Why do certain organizations become greater than the sum of their parts while other groups fall short?
The solution to this problem rests not in the intellect or experience of your team, but rather in their ability to work together as a unit. Think of group culture like a machine. If all of the cogs are intricate but don’t operate with the other cogs, the machine won’t run. You’re left with an expensive, but useless piece of junk. On the other hand, if all of the cogs operate smoothly with one another, the machine runs efficiently—even if some of the cogs aren’t as developed as the others.
Successful group cultures are built on the development of three foundational concepts: safety (you belong here), vulnerability (you can take risks), and purpose (you are here for a reason).
Key Attributes: A safe work culture creates an environment in which team members feel like valued members of the organization. No one wants to feel like they’re not appreciated. Safety in the workplace lets team members feel like they belong in the group, are connected to other members of the organization, and are comfortable in their position.
Benefit #1: When team members feel safe, they develop strong chemistry with one another. Team members communicate efficiently, contribute new ideas regularly, and give their input energetically. This allows them to work as a cohesive unit.
Benefit #2: When employees feel valued and supported in the workplace, they are willing to go above and beyond, even if the problem at hand is not technically their responsibility. Rather than spending a significant amount of time and energy strategizing, teams dive into issues head-first. They’re even more willing to work after hours to resolve the issues.
Benefit #3: Through a communal sense of belonging, employees develop and maintain interconnectivity even in times of tension. Groups will experience highs and lows—that’s just a fact of life. If team members feel safe, they’ll stick together and acknowledge their shared humanity, even in the most volatile of times.
Consequence #1: When an organization lacks safety, team members develop insecurity. They consistently ask themselves: Do I belong here? Is my work any good? Do other people want me here? When insecurity dictates behavior, team members struggle to connect.
Consequence #2: When team members begin to resent their environment, negativity infects the workplace. It spreads quickly between employees and disrupts productive workflow. When team members begin to collapse under the pressures of negativity, they make mistakes.
You can cultivate safety by using behaviors and actions known as belonging cues. These cues make team members feel safe and comfortable in the workplace and address three specific topics: connection, future, and security:
In addition to using belonging cues, here are a few other methods to help you develop a safe environment:
Create a “collision-rich” workspace. “Collisions” are personal interactions between team members that promote connection through community. To create a “collision-rich” workplace:
Promote a vocal workforce. Team members must feel comfortable speaking up and providing input. To promote open communication:
Let yourself (and your team) have fun. This may sound trivial, but genuine enjoyment is essential to developing psychological safety. In fact, laughter is a key indicator of a safe and well-connected workplace. Take the time to create engaging and entertaining activities through which you and your team can simply have a good time and bond.
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Why do certain organizations become greater than the sum of their parts while other groups fall short?
This question has plagued the business world for centuries. Many companies have attempted to solve the problem by hiring experienced employees, enforcing strict performance standards, or taking direct control of projects. Unfortunately, none of these produce consistent results. While the skills of individual team members have obvious implications in the workplace, they are not indicators of success.
The solution to this problem rests not in the intellect or experience of your team, but rather in their ability to work together as a unit. Think of group culture like a machine. If all of the cogs are intricate but don’t operate with the other cogs, the machine won’t run. You’re left with an expensive, but useless piece of junk. On the other hand, if all of the cogs operate smoothly with one another, the machine runs efficiently, even if some of the cogs aren’t as developed as the others.
Peter Skillman, a designer and engineer, developed a test to determine how synergy impacted success. He...
Safety is the cornerstone of interconnection. It develops direct communication, honest feedback, and a willingness to go above and beyond through constant signals of belonging. In this section, we’ll discuss the key attributes of safety, why it's good for workplace culture, and problems that arise when it's missing.
In a safe work environment, employees are willing and able to speak out, regardless of the hierarchy of the company. The group is concerned with one task: solving problems to promote success. This means that even the low-level intern has the ability to speak to the CEO, which makes them feel secure in their importance to the team. Though they may be a small cog in the machine, they are essential to its operation.
In a safe environment, team members feel valued. No one wants to feel like they’re not appreciated. Safety lets team members feel like they belong in the group and have something substantial to contribute.
Note: safety does not imply niceness. Sometimes, courtesy must be put aside to allow for direct, unadulterated feedback. However, in a safe work environment, this...
Safety in the workplace requires the presence of constant belonging cues. Identify experiences in your work life that could benefit from the development of safety.
Reflect on a recent experience in your workplace in which the absence of safety was apparent. Think about that experience in terms of the three major belonging cues: connection, future, and security. Which cues were missing?
Now that you understand the key attributes of safety and the importance of its development, let’s discuss ways you can implement safety in your workplace.
Deliver a constant stream of belonging cues. Trust is difficult to develop and requires persistence. On their own, individual belonging cues do not make much of a difference. Giving constant reminders of belonging allows team members to gradually feel more comfortable and safe. Here are a few methods to develop each aspect of belonging cues:
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Developing safety in the workplace takes time, effort, and planning. The sooner you implement core concepts of safety into your company culture, the sooner you will see a change in your organization.
What are some ways that you could develop opportunities for “collisions” in your organization? List them. Remember, “collisions” are personal interactions between team members that promote connection through community.
Belonging cues are the foundation of developing safety in the workplace. Consider your current workplace and think about how you can apply belonging cues into the day-to-day operations of your office.
Connection between co-workers is essential to developing camaraderie in the workplace. What are some ways that you can foster connection between your co-workers and employees? Remember, proximity and creating opportunities for interaction are key.
