Belonging cues are behaviors 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. Their function is to answer the ancient, ever-present questions glowing in our brains: Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?
- Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:
- Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring.
- Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued.
- Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue.
These cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here.
- Team performance is driven by five measurable factors:
- Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
- Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
- Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
- Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
- Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the team.
Larry Page’s technique of igniting whole-group debates around solving tough problems sent a powerful signal of identity and connection, as did the no-holds-barred hockey games and wide-open Friday forums. (Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure.) They communicated in short, direct bursts. (Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.) Google was a hothouse of belonging cues; its people worked shoulder to shoulder and safely connected, immersed in their projects.
- Belonging cues have to do not with character or discipline but with building an environment that answers basic questions:
- Are we connected?
- Do we share a future?
- Are we safe?
- Popovich’s methods are effective. His communications consist of three types of belonging cues:
- Personal, up-close connection (body language, attention, and behavior that translates as I care about you).
- Performance feedback (relentless coaching and criticism that translates as We have high standards here).
- Big-picture perspective (larger conversations about politics, history, and food that translate as Life is bigger than basketball).
Popovich toggles among the three signals to connect his team the way a skilled director uses a camera. First he zooms in close, creating an individualized connection. Then he operates in the middle distance, showing players the truth about their performance. Then he pans out to show the larger context in which their interaction is taking place. Alone, each of these signals would have a limited effect. But together they create a steady stream of magical feedback. Every dinner, every elbow touch, every impromptu seminar on politics and history adds up to build a relational narrative: You are part of this group. This group is special. I believe you can reach those standards.
Tony Hseih’s projects tend to succeed for the same reason the creative cluster projects succeeded: Closeness helps create efficiencies of connection. The people in his orbit behave as if they were under the influence of some kind of drug because, in fact, they are. During our conversations, I ask Hsieh how he goes about recruiting new people into the Downtown Project. “If someone is interested, and we’re interested in them, we invite them out here,” he says. “We sort of do it in a sneaky way. We give them a place to stay for free and don’t tell them too much. They get here and they hang out and see what’s happening, and some of them decide to join. Things just sort of happen.” What percentage end up moving here? He pauses for a long time. “Probably about one in twenty.” At first, this number doesn’t seem all that impressive—only 5 percent. Then you think about what’s beneath that number. One hundred strangers will visit Hsieh, and after a few conversations and a handful of interactions, five will uproot themselves from their home and join this group they have just met. Hsieh has built a machine that transforms strangers into a tribe.
- Creating safety is about dialing in to small, subtle moments and delivering targeted signals at key points:
- 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 not simply to 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 next time.”
- Preview Future Connection: One habit I saw in successful groups was that of sneak-previewing future relationships, making small but telling connections between now and a vision of the future.
“You know that pitcher?” Players looked up. On the screen, wearing a perfect white uniform, stood the heroic figure of Trevor Rosenthal, a young star who had become a dominant relief pitcher for the Cardinals; he had pitched in the previous year’s World Series. “Three years ago,” the coach said, “he was sitting right in that seat where you are.” That’s all he said. It wasn’t much—it took about five seconds to deliver. But it was powerful, because it connected the dots between where the players were and where they were headed. Three years ago he was sitting right in that seat where you are.
A small thank-you can cause people to behave far more generously to a completely different person. This is because thank-yous aren’t only expressions of gratitude; they’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.
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. Most have built lengthy, demanding processes that seek to assess fit, contribution (through deep background research and extensive interactions with a large number of people in the group), and performance (increasingly measured by tests). Some groups, like Zappos, have added an extra layer of belonging cues: after training is complete, they offer trainees a $2,000 bonus if they quit (about 10 percent of trainees accept the offer).
