Healthy Culture Wins Tools and Resources

...solve thorny business challenges in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea


How do you build a healthy working culture that profoundly improves your profits, your business value and growth?

When it comes to your team, you want them to be content and engaged in the work that they do. You want them to feel safe in their surroundings and to trust you and the rest of their team.

You know that a happy, well-motivated team who feel connected to one another and to their work is better for your business, but how do you achieve this?

How, in the moments your team are together, do you foster the right behaviours to build social capital and trust, thus creating a safe and healthy working culture in your business?

Without a healthy working culture, your business will struggle, and your team will not feel committed or engaged. A recent Gallup poll showed that 62% of workers globally are emotionally detached from the work that they do.

So, ask yourself this one question:


How would you describe the levels of perceived emotional, psychological and physical safety across all of the regular and small interactions between your people?

STOP thinking that tangible skills, knowledge and experience are all that are required for team success

START building greater connectedness to your team so that you develop social capital and deep and strong trust

The one ‘BREAKTHROUGH QUESTION’ you must ask to help yourself…


How would you describe the levels of perceived emotional, psychological and physical safety across all of the regular and small interactions between your people?

This question is important because a sense of safety underpins a healthy, high-performing working culture and because the evolution of the human brain means that certain behaviours are more important than the words we use. We need to appreciate how safe our place of work feels.

The more you put these behaviours to work within your team, the better you become at building a sense of safety.

Use 'belonging cues' to build safety

Feeling safe is a vital and primary building block of high-performing cultures, according to Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code:

Belonging cues are behaviours that create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group.

In human evolution, belonging cues precede human language and result in a deep, subconscious sense that YOU ARE SAFE HERE.

Only if people feel safe can you build a healthy working culture – belonging cues are therefore a key tool for leaders.

The Mercer/Sirota research into enthusiastic teams shows that a sense of safety is a key element of ‘fairness’, without which you’ll never build an enthusiastic, engaged and motivated team.

Belonging cues have 3 basic qualities:

  1. 1
    Energy – There is wholehearted investment in your team’s interaction, conversation and exchange of views or insights (no distractions).
  2. 2
    Individualisation – Each person is genuinely treated as unique and valued. The vast research into highly engaged and enthusiastic teams indicates ‘fairness’ is vital. A key component of fairness is a sense of equity as a human being, according to 13.6million employee surveys by Sirota/Mercer.
  3. 3
    Future orientation – The relationship will continue. How could it feel safe if the future is threatened?

The performance of a team as a group (your team) is driven by five measurable factors, all linked to the importance of feeling safe:

  • all the team members listen in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short
  • the team maintain a high level of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic
  • the team communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader
  • the team carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team
  • the group will periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the team

Highly cohesive teams are full of moments of fluid, trusting cooperation. These moments will frequently occur when a team is challenged or faced with an obstacle. The team members will start to think as one as if all are wired to the same brain.

That does not mean to say that the path for these teams is always smooth – the challenges can be awkward, and there can be moments of tension, where hard, even brutal, questions are asked. For some team members, the feedback can be difficult to hear.

But in a team where belonging cues have created a sense of safety, these moments don’t happen by accident, they happen by design.

Disney Pixar shows the way…

At Pixar, these potentially awkward encounters are called ‘The BrainTrust meetings’. This is Pixar’s way of assessing and improving its movies during their creation. It’s worth noting that during the development of any of their movies, they hold approximately half a dozen BrainTrust meetings.

These meetings include the movie director, some veteran studio directors and producers. All have watched the latest movie and will offer honest and unconstrained opinions.

From the outside looking in, BrainTrust meetings might look like routine meetings, but listen in and you will discover it’s more like open-heart surgery.

In actuality, the BrainTrust meeting is a detailed dissection of the film; specifically, it spotlights and names the film’s flaws in minute detail.

These meetings are where the directors are told that their characters lack heart, their storylines are confusing, the jokes fall flat and the sentimentality is not credible.

