The Three Things You Can Do to Fix a Toxic Group Culture

On January 1, 2000, the BBC was in trouble. The largest broadcast organization in the UK faced declining ratings, reduced market share, strained budgets, and low morale. A survey at the time found that the only thing that employees looked forward to at work was lunch, and when asked what they enjoyed most at work, many said, “Nothing.” Not exactly a leader’s dream.

But Greg Dyke saw an opportunity. As the son of an insurance man who rose from humble beginnings as a beat reporter to a television executive, he believed that all people and teams were capable of change. That’s why Dyke was quick to accept the offer to be the 13th Director General of the BBC. And all he had to do was answer one question.

How do you transform 24,000 disengaged people into a high-performing team?

If you ask this question to 10 thought leaders in business, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. And those answers might start to sound more like old fishing stories than leadership advice. Everyone has their secret fishing hole (i.e., the thing that changes culture), and sometimes it feels like that fish they caught there (i.e., ROI) gets bigger with time. This is not a knock on the cottage industry of culture change, it’s just that it can be hard to know what actually works in the face of so many frameworks, case studies, and business books.

That’s why Daniel Coyle’s latest book is so important. If you only read one book on culture this year, The Culture Code should be it. Coyle studied high-performing teams throughout history to find the common thread shared by all. And whether it was the Navy Seals, San Antonio Spurs, Pixar, IDEO, or Zappos, he started to see a pattern. He found that culture is not something you are—it’s something you do.

Specifically, there are three things that you can do to transform the groups you’re in.

  1. Build safety.

    This may sound like soft stuff, but the biggest determinant of group performance is psychological safety (i.e., A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up). How do you build it? It starts by making eye contact, listening intently, and connecting as humans, not just coworkers. But it doesn’t stop there, a key part of psychological safety is actually being honest enough to challenge each other’s actions and beliefs. Real friends tell you the hardest truths.

    Greg Dyke understood this principal well. That’s why he traveled to meet thousands of BBC employees at offices across the world, and it’s why he introduced the “cut the crap, make it happen” yellow cards for meetings. The idea was that when bureaucratic inertia or jargon started to impede creativity, you could throw a yellow card in a meeting to drive accountability towards progress. The cards caught on, and the healthy tension they fostered strengthened bonds in teams across the organization.

  2. Share vulnerability.

    This one is also not totally intuitive. The idea is that shared vulnerability actually accelerates learning, growth, and trust in groups. As one Navy SEAL commander put it, “I screwed that up are the most important words any leader can say.” The irony is that the more your team connects with the idea that no one needs to be perfect, the more perfect you become.

    Dyke really understood this one too. In one example, he had pushed hard for a new electronic expenses system and it ended up being an unmitigated disaster. So, he sent an email to the entire organization that said, “I’m sorry, we got it wrong.” The email went on, “Management generally have a terrible habit of failing to admit when they've made a mistake. We all mess up. If you admit it, everyone likes you." Shared vulnerability, indeed.

  3. Establish purpose.

    A strong sense of purpose is the foundation for all great cultures throughout history. And it’s a leader’s job to define that vision of who you are and what you are there to do. But it’s not a one-and-done thing. Coyle argues that you must relentlessly over-communicate your purpose with stories, and that the best cultures actually codify their purpose with a catchphrase (e.g., “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “Talk less, do more” (IDEO), or “Pound the rock” (San Antonio Spurs)).

    When Dyke entered the BBC, the purpose of the organization was to be, “The best managed public sector organization in the UK.” He thought that sucked. The BBC wasn’t about management, it was about creativity. So, Dyke set a new vision to be, “The most creative organization in the world.” And he knew that creativity doesn’t live in the minds of the few, but the many. So, he asked over 10,000 employees to participate in brainstorming sessions on how to improve the culture and content of the BBC. Two-thousand ideas were submitted and 700 were implemented.

    One new trainee used funds intended for a training video to create a ten-minute pilot for a new comedy about life in a dead end, white collar job. The Office was born.

Greg Dyke permanently changed the BBC.

Ratings soared, morale improved, and the cost of overhead was cut in half. Unfortunately, his legacy was cut short when the BBC Board of Governors asked him to resign after a government report criticized the BBC’s handling of source information. While it’s not clear that Dyke did anything improper, he agreed to resign to “protect the future of the BBC.”

And that brings us to Greg Dyke’s greatest lesson. After he resigned, Dyke told a reporter that, “Leadership is about the stories that are told about you.”

The people of the BBC told his story with their feet. Staff from offices across the globe took to the streets on a cold day in January to protest Dyke’s ouster. They didn’t do it because they thought the decision would get reversed. They did it to say thanks to the man that made their job mean something again.

Here's to Greg Dyke, and the stories they’ll tell about us.


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