Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 25, 2018
I roam around in the area of behavioral economics. I am constantly fascinated by people and their “issues.” And it seems one of the big issues among the millennial generation is the search for happiness. They would like to be happy. I am down with that as a goal, but let’s just quickly grab a healthy dose of reality.
The most popular course at Yale University (you know, that Ivy League school in New Haven, Conn.) is titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” or PSYC 157, taught by Professor Laurie Santos, and 1,200 undergraduates are taking her course this year. It is the most popular course in Yale’s 316-year history.
Let me just politely note that tuition, room and board at Yale is currently $68,950. Last year 31,445 students applied, and 1,972 were admitted. Stay with me. You got into Yale, and 1,200 of you are taking a course in happiness. That is what I call a truly first-world problem. (Now imagine if you flunked it.)
Now, to issues that perhaps have a more direct correlation to happiness — namely building a strong company culture, and why it is critical to your company’s success. Culture is associated with chemistry, and the chemistry of a company is not easily reduced to molecules in a test tube. It is about creating a feeling of belonging, according to Daniel Coyle in his new book, “Culture Code.” It is behavior that creates that feeling, and specifically, it is the behavior of being vulnerable and inclusive, of creating open exchanges of information.
Two of the examples he uses are Greg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs, and the training of the Navy SEALs. “Coach Pop” has a fantastic record — 21 consecutive winning seasons and five NBA championships. What he is known for by his players is his intense affection for them and his unrelenting willingness to tell them the truth, according to Popovich. He does not shy away; he is in their faces.
The other characteristic he exhibits includes taking care of them. This includes team meals, family events, and a deep willingness to both listen and go to the dark places. After one particularly hard loss, the next day, instead of game films, he showed them a CNN documentary about the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1963. You want to build something special that talks about how we are all connected — that was it. Wow.
Coyle also talks about the Navy SEALs. We all know that these warriors are the most elite, the best of the best. After each mission, they do something unique — what they call an After Action Review (AAR). Three components, very simple — “what went well, what didn’t go well, what are we going to do differently next time?” I am in awe at how simple this sounds and how hard it is to implement in your company. Coyle says, “good teams work when people have permission to tell each other the truth.” AAR is what Seals call an information machine. It builds a mental model of the problem that they are trying to solve. In the final analysis, trust comes down to cooperative behavior.
In my own little companies, I try to encourage the leaders to be vulnerable and fallible, to easily admit mistakes and to openly ask for advice. Being the leader does not mean you have all the answers. In particular, be careful of physical isolation. That means bowling and barbecues for the team have some value, but only up to a point. It is the “deep fun” that matters most, being given ownership over a project. Coyle has two questions he asks, “what gets rewarded around here, and what happens in this company that does not happen anywhere else?”
Finally, Coyle talks about why great cultures are so intolerant of brilliant jerks. I know this one very well. Jerk behavior infects the entire team, and it is a very hard call to dump the genius. You fear you can never replace him/her. But, there is another truth we all know deep in our gut — everyone is replaceable, particularly yourself. Being aware of the requirement to win your job every day, and to take care of everyone else along the way — that is the stuff of great leadership, which in turn will build a great culture with a great team in a great company.
Rule No. 566: One bad apple.