These meetings are not fun but, according to Pixar studio executives, they are essential – they believe wholeheartedly that this is where the movies get better.

Pixar president Ed Catmull believes that “The BrainTrust is the most important thing we do by far; it depends completely on candid feedback. All movies suck at first. The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start not to suck.”

Navy SEALs rely on the belonging cues…

When you are a Navy SEAL, however, there is no time to suck. Sucking might get you or your teammate killed. Dave Cooper carries a reputation for building SEAL teams that collaborate seamlessly. For Cooper, the central challenge is to create one ‘team brain’, a hive mind mentality that encourages and develops ways for the team to challenge each other and ask the right questions. Dave wants his men to speak up, especially the newer team members.

Cooper is not subtle: “For example, when you’re in an urban environment, windows are bad. You stand in front of one, and you can get shot by a sniper. So, if you’re a new guy and you see me standing in front of a window, what are you going to say? Are you going to tell me to move or are you going to stand there quietly and let me get shot?”

When Cooper asked his team this question, their answer was overwhelmingly that they would tell him to move. His aim is to get the team to conduct themselves like this all the time, with every single decision they make.

Cooper began to develop tools: “There are things you can do. Spending time together outside, hanging out – that helps. One of the best things I’ve found to improve a team’s cohesion is to send them to do some hard, hard training. There’s something about hanging off a cliff together, and being wet and cold and miserable together, that makes a team come together.”

Dave Cooper then introduced the After-Action Review – the truth-telling session. The AARs happen immediately after each mission and involve a short team meeting where they discuss and replay the key mission decisions. This review is led by the men, not the leaders, and there is no agenda, nor any minutes taken.

The goal is to create a flat landscape with rank and authority, where open, honest, frank discussion about what happened can take place and mistakes can be discussed, even your own.

Dave Cooper believes good AARs follow a template: “You have to do it right away, weapons down, form a circle and start talking. Take the mission from beginning to end, chronologically. Talk about decisions and processes and dig for the truth so people can really learn. You ask, ask and ask again if needed.”

Dave Cooper’s aim is not to assign praise or blame, but to build a shared mental model that can be used on future missions. He believes that when the team work together in a hive system, they share the experiences, both good and bad, and are emotionally connected to how those experiences feel to each member of the team.

In turn, this means everybody works together and the potential of the team increases.

Small differences, BIG cultural wins...

Sandy Pentland is one of the best-known and most widely cited computational social scientists in the world. He is one of the creators of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab and currently the director of the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs.

Pentland studies social physics, which takes a data-centric view of culture and society.

Pentland and his team are obsessed with understanding the inner workings of group/team chemistry.

And Pentland believes that human signalling looks like any other animal signalling.

You can measure interest levels, who the alpha is, who’s cooperating, who’s mimicking, who’s in synchrony. These are communication channels that we use without thinking. For example, when people lean towards each other (mirroring), it’s done subconsciously.

When studying groups, Pentland uses the ‘Spaghetti Tower’ test (more on that later) and still believes this is one of the best ways to analyse human behaviour. He uses personal portable technology, called a sociometer, which tracks personal interactions five times per second – interactions such as body language, who you talk to, where and when you talk to them – and streams it to a server where it is put into graphs.

For Pentland, the graphs are the tip of the iceberg.

Social capital pays off...

Pentland and his team have conducted numerous studies across a variety of industries with teams of varied performance levels, including innovation groups, post-op wards, banks and call centres, among others. Each of the teams’ members were equipped with the sociometers (electronic badges that collected data on their individual communication behaviour).

The data consistently confirmed that communication plays a critical role in building successful teams and, in fact, patterns of communication are the most important predictor of a team’s success.

For example, in a bank call centre, the Average Handling Time (AHT) of a call is a key cost metric. So, when AHT fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall, it’s no wonder the call centre leader took notice.

What did the call centre leader do?

The leader (on Pentland’s advice) simply revised the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on the team took a break at the same time.

