1: Sandy Pentland leans closer, raises his bushy eyebrows, and opens his eyes wider. 

“It’s a little disconcerting when I find myself doing it too, almost against my will,” Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

Sandy is the Director of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab. He leads a group of scientists “obsessed with understanding the inner workings of group chemistry,” Daniel writes.

“It only works if we’re close enough to physically touch,” Sandy says, smiling at Daniel and leaning back in his chair. 

“Human signaling looks like other animal signaling,” Sandy says. “You can measure interest levels, who the alpha is, who’s cooperating, who’s mimicking, who’s in synchrony. We have these communication channels, and we do it without thinking about it.”

2: Sandy and his colleagues have developed software to analyze group interactions and predict which groups will be successful.

Remember the spaghetti-marshmallow challenge where groups of kindergartners consistently built higher towers than the business school students?

The MIT scientists have used their software to analyze videos of different groups and translated “a river of data from the group’s performance,” Daniel notes, 

The team uses a sociometer, “a small red plastic device the size of a credit card that contains a microphone, GPS, and an array of other sensors,” to measure “the percentage of time each person spends talking, the energy levels of their voices, their speaking rates, the smoothness of turn-taking, the number of interruptions, and the amount each person’s vocal pattern mimics the others,” he writes. 

On the day Daniel visited the MIT lab, the team was analyzing a group of three engineers and a lawyer working on their spaghetti-marshmallow tower

“This group’s performance is probably better than the MBAs but not as good as the kindergarteners,” researcher Oren Lederman comments. “They don’t talk as much, which helps.”

The sociometer “samples the data five times per second and wirelessly streams it to a server, where it is rendered into a series of graphs,” Daniel writes. The sociometer can also “capture proximity and the percentage of time each participant engages in face-to-face contact.” 

3: The scientists use all of this data to measure “belonging cues” that create safe connections in groups. 

Also known as “psychological safety.”

Belonging cues include “proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group,” Daniel writes. 

“Like any language, belonging cues can’t be reduced to an isolated moment but rather consist of a steady pulse of interactions within a social relationship.”

Belonging cues have three essential qualities: 

1: Energy: People invest in the exchange that is occurring 

2: Individualization: People treat each other as unique and valued 

3: Future orientation: People signal that the relationship will continue 

“These cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here,” Daniel writes.

“They seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.”

Modern society as we know it is a very recent development.

“For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other,” Sandy says. “We used signals long before we used language, and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” 

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Think back on a group I was part of that was uber-successful. Describe how that team interacted. 

Action: Focus on creating psychological safety today in my interactions with my team.

What did you think of this post?

Write A Comment