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 756 percent over eleven 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 Purpose—tells 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.
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.