The leader applied this strategy across all 10 of the bank’s call centres and, as a result of this new connectedness, predicts a £10m+ productivity improvement across the 25,000 team members, as well as a 10% improvement in employee satisfaction.

Click here to read more about the science of building great teams in this article written by Sandy Pentland.

Pentland’s research shows that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. Here’s how this works best, according to Pentland’s research:

  • Welcome and encourage lots of interaction in a team – this can be as many as dozens per working hour – to build connectedness, trust and success
  • There is a limit – going beyond that ideal number decreases performance
  • Mixed and respectful (of time) interaction pays off too – members are listening or speaking to the whole group only about half the time and, when addressing the whole group, each team member speaks only for his or her fair share of time, using brief, to-the-point statements. The other half of the time, members are engaging in one-on-one conversations, which are usually quite short.

Add energy to this mix of interaction and you have 50% of the success factors working in your favour.

Build a sense of safety - long list

Building a sense of safety isn’t the kind of skill you can learn in a robotic, paint-by-numbers way. It’s fluid, improvisational – sort of like learning to pass the ball to a teammate in rugby. It requires you to recognise patterns, react quickly and deliver the right signal at the right time and there is, as there will be in acquiring any skill, a learning curve.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code, outlines 13 specific actions which are used by highly successful groups and which you can implement in order to build a sense of safety. Leading by example works and, as a leader, you set the standard:

  1. 1
    Overcommunicate your listening – Lead from the front on connectedness because, as Pentland’s research shows, high-volume and high-quality connectedness pays off. Deep, active listening is a powerful belonging cue that makes people feel safe. It is important to avoid interruptions.
  2. 2
    Spotlight your fallibility early – especially if you’re a leader. In any interaction, we have a natural tendency to try to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. If you want to create safety, this is the wrong move. Instead, you should open up, show that you make mistakes, and invite input with simple phrases such as "This is just my opinion." "Of course, I could be wrong here." "What am I missing?" "What do you think?"
  3. 3
    Embrace the messenger – One of the most vital moments for creating safety is when a group shares bad news or gives tough feedback. In these moments, it’s important to not simply tolerate the difficult news but to embrace it. You know the phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’? In fact, it’s not enough to not shoot them. You have to hug the messenger and let them know how much you need that feedback. That way you can be sure that they feel safe enough to tell you the truth the next time.
  4. 4
    Make sure everyone has a voicePentland’s research suggests that many connections across your whole team foster social capital, trust and a healthy working culture. Work on getting everyone to share their thoughts, both in formal meeting settings and more informally as well – such as with a joint coffee or lunch break. Ensuring everyone has a voice is easy to talk about but hard to accomplish. Ensure your team encourages full-group contribution.
  5. 5
    Preview future connections (help people see their future) – Perhaps talk about what future relationships could look like. This helps the team make small but telling connections between now and a vision of the future.
  6. 6
    Overdo thank-yous – When you observe highly successful working cultures, the number of thank-yous you hear may seem slightly over the top, but it is less to do with the actual appreciation and more to do with the affirmation of the relationship.
  7. 7
    Be painstaking in the hiring process - Deciding who’s in and who’s out is the most powerful signal any group sends, and successful groups approach their hiring accordingly. Many businesses build lengthy processes to ensure they find the person who is the right fit for the team and for the culture of the business.
  8. 8
    Create safe spaces where people interact (safely and often) – For your team to form relationships and build trust and social capital, they need to interact and be together both formally and informally. Having breaks at the same time worked for a call centre, After Action Reviews worked for Navy SEALs and The BrainTrust meetings worked at Pixar. Creating these moments means your team can share in a safe environment.
  9. 9
    Eliminate bad apples (low tolerance for bad behaviours) – Adopt a no-tolerance approach to bad behaviour within your team, and to ensure it has no place, give that behaviour a name, like the All Blacks’ “No Dickheads” rule.  Simple, effective and easy to understand, and it made them the most successful rugby team on the planet.
  10. 10
    Pick up the trash - This is what we call muscular humility, a mindset of casting all things aside to serve the group. John Wooden, a 3-time national basketball champion and Hall of Famer, picked up the scraps off the locker room floor and refused to have an allocated parking space. These actions are powerful as they foster a deeper belief of ‘all being in it together’.
  11. 11
    Make the most of threshold moments (the first and last moments of a group) – When we enter a new group, our brains decide quickly whether to connect. Successful cultures therefore treat these threshold moments as more important than any other.Be aware that these threshold moments happen every day, so pay attention to them, pause, acknowledge the person, make them feel special. This reinforces the ‘we are together now’ feeling.
  12. 12
    Avoid giving sandwich feedback - In business, managers or leaders tend to deliver feedback using the traditional sandwich method: you talk about a positive, then an area that needs improvement, then finish with a positive. This can often lead to confusion, as human nature means we tend to focus either entirely on the positive or entirely on the negative. Instead, separate the two into different processes. Deal with negative issues with a learning-focused 2-way conversation about the needed growth and handle the positives with ultra-clear bursts of recognition and praise.
  13. 13
    Embrace fun - This obvious one is still worth mentioning because laughter is not just laughter; it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.

