Blog 18.1


As a new academic year is upon us, we are quickly preparing and participating in a brand-new season of athletics as well. Each new season brings together a new team, and the opportunity to create and build on a team’s culture. Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, studied what makes a team or organization successful over time. Interestingly, skills and talent were not the most important factors in sustaining success, safety, vulnerability, and purpose are the foundation of a successful group. The first blog of our series will focus on building a safety zone for members of the group to connect and create an identity within the team.

“We focus on what we can see – individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.” Skills and talent are of course valuable, but how members of a group interact are more important because a group who works well together can accomplish much more than any individual can alone. The members of a group need the freedom of sharing their thoughts, ideas, and opinions within a safe space, without consequences or retaliation. They must be able to take the risks to try new things and grow beyond what they have ever done in the past. When we feel safe and comfortable to share, only then does our teamwork start expanding on and pushing the limits of what is possible.

How do we know if we are safe to share ideas within a group? Our brains are hardwired to look for clues.  Psychologists call them belonging cues, which include actions and behaviors from other members of the group that signal to us we can openly share ideas and we will still be part of the group. Belonging cues include the qualities of energy, or the investment in the exchange of ideas, individualization, or how unique and valued a person is treated within the relationship, and future orientation, which signals that no matter what, the relationship will continue. The performance of the group then relies heavily on the behaviors and responses to each other that signal the level of safety that exists within the group. Within the brain, “when you receive a belonging cue, the amygdala switches roles and starts to use its immense unconscious neural horsepower to build and sustain your social bonds.” The goal is to stay as connected as we can with like-minded people. Without safety, we lose the connection and then our behaviors reflect protecting ourselves rather than creating the bonds with others. This erodes team cohesion because the critical foundation of trust has been broken, and members look out for their own needs rather than the needs of the group.

Athletic teams can create the space for some of the tightest friendships and bonds in our lives that have the potential to last a lifetime. Interestingly, Coyle finds that our ability to create such close connections hinges on our feelings of safety and belonging. Within our team, members must have the ability and space to express their ideas and opinions free from ridicule. Only within this psychologically safe zone, can the team truly come together and sustain success.

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