Once a team feels like a connected unit, team members must feel comfortable showing vulnerability. Vulnerability is the cornerstone of teamwork in the workplace. In this section, we’ll discuss the key attributes of vulnerability, why it's good for workplace culture, and problems that arise when it's missing.
Vulnerability is the exposure of personal weakness followed by a call for help or support. This develops a collective sense of trust: We can show the areas where we struggle and help strengthen each other.
Vulnerability requires humility. All team members (but leaders in particular) must be willing to admit when they’ve made mistakes. It sends a message: I am not perfect, and I know that your feedback can help me.
Notifications are quick bursts of communication in which information is shared. They are observations, not commands, and provide context through which the team may operate more efficiently. They remove the “fluff” from a conversation and focus solely on the task at hand. When exchanging notifications, team members...
Vulnerability is scary. It requires openness and requires the admission of errors or weaknesses.
Think about a time a lack of vulnerability prevented you from reaching out for help in the workplace. Describe the situation.
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Now that you understand the key attributes of safety and the importance of its development, let’s discuss ways you can encourage vulnerability in your workplace.
Increase your responsiveness when listening. It allows the speaker to feel heard and supported as they express their concerns and fears. The most effective listeners:
Avoid prematurely offering suggestions when discussing issues. Encourage the speaker to explain their stances and develop their logic by asking them to tell you more about their current situation.
Accept discomfort. Vulnerable conversations require diving into painful experiences and facing nasty realities. Though they are not always pleasant, they are essential for discovering ways to improve effectiveness and develop solutions to problems. Be willing to have the difficult conversations and be...
Developing vulnerability and cooperation in the workplace takes time, practice, and a little bit of pain. Learn how to show vulnerability and promote cooperation in your workplace.
Vulnerability relies on interaction. Think about a recent workplace conversation in which you and/or a coworker got defensive. Describe it.
Successful leaders invite open feedback from the team. Creating organized and recurring team sessions is one of the most effective ways to encourage feedback and open dialogue.
Think about your current workplace. What systems do you currently have in place to promote group feedback? Are they effective?
Once a cohesive group feels as though it can take risks and make decisions, it must focus its collective energy towards a shared purpose. Purpose is the cornerstone of decision-making in the workplace. In this section, we’ll discuss the key attributes of purpose, why it's good for workplace culture, and problems that arise when it's missing.
A clear purpose allows for consistent decision-making, effective prioritizing, and elevated performance through interaction. Purpose answers the question: why do we do what we do? Leaders use purpose to focus the attention of the group towards a singular goal through a set of small signals. These signals can include direct reminders of the company’s goals or indirect symbols such as catchphrases, iconography, and mission statements.
High-purpose environments are spaces in which the mission of a company drives the actions of team members. Think of purpose like the trunk of a tree, with decisions and projects forming the branches and products forming the leaves. All actions connect back to the central motives of the company.
Team members make choices based upon future goals. If a...
Purpose sparks motivation. Without it, people quickly become disinterested in their work, leading to a decrease in quality and efficiency.
Reflect on a recent experience in which a co-worker or employee seemed unmotivated at work. What do you think led to this feeling? How did that lack of motivation impact their work?
Now that you understand the key attributes of safety and the importance of its development, let’s discuss ways you can develop purpose in your workplace.
Give priorities a name and rank. Clear priorities allow team members to make decisions with consistency—even without direct instruction.
The Lost Receipt
A retail store has the following priority ranking:
Make strong relationships with suppliers
Listen to corporate policies
An employee at the store is approached by a regular customer wanting to return an item that they lost the receipt for, but corporate has a policy that refunds cannot be issued without a receipt. The employee refers to the company’s priorities and offers the customer store credit because she knows that serving customers is a higher priority than following corporate policies. The employee made a decision based around the core priorities of the group and has adhered to the company standards without needing direct guidance or instruction.
Clarify your priorities more than you think you need to. Often, leaders think that...
Creating purpose in the workplace requires clarity, dedication, and focus. Start developing priorities and focusing your team towards the core principles of your organization.
Priorities are an essential part of developing purpose. What are the priorities of your organization? List and rank them, then explain your ranking.
The standards for high-purpose environments change based on the overall goals of the company. When looking at their product and process, teams must determine if they want an environment that encourages proficiency or one that promotes creativity.
Environments in which failure must be avoided require a high-level of proficiency. Think of a military organization or a restaurant. Failure results in swift and severe consequences.
The purpose of a high-proficiency workplace is to create an environment in which team members can make quick and appropriate decisions while working as a single unit.
A high-proficiency environment doubles down on clear priorities. Team members must know what takes precedent in their day-to-day activities. Priorities allow employees to make decisions based on a hierarchy of focus or attention.
These priorities are often emphasized by catchphrases that show causality (if X, then Y). These simple rules of thumb (known as heuristics) include easy-to-remember phrases that dictate how team members should behave in certain situations. For...
When developing activities and structures surrounding purpose, you must decide if you want to develop a high-proficiency or high-creativity work environment.
As a whole, which does your organization require? Is it universal or does it differ from team-to-team/project-to-project? Remember, high-proficiency environments are environments that avoid failure at all costs, while high-creativity environments are environments that embrace failure as part of the process.
Successful group cultures rely on the development of the three foundations discussed in this summary (safety, vulnerability, and purpose). As you respond to these questions, think about what you’ve learned throughout this summary and refer to the “How Can You Develop... “ chapters of each part for inspiration.
Think about the ways in which your organization has developed a successful group culture. List them and connect them to one of the three foundations of group culture (safety, vulnerability, and purpose).