Joint sense of purpose - long list

There is another Business Breakthrough report specifically addressing leading with purpose, which reveals how being a successful business isn’t just about delivering your products or services to your customers for a profit, it’s about having a deeper meaning that connects with your clients, your employees and other stakeholders.

Purpose is about what you stand for. It’s about working out your reason for being as a business. If you want the ‘leading with purpose’ Business Breakthrough, please contact our firm and we’ll get it to you.

Daniel Coyle observed a deep-rooted sense of purpose at the core of his 8 uber-successful groups. He points to a long list of actions you can take to establish, build and nurture a strong sense of purpose in your own business:

  1. 1
    Name and rank your priorities – In order to move towards a target, you must have a target. List your priorities, specifically the ones that fit with your identity as a business.
  2. 2
    Be 10x as clear about your priorities as you think you should be – Leaders inherently presume that everyone in the group is on the same page as they are, so overcommunicate your priorities. One way to create awareness is to regularly test your business’s values and purpose.
  3. 3
    Be clear on when you work on PROFICIENCY and when on CREATIVITY – Proficiency is about doing a task the same way every time. Creativity is about empowering a group to do the hard work of creating something new, something they’ve never done before. The best groups consist of a combination of both types.
  4. 4
    Embrace the use of catchphrases – a common and easily recognisable vocabulary – They might be cheesy, and many might see them as jargon, but they can become a vital internal language. Some examples: Work hard, be nice (KIPP) or Talk less, do more (IDEO) – these catchphrases can be a secret code that galvanizes a team.
  5. 5
    Measure what really matters (connectedness) – Create simple universal measures that place focus on what matters most.
  6. 6
    Use artefacts and symbols – As an example, Pixar studios display their Oscars and movie concept drawings in their headquarters.
  7. 7
    Translate abstract (purpose) ideas into tangible, concrete terms, and set high standards for them – Spotlight a single task and use it to define your identity. For instance, Pixar invest a great deal of money in the visual and storytelling shorts which they run before each movie. These shorts make no money, but they are part of what is now expected when you watch a Pixar movie and have become part of their brand.

The Design Challenge – also called the Spaghetti Tower

The following experiment, conducted over 500 times by Peter Skillman in several countries, demonstrates the value of connectedness and trust. First, he chose a number of 4-person teams made up of, for example, lawyers, CEOs and other university graduates, along with a team of junior school children.

The competition task was to build the tallest possible structure using:

  • 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • 1m of transparent tape
  • 1m of string
  • One large marshmallow

The marshmallow had to end up on top, and each team was given 18 minutes (plus 2 minutes extra if required).

