Build Your Project Team Culture

The Culture Code Reveals the Power of Safety

“When we talk about courage, we think it’s going against an enemy with a machine gun. The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.”
         –Dave Cooper, Retired, Commander Master Chief, SEAL Team Six (From The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle)

Why is it so hard to see the truth and speak the truth to each other? Why does that demand courage? And, can any team reach their potential without this ability?

Safety: The Foundation of High Performance

Daniel Coyle, in his new book, The Culture Code, offers three necessary cultural elements of what he calls “highly successful groups.” These elements are safety, vulnerability, and purpose. After reading the first few chapters, I became convinced that safety should be the primary focus for every leader, especially project leaders

I’ve always thought of safety at the office and in my work group as physical safety. Coyle refocused my attention to that of emotional safety. Frankly, I am surprised I haven’t seen it before. I’ve been reading and writing about project team performance for about twenty years. I’ve always known that trust is crucial to creativity and innovation, but Coyle’s angle brought a fresh light on the foundational role of safety. His theme is that for teams to reach their potential, each member must feel safe enough emotionally to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is critical to giving and receiving authentic feedback, which is the only way a group will improve its performance. Feedback within the group is directed toward serving the purpose. Purpose becomes the North Star. That logic is tough to dispute.

Project teams are temporary, formed to accomplish something unique. These teams solve problems and make decisions every day. Versatile’s high-performance team checklist lists nine characteristics that enable a team to survive the “give and take” of creativity and problem solving while maintaining trust and keeping relationships intact. But I have to admit that emotional safety has always been assumed, rather than explicitly called out.

Coyle’s logic, that safety precedes trust and trust precedes authentic feedback and team learning, lays bare the importance of establishing emotional safety within our teams. The quote at the beginning of this article comes from a key story in the SEAL Team Commander’s evolution as a leader. In Cooper’s early career he advised a superior that a particular course of action was dangerous and should be avoided. That superior ignored his  advice and the result was exactly what Cooper had feared. Cooper took away from that experience a desire to be the kind of leader that invited opposing points of view and encouraged criticism from every member of his team.

The Primary Focus of Every Project Leader

Do you want your team to “see the truth and speak the truth to each other”? What could be more important? From creation of a business case and charter, through risk identification, scheduling, and daily problem-solving, your team is making decisions and working through conflicts.  Every day of every project is affected by team culture. Pick up Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code. He illustrates his theme with stories from a wide range of teams and follows up with specific actions for the reader. I predict his lessons will stick with you and reignite your focus on team culture.

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