Can people you work with really feel like family? Is it even important that they do? In Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code (The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups) he spent four years researching eight of the world’s most successful groups including Google, Disney and the Navy Seals, from which he established three skills that a team needs to be truly successful - Build Safety, Share Vulnerability and Establish Purpose. I am going to focus specifically on the idea that relationships in effective groups are described by people inside highly successful groups not just as friends, team or tribe, but family.
Recently I was working with a team who wished to build a culture of collaboration in a multi location team pulled together from several very different original groups. The teams were operating in silos as is natural (not sure the last time I saw people just up and change their well established ways of working that they had spent years building just because the org chart changed) and so, naturally, leadership and people within the teams were keen to break down those silos (I prefer dissolve but hey ho). I am so accustomed to, and focused on, drawing the link between seeking productivity/better performance and team behaviours that I started off down that route but quickly pulled up sharp when I realised this leader was looking for something more human. He just plain saw the link between keeping good people happy, creating a place where people would really enjoy working and creating a sense of connected family with precise clarity.
He knew that by connecting people to each other we could build a strong bond which would be the most powerful and beneficial thing he could do for his team. It was a beautiful moment and allowed us to create a truly human, heart centred, highly effective approach.
I think we still view companies that talk about family with scepticism, we are so focused on outputs and outcomes and task. I have definitely come to realise that (while we do move on for the sake of our careers and for other good reasons sometimes) that sense of family bond that is created within a team at a given time creates the greatest work synergy and flow.
Being a family company can also sometimes be blamed for backwards thinking, like it’s some kind of legacy disease, but there are abundant stories of family owned companies (Walmart, Ford, Dell) that have strived to keep that sense of family bond while working towards the future and looking outward to be better. For the people who have grown up in those companies and for people coming in from a smaller company with a family feel that they valued, that can be a killer mix. If you try and forge a new path of shiny, corporate excellence and dismiss or lose that sense of knowing each other and closeness, you run the risk of losing the networks that made you successful in the first place and can sustain you through the transformation period and into the future.
So what does it feel like to work in a team or culture based on family and why is it so good? Three things - you feel safe and that you belong, you can be vulnerable and you know your purpose and connect with your story.
To feel safe and that you belong - people respond to belonging cues, tiny micro behaviours that connect the brain (yes it’s science, this is not BS) and heart in turn strongly to the group it is in. As Coyle writes, “Belonging cues are behaviors that create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, qmimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group.” What is this - an evidence based list of small day to day actions anyone can take to make significant change to their team’s way of working?! Listen up people - this is gold dust!!
To be vulnerable - this is so powerful and I give thanks to Brene Brown and Amy Edmondson here for their extensive, amazingly valuable research and writing to help us all strip it back and open up in the name of doing great work (which is really the basis of what most people want to achieve). Being vulnerable with each other builds the sense of safety in a team to be able to speak up about brilliant, risky ideas, fears and doubts about a course of action or flagging failures and errors at no personal risk so it is early enough for the team to resolve and change tactic for the better. It is created at first by a leader saying I am scared, I don’t know, can you help me? It is built by a team who pick that up and run with it, honestly and openly challenging themselves and others. As Brene Brown says, vulnerability can have a snowball effect as the team feeds of each other and the culture builds over time (never forget that while quick to get started, culture needs takes time and commitment to embed, it takes the village to do it)
To know your purpose and connect with your story - a sense of purpose and knowing and connecting with why you are doing the work connects a team and points it in the right direction. The rub here is that so many senior leadership teams are right on top of this, creating vision statements is usually high on their list. But the vision, purpose and story needs to come from within the human core of your company, it’s people. This immensely powerful tool will connect people to their work for remarkable outcomes only if you find out what their vision is and create the big one from all the little ones. This is to truly connect your people with their story.
At People Not Tech (where I partner), we have focused research towards workshops and our product on finding out more about how six core elements of psychological safety exist in teams, which contribute to this sense of family - Flexibility, Engagement, Curiosity, Openness, Courage and Resilience.
Finally - some quotes from Coyle’s research and time inside these groups:
“I can’t explain it but things just feel right. I’ve actually tried to quit a couple of times but just keep coming back to it. There’s no feeling like it, these guys are my brothers.” Christopher Baldwin, US Navy Seal.
“It’s not rational. Nobody who’s truly rational about it does the kind of things that happen here. There’s a teamwork that goes way beyond team and overlaps into the rest of people’s lives.” Joe Negron, Kipp Charter Schools
“It’s a rush! Knowing that you can take huge risk and these people will be there to support you, no matter what. We are addicted to that feeling.” Nate Dern, Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Troupe
“We are all about being a familial group because it allows you to take more risks, give each other permission and have moments of vulnerability that you could never have in a more normal setting.” Duane Bray, IDEO Design
“The number one job is to take care of each other, I didn’t know that but I know it now,” The Culture Code. Using this idea of taking care of each other works brilliantly to bring team into the same place on collaboration. If teams use this as their baseline, their go to place when they want to check in on their behaviour, it anchors them and reinforces good old family values to carry us into the future of work.