In 2012, Google began studying how workers can transform productivity by examining the perfect team. They scrutinized everything from how often they socialize together, to how regularly they communicate, to their personal backgrounds. Like many organizations, Google believed that putting the best people together would create the highest level of productivity. However, no matter what data they collected, they didn’t see any consistent patterns.
What they eventually identified as a consistent thread across successful teams is the group norms. Norms are the rules of engagement, whether clearly articulated or unwritten – these are rules that govern how people function when they get together. The more aligned the group was on these norms, the quicker they were able to get things done.
The impetus for change at a high school with over 200+ staff members came this school year when a group of enthusiastic leaders was determined to see the vision of student-centered learning live inside and outside of the hallways at Wando High School. Like many high schools around the country, members of the 21st Century Learning Team (also known as a School PL Team) of the largest high school in Charleston County School District were struggling to get the message and communication out to their own staff members. Overall, the staff was aware of the vision for the work but unclear on the indicators of the implementation and how the school was measuring success.
I remember the day quite clearly: the door to my portable classroom opened and my principal walked in. My heart skipped a beat — it was my first year teaching and the first time any school leader had come into my room. I was immediately worried about the clipboard in her hand and the uncapped pen. I was convinced that whatever I was doing would be wrong, that the moment would be off, that my students unengaged or the lesson would go off the rails. I was nervous about receiving feedback, but I now know that I needed it.
I was really fortunate in September to be able to attend and present at a number of really great conferences, one of which was the Responsive Conference. The Responsive Conference is in it’s third year and features presenters and attendees focused on the future of work. There were so many great sessions but the one led by Rajkumari Neogy, Founder of iRestart, on The Epigenetics of Teams still stands out weeks later. Rajkumari shared an incredible synthesis of research around the science of feelings and trust. She helped us to understand the chemicals in our body and the impact they have on trust, collaboration, and team dynamics. For example she shared, “When teams are more engaged they have greater levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin reduces the fear of trusting a stranger and helps signal trust. When we have higher levels of oxytocin we are able to build connections faster.” Similarly we organically, internally create serotonin when we feel seen and heard; opioids when we feel warmth and respect; and dopamine when we have autonomy and purpose.
As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I was fortunate throughout September to be able to attend and present at a number of really great conferences. In my final dispatch from the Responsive Conference, I am excited to share about Lindsey McGregor’s presentation on the power of total motivation. Lindsey is the Co-Founder and CEO of Vega Factor, and the author of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.
Curiosity has driven some of the most important innovations in our world. Albert Einstein famously boasted, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Curiosity is an attribute we actively work to develop in our teams at EE (one of our core values is Never Stop Learning) and in the leaders we support (our Innovative School Leaders Competencies include Learn Constantly and Cultivate Curiosity is one of the Coaching Competencies we’ll release later this month). I see curiosity as so critically important to shaping individual practices and organizational culture, I’ve included Constant Curiosity as one of the five key ingredients in my culture of innovation framework.
Appreciation and showing gratitude, to ourselves and others, is powerful. The British Psychological Society shares the results of a series of experiments from Psychological Science, which concluded that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect.” In the study:
“Participants were asked to write a letter of thanks via email to someone who had touched their life in a meaningful way, including expressing what the person had done and how it had affected their life. Across these experiments, the participants were asked to make various predictions about how the recipient would feel and perceive them. Meanwhile, the researchers made contact with the recipients to find out how they actually felt and what they actually thought. The senders of the thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be. Age and gender made no difference to the pattern of findings.”
I was fortunate in September to be able to attend and present at really great conferences. One of these was TinyCon, TinyPulse’s annual conference focused on employee engagement. The event featured fantastic speakers, and one of my favorite talks came from Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks. Howard is on our board at Education Elements, and I’ve been lucky to hear him speak a number of times. However, at TinyCon I found that his message resonated in a particularly deep way with me, both personally and professionally.
Often as leaders, we want to make things run smoothly. But Howard continually pushes us to see that people are not machines who can be “smooth” all the time. As he often says, “People are not assets. Assets are trucks, boxes, etc. Assets always give you what you expect. People are people. People never give you what you expect. You don’t even give yourself what you expect!” People are inevitably going to surprise, wow, and disappoint you. Howard offers this powerful question you can ask yourself and your organization when these people moments occur. “What happens when someone makes a mistake in the organization?” This singular question can have a tremendous impact on how we as leaders reflect and act.
Over the past few weeks, I have been traveling from state to state talking with superintendents and systems leaders about how to create a culture of innovation. One of the key themes we discuss in these conversations, workshops, and keynotes is around developing deep trust. For me, and many other leaders, deep trust is built through fostering a psychologically safe environment. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Researcher who coined this term, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
Last month I had the opportunity to collaborate with Kawai Lai, a former Education Elements (EE) teammate who recently founded VizLit with Lisa Kay Solomon and Dan Roam. Kawai and I are working together to create a Responsive Org Playbook for EE (sneak peek here). We believe the playbook will help us clarify our organizational design, support us to continue evolving as a company, and enable us to share our responsive practices with others (and build on what we’ve already shared with The NEW School Rules). During our three days huddled in a room together, it became increasingly clear to me that visuals are the best way to simplify complex ideas. This isn’t an insight unique to me, in fact, many others including Nancy Duarte, Dan Roam, David McCandless, Willemien Brand, and Jamie Slater have expressed the power of visuals to clarify and synthesize your thinking.