I have just finished two excellent books. The first is Angela Duckworth’s Grit which explains the winning combination of passion and perseverance (or “grit”) that powers high achievers. The second, is Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code which reveals “the secrets of highly successful groups.”
Together these books offer learning to both nurture high achievers and create the conditions for them to connect as a high performing team. Excited by this thought – really I was – I have distilled some actionable insights into one (reasonably) succinct blog.
SUPPORTING TEAM SUCCESS
Let’s start with culture and consider what might be the handful of high impact actions you could take. Taking my lead directly from Daniel Coyle I have divided these into three big skill areas of Build Safety, Share Vulnerability, and Establish Purpose. Collectively these ‘skills’ build a group’s strength of connection and cooperation to enhance their ability to overcome challenges.
- Create belonging and safety
Coyle emphasises our centuries-established human need for belonging and connection. Apparently, it stems from a structure deep in the brain called the amygdala which sets off our fight or flight response to danger. This same area when receiving belonging cues increases our propensity to interact with others and to sustain social bonds. Many simple belonging signals can be very easily given through positive behaviours and a supportive environment. They include increasing team interaction or proximity, establishing eye contact, seeing everyone contribute in a discussion, listening without interrupting or sharing a joke. Here’s three positive actions from Culture Code to supplement the simple stuff:
Actively promote ‘collisions’ across your team. More and wider interaction increases connection and so a shared security you are part of the team – so actively design for it. Forcing new connections in team allocations, establishing tasks that require input beyond the team and holding regular face-to-face workshops are obvious examples. Requesting help from and beyond the team is another approach. One of my clients has an idea building forum in which anyone can join to share an idea or contribute to developing one. Idea owners are guided to experts across the business who can address identified questions.
Embrace the players who fail. Set-backs or failure have the potential to be the biggest moments for team cohesion. A constructive response to bad news will support the open honesty a team needs to quickly surface and resolve issues. Investing time to reflect constructively as a team will also prevent bruised individuals withdrawing. Consider how a successful sports coach would act when disaster next strikes.
Overdo saying thank you. Coyle highlights research that shows that the receipt of a thank you causes an increase in cooperative and helpful behaviour. Given gratitude has also been shown to enhance personal wellbeing expressing appreciation is a potent tool to role model excessively.
- Encourage shared vulnerability
The second skill is establishing shared vulnerability. When team members find themselves facing big challenges they will need to be able to call upon mutual trust and cooperation. The better able they are to recognise their limits and reach out to the widest possible network, the greater the speed and volume of accessing solutions. Coyle makes a thought-provoking point that vulnerability precedes an increase in trust by increasing our propensity to seek from others. Here’s a further three actions that flow from this dynamic:
Send clear signals you need help. If a leader has challenges or weaknesses that they seek help for it demonstrates offering help or requesting it is a good thing. Again, this can be simple – I vividly recall a new CMO in their first week asking his entire marketing team for ideas on a range of big challenges and encouraging collaboration. It emphasised he needed the knowledge and insights from all levels and promptly challenged demarcations established across teams.
The Qantas COO’s recent request for senior executives to help as baggage handlers for up to three months has the potential improve cooperation and trust across the business alongside performance.
Over-communicate expectations of collaboration. Coyle highlights the incessantly asserted mantra of IDEO CEO Tim Brown that the more complex the problem the more help you will need to solve it. Coyle also promotes regular “flash mentoring” – that is habitually seeking a few hours input with from people you think you can learn from.
Listen like a trampoline. The trampoline comparison reflects the idea of a succession of exploring questions slowly raising energy, understanding and more areas to explore. It originates from a leadership consultancy that assessed the attributes of the most effective listeners. Findings highlighted the importance of a supportive and active listening that includes occasional gentle questions that probe from different angles with occasional suggestions.
- Keep talking about purpose
Coyle emphasises that successful cultures retell their stories of purpose and create opportunities for reconnection. The importance of this links to the collaboration and motivation building benefits of ‘mental contrasting’. When a team objectively appraises their current challenges alongside the benefits of realising their higher goals they are more likely to work harder and embrace help. A great example of this is a study involving a call centre team conducting outbound calls for donations to fund scholarships. Following a visit by recipients of their donations who shared in person the positive impacts the team increased their revenue generation by 72% in subsequent weeks. Purpose as a motivator is a topic I will return to when I discuss Angela Duckworth’s insights on what drives high achievers. There is however, one team involving action that can’t be ignored:
Habitually tell the story. Maintaining a shared purpose motivates, connects and supports team resilience so active re-telling is essential. Consider how Unilever’s global team on international ice cream day share their individual perspectives on how their brands create moments for smiles or happiness. Colleagues (and their families too) are actively participating in showing why it matters.
