By: Alan Weisenberger

Building Safety, Sharing Vulnerability, Establishing Purpose

Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs is the longest tenured active coach in any major U.S. sports league. He’s led the Spurs to all five of their NBA Championships. Popovich is a hard-core authoritarian with a volcanic temper, known for yelling and cussing at his players. How does he achieve unparalleled success and the deep respect and loyalty of his players?

Contrast Popovich with Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos. Hsieh is generally known for saying less than anyone else in the room. Yet he, too, fosters success and loyalty.

It’s clear that personality isn’t the key. So what is?

The Culture Code
One of the most insightful books I’ve read on organizational culture is The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. Coyle illustrates his research with fascinating stories like kindergartners regularly beating CEOs in creativity challenges. Or World War I soldiers declaring their own Christmas truce on the front lines.

According to Coyle, the key skills to creating a successful group culture are, 1) building safety; 2) sharing vulnerability; and 3) establishing purpose. For now, let’s focus on building safety.

Building Safety
Whether we’re aware of it or not, our brains are obsessed with psychological safety. That safety comes from the assurance of social connection, and that requires a constant stream of little reinforcements. An occasional big reminder won’t do it. Popovich and Hsieh both relentlessly bombard their teams with signals of belonging. That canvas of belonging lets Popovich’s players feel challenged instead of threatened by his yelling.

Belonging Cues
These safety reinforcements are referred to as belonging cues. These cues signal our brain that in this relationship we are unique and valued and the relationship is expected to continue. It’s these signals that make us feel safe and motivate us to contribute our best to the success of the relationship.

So what do belonging cues look like? Here’s a sampling:

Close physical proximity, often in circles • Profuse amounts of eye contact • Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs) • Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches) • High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone • Few interruptions • Lots of questions • Intensive, active listening • Humor, laughter • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.)

Going Deeper
The foundational mindset for changing a culture is to view culture not as a noun – something we are, but rather as a verb – something we do. That means that our continual actions, especially our most minute behaviors, define our culture. That’s good news because we can learn the behaviors needed to create the culture of success we all long for. Read Coyle’s book for more insights and lots of practical tips on how to build these skills.

Alan Weisenberger launched enLumen Leadership Services to invest in the next generation of business and nonprofit leaders. With a passion to help young leaders become wise before they grow old, Alan provides coaching, mentoring, and consulting to help leaders create healthy organizations where people flourish. His background includes twenty years as VP of Technology Services with the Evangelical Christian Credit Union and eleven years with Bank of America. He currently serves on several nonprofit boards. He and his wife, Kerri, have three daughters and one son-in-law. You can contact him at, or 714-981-5585. For more leadership tips, follow his leadership blog at