When you watch highly cohesive groups in action, you will see many moments of fluid, trusting cooperation. These moments often happen when the group is confronted with a tough obstacle—for example, a SEAL team navigating a training course, or an improv comedy team navigating a sketch. Without communication or planning, the group starts to move and think as one, finding its way through the obstacle in the same way that a school of fish finds its way through a coral reef, as if they are all wired into the same brain. Sprinkled amid the smoothness and fluency are moments that don’t feel so beautiful. These moments are clunky, awkward, and full of hard questions. They contain pulses of profound tension, as people deal with hard feedback and struggle together to figure out what is going on. What’s more, these moments don’t happen by accident. They happen by design. At Pixar, those uncomfortable moments happen in what they call BrainTrust meetings. The BrainTrust is Pixar’s method of assessing and improving its movies during their development. (Each film is BrainTrusted about half a dozen times, at regular intervals.) The meeting brings the film’s director together with a handful of the studio’s veteran directors and producers, all of whom watch the latest version of the movie and offer their candid opinion. From a distance, the BrainTrust appears to be a routine huddle. Up close, it’s more like a painful medical procedure—specifically, a dissection that spotlights, names, and analyzes the film’s flaws in breathtaking detail. A BrainTrust meeting is not fun. It is where directors are told that their characters lack heart, their storylines are confusing, and their jokes fall flat. But it’s also where those movies get better. “The BrainTrust is the most important thing we do by far,” said Pixar president Ed Catmull. “It depends on completely candid feedback.” In rhythm and tone, BrainTrust meetings resemble the atmosphere inside the cockpit of Flight 232. They consist of a steady stream of here’s-the-bad-news notifications accompanied by a few big, scary questions—Does anybody know how to land this thing? Participants spend most of the time in a state of brow-furrowing struggle as they grapple with the fact that the movie, at the moment, isn’t working. “All our movies suck at first,” Catmull says. “The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start to not suck.”
- Vulnerability loops seem swift and spontaneous from a distance, but when you look closely, they all follow the same discrete steps:
- Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.
- Person B detects this signal.
- Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability.
- Person A detects this signal.
- A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.
Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.
- Harold improv rules:
- You are all supporting actors.
- Always check your impulses.
- Never enter a scene unless you are needed.
- Save your fellow actor, don’t worry about the piece.
- Your prime responsibility is to support.
- Work at the top of your brains at all times.
- Never underestimate or condescend to the audience.
- No jokes.
- Trust. Trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.
- Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help, what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.
Every rule directs you either to tamp down selfish instincts that might make you the center of attention, or to serve your fellow actors (support, save, trust, listen). This is why Close’s Harold rules are hard to follow, and also why they are useful in building cooperation.
Anybody have any ideas? During Seal missions, David Cooper sought opportunities to spotlight the need for his men to speak up, especially with newer team members. He was not subtle. “For example, when you’re in an urban environment, windows are bad,” he tells me. “You stand in front of one, and you can get shot by a sniper and never know where it came from. So if you’re a new guy and you see me standing in front of a window in Fallujah, what are you going to say? Are you going to tell me to move my ass, or are you going to stand there quietly and let me get shot? When I ask new guys that question, they say, ‘I’ll tell you to move.’ So I tell them, ‘Well, that’s exactly how you should conduct yourself all the time around here, with every single decision.’ ” Cooper began to develop tools. “There’re things you can do,” he says. “Spending time together outside, hanging out—those help. 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.”
One of the most useful tools was the After-Action Review, the truth-telling session. AARs happen immediately after each mission and consist of a short meeting in which the team gathers to discuss and replay key decisions. AARs are led not by commanders but by enlisted men. There are no agendas, and no minutes are kept. The goal is to create a flat landscape without rank, where people can figure out what really happened and talk about mistakes—especially their own.
Good AARs follow a template. “You have to do it right away,” Cooper says. “You put down your gun, circle up, and start talking. Usually you take the mission from beginning to end, chronologically. You talk about every decision, and you talk about the process. You have to resist the temptation to wrap it all up in a bow, and try to dig for the truth of what happened, so people can really learn from it. You have to ask why, and then when they respond, you ask another why. Why did you shoot at that particular point? What did you see? How did you know? What other options were there? You ask and ask and ask.” The goal of an AAR is not to excavate truth for truth’s sake, or to assign credit and blame, but rather to build a shared mental model that can be applied to future missions. “Look, nobody can see it all or know it all,” Cooper says. “But if you keep getting together and digging out what happened, then after a while everybody can see what’s really happening, not just their small piece of it. People can share experiences and mistakes. They can see how what they do affects others, and we can start to create a group mind where everybody can work together and perform to the team’s potential.”
