This post summarizes how PISE (Positive Impact Society Erasmus, the EA group at Erasmus University Rotterdam) was influenced by lessons from The Culture Code, a book by Daniel Coyle, and why we, the authors, think more groups could benefit from implementing these lessons. We would be excited to see more groups share how books influenced their culture. In this post, we give a small taste of the book, some caveats, and share our experiences with it. If you should take away one thing from this post, then it is this:
The forum boasts some great examples of notes on books about management and organizational culture (See here, here & here). Within PISE we love to share books that have helped us become better community builders and leaders; For multiple group members, the book that stands out is The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle. In sharing our thoughts on the book outside of PISE, we would like to start a little tradition. As a local group, share which book inspired you most and why.
In this post, we’ll try to convince you to read The Culture Code by giving a sneak peek and illustrating how we put it into action. Let’s begin:
“Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?” This is the main question that the Culture Code explores. The book shares interesting examples about sports teams, unicorns in Silicon Valley, and the Navy SEALS. These were paired with lots of studies that reveal the ingredients of so-called “high-achieving cultures”.
The culture within teams and organizations seems to be a major factor in determining whether they will be “high-performing”. Discussions of organizational culture can sometimes be focused on avoiding negatives, such as strategies for conflict resolution and finding out what alienates outsiders. However, such discussions miss out on ways of creating the positives, such as ways to create highly energetic teams and an exceptionally welcoming atmosphere. (for one great example that focuses on the positives see David Coman-Hidy: Taking care of our people — cultivating a supportive organizational culture). We view the lessons of The Culture Code as a possible factor to huge success for engagement and a feeling of purpose within student groups.
The book identifies three main elements of exceptional organizational cultures: safety, vulnerability, and purpose.
Groups succeed because their members primarily communicate a powerful idea: we are safe and connected. Then, they translate connection & safety into trusting cooperation through vulnerability: a shared exchange of openness. Finally, they create purpose with simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. In summary, you need to feel safe in a group, such that you can express vulnerability and have a shared purpose. The (lack of) care for these elements is one way of explaining why some groups thrive and others don’t.
The book shares research and stories about every one of these themes, finishing off with a menu of options to better accommodate the theme in your group (Check out our summary here, or here if you prefer a video). With these best practices, any group should be able to flourish more.
- Although the book contains references to a number of studies, the primary methodology of the book consists of interviews with people in “high-achieving cultures”, the criteria for which are ill-defined. The book is less of an attempt to create a comprehensive and nuanced overview of the literature on successful organizational cultures and more an attempt to create a practical and easy-to-remember set of heuristics.
- A number of members of PISE have read the book and have experienced it as helpful in their community building and leadership. If it did actually improve our community work is hard to determine.
- Although the three themes, safety, vulnerability, and purpose, are accompanied by lists of possible actions, it might not be obvious how to embed these actions into your culture. Therefore, we explain below how we did it.
Experiences from PISE (Positive Impact Society Erasmus)
PISE has grown to become a community of around 50 members, of which around 30 are actively involved in organizing in the form of specific committees. In its two years of existence, we have placed an emphasis on integrating the lessons from the Culture Code in both its board and committees to - hopefully - grow a vibrant, inclusive, purposeful, and open-atmosphere community. We are still making mistakes, but would also like to share what does seem to work!
How PISE has institutionalized a focus on culture-building:
Broadly, we’ve done three things:
- an annual event based on The Culture Code
- Follow-up calls with committee leaders
- Including the three main concepts (safety, vulnerability, and purpose) in our quarterly reflection sessions.
First, the annual main event surrounding The Culture Code takes shape as a presentation about the book's main concepts, after each concept is presented the committees and project groups take some time to discuss how they want to apply these to their workflow and interactions. Second, the plan this year is to follow up with committee leaders a few weeks after the event, reflect on how this went, and remind them to implement their choices. We’ve found that encouraging this way of interacting within teams helps boost individual motivation and amplify the team’s collective intelligence.
Third, when holding the board's internal quarter yearly reflection sessions, The Culture Code is mentioned explicitly and all three concepts (safety, vulnerability and purpose) are actively reflected on. Before each reflection session, board members are asked to reflect on all three concepts using guiding questions. These are then discussed in the plenary. In the three sessions thus far, there have been improvements to be made each time (to improve the feeling of safety, to encourage more vulnerability, etc.). The lesson is that there is a lot of trial and error involved in figuring out what works best for the team and that it requires continuous work. However, we’ve seen that often the root cause of internal problems can be traced back to one of these concepts, and teams that experience a collective flow state score high on these dimensions. An emphasis on integrating the lessons has helped our community with purpose, belonging, and safety.
Other EA groups could implement a similar procedure by, first, reading the Culture Code. Just like the film will never be as good as the book, so will the post and summaries not be as good as the book. Besides, it is a fun read! Second, plan a Culture Code evening where you give a presentation on the key concepts and divide participants into subgroups to choose actions from the menus for safety, vulnerability, and purpose which strengthen your group's culture. You can use this workbook for that. Third, Gather the actions chosen by your community members, present them in your group and celebrate your path to a stronger culture. Lastly, review the progress of your groups' culture in segmented time steps (monthly, quarterly, e.g.), for instance, look at the menu of actions and reflect whether your group is incorporating those actions.
Some concrete actions that have resulted from this procedure
- One study in the book indicates one way to massively boost the engagement and retention of new members is to welcome them with a one-hour one-on-one interview with questions like "who are you? What are your ambitions? How can our organization help you grow to meet those ambitions?”. Some of our teams have made this standard practice. We believe it communicates a sense of belonging to the new member and makes leaders more aware of what tasks are motivating their team members.
- Another study in the book experimented with different ways of delivering feedback. The framing that ruled supreme was “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” Some teams were inspired by this to turn feedback into an opportunity to communicate trust in the abilities of your team members, and to reemphasize the ambitious purpose of our group.
- The author of the book observed that high-achieving cultures “overdo their thank-you’s”. People in these organizations thank each other often and elaborately. One of our teams had great fun exaggerating this practice. This started as a bit of a joke, but over time morphed into a genuine habit of frequently communicating appreciation and a shared purpose.
- When first talking to new group organizers some of us have focused on displaying our past mistakes early on in the interaction. Sometimes even making funny stories out of them. Showing vulnerability like that sets a precedent: we are not here to appear strong, but to openly explore together. We are not about winning in interactions, but about learning from each other.
We believe having some form of institutionalized focus on continuously improving your organizational culture is highly beneficial. We have found that the Culture Code offers an easy-to-use framework to base that endeavor on. We would love to hear if any groups have found this useful and decided to implement similar procedures. If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out!
Lastly, what are some books that have strongly influenced your groups’ community-building work? We would love to read similar posts!
Luckily, the Culture Playbook will come out on the 3rd of May 2022 and promises to deliver 60 actionable tips and exercises https://danielcoyle.com/the-culture-playbook/
A post will come out soon about how our name has been perceived