Cross-cultural workers spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing, and examining cultures. Ethnography is a foundational skill for missionaries. But I have found that we are much less adept at understanding and describing organizational cultures, even the cultures of the organizations in which we serve. What does an effective organizational culture look like? What kind of organizational culture would lead to greater fruitfulness and well-being of our members? Even more mysterious is how leaders can nurture the organizational culture they would like to prevail. Or can we even change or develop our organizational culture?

I have just finished “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle. I believe that this book begins to answer some of these questions, at least for me. Coyle set out to discover the reasons why some groups, teams, or organizations accomplish far more than what we would expect of them if we only looked at the sum total of the individual talents of their members. His research has resulted in an excellent and fascinating book about group culture. Coyle believes that these cultures don’t just “happen” but are intentionally created by learning and practicing a specific set of skills.

In his book, the author describes 3 essential “skills” of highly effective groups:

effective organizational culture
  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

Coyle devotes a section of his book to describing each skill. Each section includes multiple stories about great teams and organizations. Then it concludes with a set of suggested action steps for developing that skill.

Build safety

The first skill is all about the value of belonging. As cross-cultural workers, we are very familiar with the feeling of not belonging. Thus, we are often not able to contribute fully to the discussions and decisions in the cultures and communities in which we live. We long to belong, to be accepted, to be valued for our contribution. Even as we recognize that we will always be outsiders, we want to become “acceptable outsiders.”1 See Joann Pittman’s article “Learning to Be an Acceptable Outsider” for a better understanding of this term. We want to feel that it is not only safe to live in these communities but also safe to contribute meaningfully to its well-being.

Coyle explains how effective organizations and groups create safety for those who are members and repeatedly give these “safety signals.” It was fascinating to learn that building safety is actually very important to spawning innovation and creativity.

Threshold moments

I was particularly intrigued by Coyle’s research on the critical importance of “threshold moments.” Threshold moments are our first experiences in a new group. They are more important than any other in helping new people decide whether they are going to connect and stay with this new group. I believe that our organization’s pre-field orientation programs are such threshold moments.

Coyle talks about a call center in India that struggled with abnormally high attrition. As an experiment, the call center added an additional hour in their onboarding process of new employees. In this hour, they focused on getting to know the unique characteristics of each employee rather than touting how great the organization was. This very modest change in their onboarding resulted in a 157% increase in the likelihood that participants would still be working for the company after seven months.

The threshold moment communicated that these new employees belonged in this organization and that their contribution was valued. This sense of belonging resulted in a greater commitment to the company and a greater enjoyment of working there.

Share vulnerability

Secondly, effective organizational cultures also display the practice of sharing vulnerability. This happens when people accept help and candid feedback on their performance. If done well, this results in stronger patterns of cooperation and connection within the organization.

Cross-cultural workers struggle with practicing this skill. Because we are geographically dispersed and often working alone, we become accustomed to relying on ourselves. It is difficult for other people to both observe our performance and give candid feedback. But here again, we see the value of working closing together as teams and collaborating in our work.2 Basketball-type mission teams make this shared vulnerability much easier to practice. Jesus sent out his disciples in teams of two, and Paul made sure he worked with a team in his cross-cultural mission work.

Asking for help

The first story in this section comes from the crash landing of United Airlines Flight 232. Although over a hundred people died in the crash, the majority survived despite a catastrophic failure of an engine and the loss of most flight controls. The crew was able to land the plane because they demonstrated this skill of sharing vulnerability. The pilot admitted that he needed help and that he did not know how to land the plane. He gladly accepted the help of a passenger who was a pilot trainer. Together they figured out how to steer the plane, get it to an airport, and land it as well as they could.

They demonstrated that a series of small, humble exchanges—Anybody have any ideas? Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you—can unlock a group’s ability to perform. The key, as we’re about to learn, involves the willingness to perform a certain behavior that goes against our every instinct: sharing vulnerability.

Coyle, p. 97.

Welcoming feedback

Pixar Animation Studios and the Navy Seals are other prime examples of effective organizational cultures, practicing this skill. Pixar holds “BrainTrust” meetings in which draft versions of films are dissected and improved. The Navy Seals hold After-Action Reviews on a regular basis, not only when on assignment but also throughout their training.

AAR is a gathering that takes place immediately after each mission or training session: Team members put down their weapons, grab a snack and water, and start talking. As in BrainTrusts, the team members name and analyze problems and face uncomfortable questions head-on: Where did we fail? What did each of us do, and why did we do it? What will we do differently next time? AARs can be raw, painful, and filled with pulses of emotion and uncertainty.

… Still, it’s probably the most crucial thing we do together, aside from the missions themselves, because that’s where we figure out what really happened and how to get better.

Coyle, p. 99.

Establish purpose

The third skill of effective organizational cultures is clearly communicating your purpose as an organization. Everyone in the organization or group clearly understands why you do what you do and what it means to do it well. This often involves creating sayings or stories that capture your purpose and values and repeating them over and over again. Mission organizations probably find this third skill easier than the other two, but nevertheless, we have something to learn here as well.

Coyle tells the story of how Johnson & Johnson’s Credo (mission statement and values) guided them through the Tylenol/Cyanide crisis of 1982. The company made a decision that cost them $100 million. But that decision was easy to make because their Credo was so deeply ingrained in their thinking.

Coyle observes that successful cultures are often born out of a crisis.

The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to crystallize their purpose. When leaders of those groups reflect on those failures now, they express gratitude (and sometimes even nostalgic desire) for those moments, as painful as they were, because they were the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be.

Coyle, p. 228.

Leading for proficiency or creativity

This section includes both guidance for those who are leading for proficiency and those who are leading for creativity. Leading for proficiency (for example in providing a service) requires identifying priorities and spotlighting keystone behaviors that demonstrate those priorities. Then you need to train your people to practice those behaviors until they become instinctual. Finally, leaders must reinforce their message by exemplifying those behaviors themselves and repeating themselves continuously.

On the other hand, leading for creativity requires a different set of behaviors. When leadership is wanting innovative solutions, it needs to empower the group rather than point the way. They need to make sure the right people are in the room, manage the environment and facilitate regular and healthy interactions between team members. They are more like engineers that make sure the engine is running well rather than lighthouses that point the way.

Cultures that foster learning

I believe that these three skills are important for any team or organization. The Culture Code has given us some helpful ways of evaluating the cultures of our teams and organizations. Is my team and mission organization adept at practicing these three skills? We have learned them to some extent, but further learning is still needed.

That brings me to my final observation. Effective or successful organizational cultures are cultures that are continuously learning. Building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose are all skills that promote learning within those organizations. If you don’t feel safe and that you belong, you will not engage in learning at work. You definitely will not let others know you need their help. Nor will you welcome their feedback to improve your performance. Without a clear sense of purpose and values, you will not know what behaviors you should learn, because you will not clearly understand what it means to be successful. These three skills set the stage for lifelong learning. So, let’s learn to practice them well.