People who possessed traits of warmth and curiosity— I began to think of them as Nyquists. They were polite, reserved, and skilled listeners. They radiated a safe, nurturing vibe. They possessed deep knowledge that spanned domains and had a knack for asking questions that ignited motivation and ideas. The best way to find the Nyquist is usually to ask people: If I could get a sense of the way your culture works by meeting just one person, who would that person be?
If we think of successful cultures as engines of human cooperation, then the Nyquists are the spark plugs.
Givechi’s interactions with her teams take place largely in what IDEO calls Flights, regular all-team meetings that occur at the start, middle, and finish of every project. (Think of them as IDEO’s version of the BrainTrust or AAR.) Givechi approaches each Flight from the outside in. She does her research, mostly through conversations, to learn the issues the team has been wrestling with, both from a design perspective (what are the barriers?) and from a team-dynamics perspective (where is the friction?)
Then with that landscape in mind, she gathers the group and asks questions designed to unearth tensions and help the group gain clarity about themselves and the project. The word she uses for this process is surfacing.
- A year ago IDEO decided to scale Givechi’s abilities across the organization. They asked her to create modules of questions teams could ask themselves, then provided those modules to design teams as tools to help them improve. For example, here are a few:
- The one thing that excites me about this particular opportunity is.
- I confess, the one thing I’m not so excited about with this particular opportunity is.
- On this project, I’d really like to get better at.
The interesting thing about Givechi’s questions is how transcendently simple they are. They have less to do with design than with connecting to deeper emotions: fear, ambition, motivation. It’s easy to imagine that in different hands, these questions could fall flat and fail to ignite conversation. This is because the real power of the interaction is located in the two-way emotional signaling that creates an atmosphere of connection that surrounds the conversation.
Marci invented a method in which he videoed conversations while tracking galvanic skin response—the change in electrical resistance that measures emotional arousal. He discovered that for much of the time, the arousal curves of two people in conversation bore little or no relation to each other. But he also found special moments, in certain conversations, when the two curves fell into perfect sync. Marci called these moments concordances. “Concordances happen when one person can react in an authentic way to the emotion being projected in the room,” Marci says. “It’s about understanding in an empathic way, then doing something in terms of gesture, comment, or expression that creates a connection.”
The most important moments in conversation happen when one person is actively, intently listening. “It’s not an accident that concordance happens when there’s one person talking and the other person listening,” Marci says. “It’s very hard to be empathic when you’re talking. Talking is really complicated, because you’re thinking and planning what you’re going to say, and you tend to get stuck in your own head. But not when you’re listening. When you’re really listening, you lose time. There’s no sense of yourself, because it’s not about you. It’s all about this task—to connect completely to that person.”
Marci has connected increases in concordances to increases in perceived empathy: the more concordances occur, the closer the two people feel. What’s more, the changes in closeness happen not gradually but all at once. “There’s often one moment where it happens,” he says. “There’s an accelerated change to the relationship that happens when you’re able to really listen, to be incredibly present with the person. It’s like a breakthrough—‘We were like this, but now we’re going to interact in a new way, and we both understand that it’s happened.’”
- Leaders should ask their people three questions:
- What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
- What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
- What can I do to make you more effective?
- The most effective listeners do four things:
- They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported.
- They take a helping, cooperative stance.
- They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions.
- They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths.
- One good AAR structure is to use five questions:
- What were our intended results?
- What were our actual results?
- What caused our results?
- What will we do the same next time?
- What will we do differently?
- Some teams also use a Before-Action Review, which is built around a similar set of questions:
- What are our intended results?
- What challenges can we anticipate?
- What have we or others learned from similar situations?
- What will make us successful this time?
Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story. To do this, they build what we’ll call high-purpose environments.
High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go. The surprising thing, from a scientific point of view, is how responsive we are to this pattern of signaling.
That shared future could be a goal or a behavior. (We put customer safety first. We shoot, move, and communicate.) It doesn’t matter. What matters is establishing this link and consistently creating engagement around it. What matters is telling the story.
Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.
- The simple, glowing idea—This child has unusual potential for intellectual growth—aligned motivations, awareness, and behaviors. Rosenthal classified the changes into four categories:
- Warmth (the teachers were kinder, more attentive, and more connective).
