High-performance culture: the power of purpose

Here’s part 3 of building a high-performance culture, based on Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code and my consulting practice. The third ingredient to improving collaboration is a collective, meaningful purpose. When your purpose is ultra-clear and inspiring it serves as a beacon: everyone adjusts their course in the right direction – like a swarm of starlings.

Coyle shares the story of Pharma company Johnson & Johnson – a very apt story in times of pandemic, by the way. The company’s credo was written by the founder in 1943, and started with:
We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, and patients; to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.

The culture credo

James Burke, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO in 1975, organized a meeting to discuss whether the Credo still applied, according to the executives. Is this who we are, why we are here? The executives recommitted to the credo as the soul of the organization.

Then, in 1982, their Tylenol capsules were poisoned by an outsider who tampered with the packaging and tablets, causing 8 deaths. Burke and his team worked day and night to answer the questions (who, how, when, where, what to do?). They ignored the FBI and FDA advise to not recall all Tylenol across the country to avoid panic.
The company recalled all packages and explained, apologized, and took the blame. The total cost of this decision was 100 million USD.
Johnson & Johnson transformed itself into a public safety organization and took thousands of decisions at high speed. They faced a huge logistics operation, re-invented safer packaging, reinvented safety procedures, cared for the public and created communication campaigns.
It was an incredibly fast, effective and cohesive response from this corporation – guided by the Credo. All actions signaled this one message: You are safe, we share the risk here and we’ll do everything possible. To everyone’s surprise the stock price went up instead of down.

Just like a swarm of starlings, culture and cohesion are built on the small signals of the seven birds around you. Those signals are actions and interactions, the small but crucial elements of organizational culture. They seem simple and trivial, but they are not (as I explain in my book Developing a Positive Culture).
The swarm responds as one larger organism to any hawk attack, for instance. This is what a strong culture and credo (why are we here, who are we?) can do. The Johnson & Johnson people were attuned to each other and moved quickly and effectively as one.

The power of purpose

Purposeful organizations tell and retell their stories all the time and create high-purpose environments. They create a link between Here is where we and Here is where we want to go.
How purposeful is your team or organization?

Adam Grant did great research on intrinsic motivation, virtuous behaviors and the power of purpose. When he worked with the call center of the University of Michigan people were tired of their work, doing phone calls to ask for donations from alumni all day long. The rejection rate was 93% Then he brought in Will who benefited from a scholarship, based on these donations. The callers made 142% more calls after meeting Will (for only 5 minutes) and weekly revenues increased to 172% They established a “virtuous spiral”: a culture where it is normal (and copied among co-workers) to go the extra mile and remember who you’re doing it for – a shared, meaningful purpose to give scholarships to people who can’t otherwise follow higher education. They were not only helping Will and other individuals, but also their families, neighborhoods and next generations.

Amy Edmondson investigated how fast teams of surgeons learned the new MICS technology. There was a split: half of the teams did bad, the other half did great. The results had nothing to do with resources, reputation and individual skills. The best teams were connected with each other and the purpose. Collaboration, learning and improving together towards a purpose made the difference.

This also applies to the hospitality business. Danny Meyer’s famous New York restaurants make people truly at home while enjoying the best quality of cuisine. The staff create uplifting energy in the team and for the guests. When, for instance, a glass breaks, they quickly help each other, smile and move on. As Meyer says: “How we treat each other is everything. When that works, everything else falls into place.”
Meyer wanted to teach micro-behaviors, captured in sentences, for instance:
One size fits one
Give others the benefit of the doubt
Find the yes
If it ain’t broken, fix it (make it better)
The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled

Many of their sayings or slogans are small narratives, telling staff “how we do things around here”. The signal is always: We take care of people, both co-workers, guests, the community, suppliers, and investors. In that order, as their priorities are quite clear.
These sayings are repeated all the time.

This is how your culture can be a high-purpose environment, flooded with signals that link the present effort to a meaningful future goal. They use a story to motivate: “This is why we work. Here is where you should put your energy”.
How purposeful is your culture? Do you have key behaviors and priorities framed in sayings or narratives?

What can you do with these insights? Ideas for actions might be:
Navigate problems together and improve together.
Name and rank your priorities: no more than five, and all high-performance teams put their in-group relationships first. If they get that right, all else will follow.
Be ten times as clear about priorities as you think you are: repeat, send the cues, put them everywhere.
Build memorable rules of thumb – if X then Y.
Use slogans or sayings to emphasize behaviors.

© Marcella Bremer, 2021. All rights reserved.

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