From companies like Pixar to sports dynasties like the New England Patriots to military units like the Navy SEALs, we can all think of teams with a reputation for being outstanding. But what exactly is it that makes them consistently successful while so many competitors are up and down? And which common traits can be seen across high-performing groups in different domains? We'll answer these questions in this article with three key insights from winning cultures that will help you lead your company, family, or any other group more effectively.
- Making People Feel Safe
In his book Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg shared how a ragtag bunch of comedians and writers banded together to make Saturday Night Live into a seminal show. “The SNL team, clicked because, surprisingly, they all felt safe enough around one another to keep pitching new jokes and ideas. The writers and actors worked amid norms that made everyone feel like they could take risks and be honest with one another, even as they were shooting down ideas, undermining one another, and competing for airtime.”
Lorne Michaels shared with Duhigg that he deliberately avoided the typical approach of encouraging individuals to put the group above themselves: “You know that saying, ‘There’s no I in TEAM?’ My goal was the opposite of that. All I wanted were a bunch of I’s. I wanted everyone to hear each other, but no one to disappear into the group.”
Another case study that Duhigg shared was from Google, where head of people operations Laszlo Bock led an initiative to find out what made certain groups within the company more successful than others. He found out that while the talent and work ethic of individuals was important, it was how they came together that determined their combined potential. Bock identified five key group norms that were common to the members of high-performing teams:
- Believing that their work is important
- Feeling their work is personally meaningful
- Understanding clear goals and defined roles
- Knowing they can depend on one another
- Experiencing psychological safety
He highlighted this last one as the most important group norm, as when team members listen to, acknowledge, and are sensitive toward each other’s feelings and opinions, it encourages everyone to speak up with their best ideas. This led to Google creating guidelines for all meetings, including not interrupting when someone else is speaking, giving each team member opportunities to voice their opinions, and demonstrating active listening. It’s important for leaders to model these norms, encourage everybody to root for one another, and create a “best idea wins” atmosphere. “When we defer to others’ judgment, when we vocally treat others’ concerns as our own, we give control to the group and psychological safety takes hold,” Duhigg explained.
- Establishing Trust
For people to experience true psychological safety, they first have to trust that their leader and teammates have their best interests at heart. In his book Effortless, Greg McKeown identifies trust as the engine of high-leverage teams.
“When you have trust in your relationships, they take less effort to maintain and manage,” he explained. “You can quickly split work between team members. People can talk about problems when they come up, openly and honestly. Members share valuable information rather than hoard it. Nobody minds asking questions when they don’t understand something. The speed and quality of decisions go up. Political infighting goes down. You may even enjoy the experience of working together. And you perform exponentially better, because you’re able to focus all your energy and attention on getting important things done, rather than on simply getting along.”
In contrast, a lack of trust leads to the constant fear of misinterpretation, anxiety about how people will respond, and a lack of appropriate disclosures. When team members don’t trust each other, silos form between departments and roles, rivalries develop, and leaders tend to micromanage their subordinates. To ensure these issues don’t develop in his companies, legendary investor Warren Buffett utilizes a trifecta of criteria for every hire and potential business partner, which McKeown calls “The Three I’s Rule”:
Spending extra time on recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding people can ensure that you’re putting the Three I’s into practice effectively and finding the right candidates to perpetuate a trusting culture. McKeown believes that it isn’t enough to bring together high-quality individuals. There also needs to be a system in place to guide their relationships, interactions, and collaboration so that a low-trust environment isn’t created by default.
“A high-trust structure is one where expectations are clear,” he wrote. “Goals are shared, roles are clearly delineated, the rules and standards are articulated, and the right results are prioritized, incentivized, and rewarded – consistently, not just sometimes.”
- Building Belonging
Since ESPN, TNT, and ABC started interviewing head coaches during NBA games a few years ago, quite a few coaches have been grumpy with the sideline reporters’ questions. But none more so than Gregg Popovich. While his former player and MVP Kawhi Leonard is known for his awkwardness in front of the camera, the coach who set a league record for wins with 1,336 in 2022, seems positively enraged with the unwelcome intrusion. So the former Air Force Academy man doesn’t seem like the sort who players would say fosters the best team environment in pro basketball. But he is.
In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle revealed that the ability of “Pop” to forge strong relationships exceeds his talent for drawing up winning plays. While you could find numerous YouTube videos of him yelling at or even cussing out players, his mantra in less public settings is actually, “Hug ‘em and hold ‘em.”
The teams that Popovich led to win five titles have been an eclectic bunch. Along with David Robinson and Leonard, who won Finals MVP in Popovich’s last championship run, the Spurs’ three big stars were from the US Virgin Islands (Tim Duncan), France (Tony Parker), and Argentina (Manu Ginobili), with role players from many other countries. To get to know them better, Popovich engages his players in conversation about world events, asks about their home towns and upbringing, and gets to know their interests away from the court. “Pop uses these moments to connect us,” Spurs CEO RC Buford told Coyle. “He loves that we come from so many different places. That could pull us apart, but he makes sure that everybody feels connected and engaged to something bigger.”
One of the forums for forging such tight-knit bonds is restaurants. While some teams let their players and staff scatter when they’re on the road, the Spurs are very serious about the team dining (and drinking – Pop is a big wine aficionado) together. Sometimes groups of players have their own meals, but the coaching staff always dines together at a location Popovich chooses. This practice came in handy at one of the lowest moments for the team. In the 2013 NBA Finals, they lost a pivotal game six to the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh super team in Miami, with sharpshooter Ray Allen sticking a dagger in the Spurs with a miracle last-second shot.
Duncan lay on the floor in dismay. Parker cried. Ginobili wouldn’t even look at anyone. “It was like death,” said their teammate Sean Marks, who’s now GM of the New Jersey Nets. Many coaches would have waited to console his players, but Popovich recognized a pivotal moment to either let his team fall apart or bring them together. So sure enough, he booked out a restaurant and gathered everyone together. Pop greeted every player as they came in, then proceeded to spend a few minutes talking privately with each of them.
“By the end of the night, things were almost normal again,” Buford recalled. “We were a team again. It’s the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen in sports, bar none.” Though the Spurs fell to Miami again in game seven, the stage had been set for the next postseason, when they beat the Heat in five games. And all because a crotchety, impatient coach who’s prone to yelling was also a secret master of connecting, consoling, and restoring confidence so that his players knew they belonged and could bounce back.