- Input (the teachers provided more material for learning).
- Response-opportunity (the teachers called on the students more often, and listened more carefully).
- Feedback (the teachers provided more, especially when the student made a mistake).
What happened in Rosenthal’s and Grant’s experiments is no different from what happened when Johnson & Johnson gathered to challenge the Credo. They created a high-purpose environment, flooded the zone with signals that linked the present effort to a meaningful future, and used a single story to orient motivation the way that a magnetic field orients a compass needle to true north: This is why we work. Here is where you should put your energy.
One of the best measures of any group’s culture is its learning velocity—how quickly it improves its performance of a new skill.
- When Edmondson plotted the results, she found that hospitals fell into two groups: teams that had high success and teams that had low success. It wasn’t a bell curve; it was more like a split screen. Teams were either like Mountain Medical or like Chelsea; they either clicked or they didn’t. Why? The answer, Edmondson discovered, lay in the patterns of real-time signals through which the team members were connected (or not) with the purpose of the work. These signals consisted of five basic types:
- Framing: Successful teams conceptualized MICS as a learning experience that would benefit patients and the hospital. Unsuccessful teams conceptualized MICS as an add-on to existing practices.
- Roles: Successful teams were explicitly told by the team leader why their individual and collective skills were important for the team’s success, and why it was important for them to perform as a team. Unsuccessful teams were not.
- Rehearsal: Successful teams did elaborate dry runs of the procedure, preparing in detail, explaining the new protocols, and talking about communication. Unsuccessful teams took minimal steps to prepare.
- Explicit encouragement to speak up: Successful teams were told by team leaders to speak up if they saw a problem; they were actively coached through the feedback process. The leaders of unsuccessful teams did little coaching, and as a result team members were hesitant to speak up.
- Active reflection: Between surgeries, successful teams went over performance, discussed future cases, and suggested improvements. For example, the team leader at Mountain Medical wore a head-mounted camera during surgery to help facilitate discussion and feedback. Unsuccessful teams tended not to do this.
- Note what factors are not on this list: experience, surgeon status, and organizational support. These qualities mattered far less than the simple, steady pulse of real-time signals that channeled attention toward the larger goal.
“I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet,” he says. “I didn’t know how to manage flow or run a kitchen. I didn’t know anything. But I did know how I wanted to make people feel. I wanted them to feel like they couldn’t tell if they had stayed home or gone out.”
To do that, Meyer relied on instinct. He hired midwesterners to increase friendliness. He trained the staff himself, playacting various waiter-diner scenarios. When service was slow, as it often was in the early days, he placated guests with free wine and gave the staff latitude to provide treats. He made a habit of gathering tidbits of information to help his guests feel more at home. He paid particular attention to language. He hated waiter-speak like “Are you still working on that?” (it’s not work!) or “Is everything to your liking?” (so impersonal!). Instead, he sought to create language that gave guests the feeling that the staff was on their side. For instance, when a reservation was unavailable, he would say, “Can you give me a range of times that work for you, so I can root for a cancellation?”
- At the retreat, Meyer and the staff ranked their priorities:
- Meyer then attempted to name the specific behaviors and interactions he wanted to create at his restaurants. He already had an assortment of catchphrases that he used informally in training—he had a knack for distilling ideas into handy maxims. But now he started paying deeper attention to these phrases, thinking about them as tools. Here are a few:
- Read the guest.
- Athletic hospitality.
- Writing a great final chapter.
- Turning up the Home Dial.
- Loving problems.
- Finding the yes.
- Collecting the dots and connecting the dots.
- Creating raves for guests.
- One size fits one.
- Making the charitable assumption.
- Planting like seeds in like gardens.
- Put us out of business with your generosity.
- Be aware of your emotional wake.
- To get a hug, you have to give a hug.
- The excellence reflex.
- Are you an agent or a gatekeeper?
Each of them functions as a small narrative in itself, providing a vivid mental model for solving the routine problems the staff faced. Making the charitable assumption means that when someone behaves poorly, you should avoid judging them and instead give them the benefit of the doubt. Collecting the dots means gathering information about guests; connecting the dots is using that information to create happiness. Skunking is spraying negative energy into the workplace, as skunks do when they’re frightened. By themselves, these phrases are unremarkable. But together, endlessly repeated and modeled through behavior, they create a larger conceptual framework that connects with the group’s identity and expresses its core purpose: We take care of people.
