3 ways to build a culture of belonging

A high-performing culture is one of the most powerful forces in the world


A high-performing culture is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It is the engine that drives productivity and creativity within successful businesses and the hallmark of their competitive edge. We sense it within thriving families and understand it as the foundation of championship teams.

Yet, the poignancy of a vibrant culture to the business bottom line is perhaps more astounding than many of us know. Several years ago, Harvard professors completed an extensive project (lasting more than 11 years and involving 200 companies) that studied the financial performance of companies with a strong corporate culture versus those without it. They concluded that performance-enhancing cultures had nearly five times the revenue growth and 800 times the net income growth of weak corporate cultures over an 11-year period.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, puts it like this: “If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” Or as management consultant Peter Drucker notes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

But what exactly is culture? We all want it, know it when we see it and agree that its effects can be world-changing. But how do we build it? What are its elements? Or is it something that is intrinsic, predestined, static — in other words, some just have it and some don’t?

As an executive search consultant who has worked with dozens of America’s most iconic brands and closely observed their culture, I've noticed that there are a variety of factors that influence culture, such as having a deeper purpose in your career and being able to grow within your role.

However, though each of these elements is essential for creating a vibrant culture, none is more foundational than community. It is the cornerstone on which all else rests. Without it, team members clam up and engagement plummets.

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The case for community

Ed Catmull, the legendary CEO of Pixar, said that trust and respect are the foundation of any thriving culture. When employees trust and respect one another, it fosters creativity and creates an environment in which people can develop their true passions and create something bigger than themselves.

Google agrees with this sentiment. Over the course of a two-year study that consisted of more than 200 interviews, its people analytics team discovered that the basic building block of its highest-performing teams was psychological safety — or a belief that everyone is valued, respected, and cared for.

What are some ways, then, that we can nurture trusting relationships and build authentic community so our teams and culture thrive? Here are a few ideas:

1. Capitalize on seminal moments

Taking advantage of pivotal moments reminds employees that they are cherished and significant. At Google, for example, hiring managers are reminded to complete five critical tasks on new hires' first day. These tasks include having a roles and responsibilities discussion, matching the new hire with a peer buddy, helping the newbie build a social network, setting onboarding check-ins once a month for the first six months, and encouraging continuous open dialogue.

At Twitter, new employees are greeted on their first day with a T-shirt, a bottle of wine, an office tour, and breakfast with the CEO. Zappos’ onboarding program lasts four weeks and is designed to “create lasting relationships throughout the entire company.” Facebook, on the other hand, has instituted a six-week "boot camp" for its new engineers that is designed to build trust, camaraderie, and belonging.

Other seminal moments may include birthdays or the completion of a large task. Don’t let these critical events pass by unnoticed — celebrate them consistently.

2. Ensure frequent collisions

There’s a reason why Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung have all built (or are building) some of the largest open-seating floor plans in the world. It’s not just to save on cost per square foot — it’s also because they acutely understand that face-to-face encounters are the most effective means of boosting collaboration, trust, creativity, and community.

In fact, renowned MIT professor Thomas Allen has conclusively shown that we are “four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as with someone 60 feet away.” The same is true of digital communication: We email and text someone more if he or she is sitting nearby. Thus, it’s important to ensure that teams are clustered together in close proximity. Or, at a minimum, design your workspaces in such a way that encourages frequent collisions, such as centralized cafes, meeting rooms, and lounges.

For team members working remotely, be sure to schedule regular in-person get-togethers. Nothing beats physical nearness. In between these gatherings, you can also leverage messaging apps (like WeChat, GroupMe, or Skype) and real-time project management apps (such as Slack or HipChat) that aid in strengthening cohesion.

3. Practice radical honesty

A study by the Corporate Executive Board showed that companies that actively fostered honest feedback and had more open communication produced a return over a 10-year period that was an astonishing 270% higher than that of companies that didn’t.

What’s the best way to give this type of transparent feedback? There are many. But first, it’s important to know what not to do. In short, avoid “feedback sandwiches.” This classic approach of praise-negative-praise is rational in theory but deeply confusing and ineffective in practice. Receivers often view the positives as inauthentic and likely block them anyway because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Instead, Wharton professor and renowned author Adam Grant suggests we do four things: Ask whether the person wants feedback, take yourself off of a pedestal, explain why you’re giving the feedback, and then proceed to have an active dialogue instead of a one-sided monologue.

Those who are great at providing feedback are also great listeners. Be present when interacting with team members, and put away distractions like phones, laptops, and tablets. Give a profuse amount of eye contact, be energetic, and convey warmth and assurance that their opinion matters.

Part of being honest also involves being transparent. Everyone deserves to be kept in the loop about where the company is headed and what it’s up against. This creates high levels of trust and gives team members clarity about where they stand in the future. For example, when Netflix launched into streaming and its business model was upended, the employees knew it was coming because management had been sharing their plans for years. This allowed management to move quickly and avoid the massive shock that could breed contempt among the team.

The strongest teams are the ones that genuinely enjoy working together. They share a sense of trust and respect, they feel that their ideas and opinions are heard by management, and they are able to pursue their passions while helping the company grow. And with a strong culture, teams can get through any hurdles that may come their way.

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