How To Foster Effective Groups In Your Company’s Culture

Building and sustaining great teams isn’t just confined to the corporate workplace; everyone from Navy SEAL teams through to improv comedy groups rely on fostering and developing an effective system in which each team member can perform to the best of their abilities and deliver high-quality results.

In his best selling book The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle outlines a selection of key concepts which some of the most successful teams have adopted in order to perform at the highest level.

Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal

Healthy company culture should aim to foster an environment in which innovation can flourish, engaging employees and allowing teams to work together to solve problems and perform beyond expectations.

Let’s take a look at some of the core principles you can apply to help foster effective groups in your company’s culture:

Use belonging cues

In order to create an atmosphere where ideas can be freely exchanged, you’ll need to establish an environment where your employees feel safe. Belonging cues help to foster a feeling of psychological safety, creating energy in the exchanges between leaders and team members, while treating them as unique and valuable and signalling the future orientation.

Belonging cues include regular eye contact, open body language, mimicry (or pacing), proximity, attention and turn-taking. The key to using belonging cues effectively is to use them frequently; our unconscious brains are obsessed with the notion of psychological safety, so the more signals we receive which tell us we’re in a safe space, the more relaxed and forthcoming we are with our communication.

Connect people using vulnerability and weakness

One of the most common reasons why people refrain from interacting in a group is the prospect of being wrong or saying something which they think is cause for embarrassment. While it might seem counter-intuitive to bring vulnerability and weakness to the foreground, doing it in the right way helps to establish that everyone in the group is prone to these insecurities, opening them up to share vulnerabilities and help one another.

Sharing vulnerability is a reciprocal process that helps both parties involved. Dr. Jeff Polzer, professor of organisational behaviour at Harvard, describes this as a vulnerability loop:

  1. Person A puts out a vulnerability signal
  2. Person B detects the signal
  3. Person B responds and signals their vulnerability
  4. Person A detects the signal
  5. Shared vulnerability is established, enhancing trust

A common mistake is to think that trust comes after vulnerability, but the truth is by showing vulnerability first you can help to build a stronger team and drive creativity and innovation.


Provide positive, affirming feedback

The way feedback and criticism is framed can make the difference between disappointment and improvement, and striking a balance between delivering harsh truths without sacrificing motivation can be tricky. A study from Gallup revealed that employees with managers who focused on their strengths were far more likely to be engaged with their work than those with managers who focused on their weaknesses.

Research from Stanford shows that this feedback doesn’t have to be complicated, and can be reduced to a single sentence: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and know that you can reach them.”

This phrase is embedded with belonging cues which signal to the person both their place within the group and that it is a safe place for them to show their effort. Recognising their potential within your organisation is an effective way to encourage desired behaviours.

Positive people dont just have a good day; they make it a good day

Use mental contrasting

If you want to create high purpose environments in your company, setting up mental contrasting signals can trigger significant changes in both behaviour and outcomes. What is surprising about mental contrasting is how simple it is, requiring two basic points of reference: what is the goal? What are the obstacles?

German academic Gabriele Oettingen’s study, Strategies of Setting and Implementing Goals, demonstrated that this method can have profound impacts across a variety of fields, from public speaking, deal negotiations and time management.

The principle isn’t limited to individuals; when groups adopt the same practices and envision a shared goal and obstacles, the same positive outcomes occur.

Set up BrainTrust meetings

One method Pixar Studios uses to ensure their films are of the highest standard is BrainTrust meetings. These are meetings where a team of experienced leaders with no formal authority over the project get together to provide the most critical feedback regarding where the movie is failing, highlighting the flaws with precision.

“All our movies suck at first,” explained Edwin Catmull, former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. “The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start to not suck … It depends on completely candid feedback.”

By only focusing on problems rather than offering solutions, a BrainTrust can bring to light the vulnerabilities of a group, giving them a better understanding of what doesn’t work and how they can improve.