Name and Rank Your Priorities: In order to move toward a target, you must first have a target. Listing your priorities, which means wrestling with the choices that define your identity, is the first step. Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships—how they treat one another—at the top of the list. This reflects the truth that many successful groups realize: Their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself. If they get their own relationships right, everything else will follow.
Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be: A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so. This is not the exception but the rule. Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities. The leaders I visited with were not shy about this. Statements of priorities were painted on walls, stamped on emails, incanted in speeches, dropped into conversation, and repeated over and over until they became part of the oxygen.
Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where It Aims for.
Creativity: Every group skill can be sorted into one of two basic types: skills of proficiency and skills of creativity.
Skills of proficiency are about doing a task the same way, every single time. They are about delivering machine-like reliability, and they tend to apply in domains in which the goal behaviors are clearly defined, such as service.
- Building purpose to perform these skills is like building a vivid map: You want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way. Ways to do that include:
- Fill the group’s windshield with clear, accessible models of excellence.
- Provide high-repetition, high-feedback training.
- Build vivid, memorable rules of thumb (if X, then Y).
- Spotlight and honor the fundamentals of the skill.
- Creative skills, on the other hand, are about empowering a group to do the hard work of building something that has never existed before. Generating purpose in these areas is like supplying an expedition: You need to provide support, fuel, and tools and to serve as a protective presence that empowers the team doing the work. Some ways to do that include:
- Keenly attend to team composition and dynamics.
- Define, reinforce, and relentlessly protect the team’s creative autonomy.
- Make it safe to fail and to give feedback.
- Celebrate hugely when the group takes initiative.
Most groups, of course, these skill types, as they aim for proficiency in certain areas and creativity in others. The key is to clearly identify these areas and tailor leadership accordingly.
Embrace the Use of Catchphrases: When you look at successful groups, a lot of their internal language features catchphrases that often sound obvious, rah-rah, or corny. Many of us instinctively dismiss them as cultish jargon. But this is a mistake. Their occasionally cheesy obviousness is not a bug—it’s a feature. Their clarity, grating to the outsider’s ear, is precisely what helps them function. The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright: “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “Talk less, do more” (IDEO), “Work hard, be nice” (KIPP), “Pound the rock” (San Antonio Spurs), “Leave the jersey in a better place” (New Zealand All-Blacks), “Create raves for guests” (Danny Meyer’s restaurants). They’re hardly poetry, but they share an action-based clarity. They aren’t gentle suggestions so much as clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.
Measure What Really Matters: The main challenge to building a clear sense of purpose is that the world is cluttered with noise, distractions, and endless alternative purposes. One solution is to create simple universal measures that place focus on what matters. A good example happened in the early days of Zappos, when Tony Hsieh noticed that call center workers were measured by the number of calls they handled per hour. He realized that this traditional measure was at odds with the group’s purpose and that it was driving unwanted behaviors (haste and brevity, for starters). So he banished that metric and replaced it with Personal Emotional Connections (PECs), or creating a bond outside the conversation about the product. It’s impossible, of course, to measure PECs precisely, but the goal here is not precision; it is to create awareness and alignment and to direct behavior toward the group’s mission. So when a customer service agent spent a company-record 10 hours and 29 minutes on a call, Zappos celebrated and sent out a press release.
- Use Artifacts: If you traveled from Mars to Earth to visit successful cultures, it would not take you long to figure out what they were about. Their environments are richly embedded with artifacts that embody their purpose and identity. These artifacts vary widely: the battle gear of soldiers killed in combat at the Navy SEAL headquarters; the Oscar trophies accompanied by hand-drawn sketches of the original concepts at Pixar; and the rock and sledgehammer behind glass at the San Antonio Spurs practice facility, embodying the team’s catchphrase “Pound the rock”—but they all reinforce the same signal: This is what matters. Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors: One challenge of building purpose is to translate abstract ideas (values, mission) into concrete terms. One way successful groups do this is by spotlighting a single task and using it to define their identity and set the bar for their expectations.