great way to draw too much attention to yourself and make people feel that they aren’t being listened to. If you do need to address all of your employees, keep your speeches short, sweet, and to the point.
One last point: great teams work (and organisations), not because they have the magical ingredient of chemistry, instead this chemistry has been nurtured and developed. Performance comes from developing cohesion and trust through safety, vulnerability and a shared purpose.
Top Quotes from The Culture Code
- “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialise beneath our feet.”
- “The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”
- “Belonging cues are behaviours that create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group.”
- “The number-one job is to take care of each other. I didn’t always know that, but I know it now.”
- “As Dave Cooper says, I screwed that up are the most important words any leader can say.”
- “We are all paid to solve problems. Make sure to pick fun people to solve problems with.
- “Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding.
- “Envision a reachable goal, and envision the obstacles. The thing is, as Oettingen discovered, this method works, triggering significant changes in behaviour and motivation.
- “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.”
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