SUPPORTING INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT
All of the actions from Culture Code that support team success will be conducive to individual achievement. Angela Duckworth in her book Grit, however, offers some specific insights for supporting individual progress that deserve separation. The core premise is that the combination of sustained passion and perseverance (or “grit”) is what make high achievers special. She highlights key ‘grit’ drivers which include: pursuit of an enduring interest, a commitment to continuous improvement, a belief in purpose and the ability to confront challenges with the optimism that things will eventually work out.
“No matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hard working. Second, they knew in a very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” Angela Duckworth, Grit
Grit can be nurtured and the evidence indicates we gather more as we get older. I have captured a handful of actions below.
- Enable individuals to align with their enduring passion
People will have a greater propensity to work harder, put up with the chores of a job or deal with failure where it gives them scope to pursue their passion and achieve their goals in relation to this. Duckworth stresses this passion must be an enduring interest that provides a direction. She also warns on the danger of translating this direction into a very specific target outcome – her top level goal, for example, she defines as “helping children thrive using psychological science.” There are a number of ways to help an individual align with their effort inducing passion.
Recruit for grit attributes. Implicit in the importance of grit is a reduced importance for academic achievement or current knowledge. Don’t overlook less experienced candidates seeing an opportunity to progress their passion. Look for evidence of resilience and a positive mindset in past activities in or outside or work too.
Angela Duckworth emphasises the importance of effort in enabling achievement. In what she acknowledges is not the complete answer she breaks down achievement into two equations with effort appearing twice as a multiplier. An enduring interest / passion provides both motivation and focus for effort.
Facilitate discovery of interests. Duckworth argues that for most of us an enduring interest is something that evolves over considerable time based on experiences. (By implication many in their early careers years don’t start with a passion to follow.) Participating in different groups, listening to diverse mentors and offering a succession of different assignments will help individual discovery (and as Coyle shows it builds team cooperation too).
Enable some job crafting. With passion and purpose increasing effort there is a case for some crafting of job role specifics to increase the connection. Duckworth, like Coyle emphasises that how people perceive their contribution is critical. Just making the connection to purpose clearer and more tangible is beneficial. Adding opportunities to develop the skills or knowledge that support an individual’s long term passion and associated goals will also help.
- Ensure failure or feedback is assessed with hope and optimism
The capacity to interpret events optimistically is incredibly important. It enhances the ability to get up when knocked down and is a key to ensuring wellbeing – pessimists tend to experience more anxiety and depression. For those with a tendency to a critical inner voice there will be need to check and challenge their perspective. Gaining feedback from others to balance your perspective helps (and again clarity on direction and purpose makes it easier). Again some interventions:
Ensure a growth-orientated mindset in feedback. If you signal the belief that positive change is possible with the right support / effort it is more likely to be interpreted with the same perspective. Duckworth highlights an experiment (Yeager and Cohen) in which a sample of students received feedback on essays with an additional post-it note message of “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” Those receiving this growth-orientated feedback were almost twice as likely to hand in a revised essay. These results connect to a study in which school children were told that they hadn’t solved enough maths problems and so “they should have tried harder.” Again, those receiving this feedback were found to put more time into improving. These findings point to the power of regular communication of high expectations alongside an explicit belief that hard work will result in increased ability.
Support access to helpful perspectives. Encourage use of colleagues, mentors and coaches (with growth mindsets) as a helping hand. Seeking help to respond to a set-back is not only a sensible resilience strategy but is also an example of the vulnerability sharing that builds cooperation. This access to help can also be supported by organisational design. One company I support has established partnerships of two innovation leaders to lead a portfolio of innovation opportunities. The approach extends expertise and creates mutual support for dealing with challenges.
The actionable insights I have highlighted are a sample of those revealed by both authors so don’t discount reading their books. Helpfully, few require significant investment or involve great difficulty. The big question is therefore how could you adjust your behaviours and actively design your ways of working to increase individual and team achievement?
The header image is from Tough Mudder. A moment of shared vulnerability building trust perhaps?