In this experiment, Skillman found that the junior school children won consistently, with average structure heights of the teams as follows:

  • Junior school children – 66cm
  • CEOs – 55cm
  • Lawyers – 38cm
  • Graduates – 25cm

If you were building a team to win this (or any) competition, you’d probably focus on finding people with the right intelligence, skills and experience to do a brilliant job. But the science behind a successful working culture suggests it’s more important to build social capital through better, stronger and more regular human connectedness.

The junior school children consistently won because they simply worked together with trust and connectedness! The other teams were less connected, less trusting, less effective.

Try this challenge with your team.

Here are the instructions and what you need.

And here is Peter Skillman’s commentary on the exercise.

The book and other resources

The Culture Code - The secrets of highly successful groups

Daniel Coyle

The Culture Code reveals the secrets of some of the best teams in the world – from Pixar to Google to the US Navy SEALs – explaining the skills such groups have mastered in order to generate trust and a willingness to collaborate. Combining cutting-edge science, on-the-ground insight and practical ideas for action, it offers a roadmap for creating an environment where innovation flourishes, problems get solved and expectations are exceeded.

'A marvel of insight and practicality' – Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit

‘The Culture Code is a step-by-step guidebook to building teams that are not just more effective, but happier. Whether you lead a team or are a team member, this book is a must-read.’ Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People at Google and author of Work Rules!

Buy The Culture Code here.

Beyond Measure - The Big Impact of Small Changes

Margaret Heffernan

Beyond Measure is a powerful manifesto for CEOs and employees alike, revealing how organisations can make huge changes with surprisingly small steps.

In an age of radical shifts and disruption, business leader Margaret Heffernan lays the groundwork for a new kind of thinking, arguing that organisations can create seismic shifts by making deceptively small changes such as using every mind on the team, celebrating mistakes and encouraging time off from work.

Buy Beyond Measure here.

Here is a short, 3-minute video clip from a 2006 Tales of Invention Ted Talk, where Peter Skillman describes why children are better at building a tower out of spaghetti than CEOs and business school students.

Watch this video here.

Here are the instructions and what you need.

And here is Peter Skillman’s commentary on the exercise.

If you want to know more about the research studies conducted by Sandy Pentland and the MIT lab team, here is a great video where he explains how the way people communicate with others is crucial to their success and how the way your team members interact with each other can determine your business’s success or failure.

The more connected, engaged, committed, trusting and SAFE your team are, the more successful your business will be.

Watch this video here.

If you are loving the sense that Sandy Pentland makes when he talks about the importance of people interacting and working together, then you will love this video, where he discusses the power of collective intelligence and how we as humans can achieve anything if we can just ‘get our act together’.

Watch this video here.

Businesses are often run according to ‘the super chicken model’, where the value is placed on star employees who outperform others. And yet, this isn’t what drives the most high-achieving teams.

Margaret Heffernan, business leader and author of Beyond Measure, observes that it is social cohesion – built in every coffee break, and in every instance of one team member asking another for help – that leads, over time, to great results. It's a radical rethink of what it means to be a leader and what drives us to do our best work. Because, as Heffernan points out: ‘Companies don’t have ideas. Only people do.’

Watch her wonderful Ted Talk about ‘the super chicken model’ and why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work.

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle writes about why highly successful groups are just that. Here is a short video where he explains how some groups get it right, making it clear that it starts with your facial expression and small signals that deliver a big message.

 Watch this video here.

And if you want to know more about Daniel’s book, research and work, here is a longer video that is part of the Unleashed series of conversations.

Where does great culture come from? How do you build and sustain it in your group? Or, how do you strengthen a culture that needs fixing? Digging deeper into his award-winning book The Culture Code, Daniel shares specific strategies that trigger learning, spark collaboration, build trust and drive positive change. Culture is not something you are—it’s something you do…

Watch this video here.

Here is a great video from Daniel Pink - On how to give great advice in just 19 words: "I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them"


Click the button below and you'll be able to download a pdf version of this page.