What do Google, the Navy SEALs and the Catholic Church Have in Common?

If we as Catholics lived this out, the Church could again acquire that infectious something that people just want to be a part of

A U.S. Navy SEALs team emerges from the water
A U.S. Navy SEALs team emerges from the water (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

In the just-released book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, New York Times best-selling author Daniel Coyle dives deeply into what drives cultures — particularly those of businesses, sports teams and military units. He wants to know what makes for infectious organizations, the ones that people just want to be a part of and find energizing. Analyzing groups like Google, Zappos, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Navy SEALs, Coyle draws some very startling conclusions about what supports cohesion, cooperation and creativity.

The key to these out-performing cultures is not the collective intelligence of a group, heaps of financial resources or pools of talent. It is much more basic than that. Coyle sums it up in three things: (1) a sense of belonging, (2) a shared purpose as part of a bigger story and (3) a sense of safety for people to be who they are. These things, when they go together, Coyle explains, are the heart of a great culture. Surprisingly, what they boil down to is a sense of family. 

In one example demonstrating his argument, Coyle talks about a man who is “planted” into dozens of business meetings to be a distraction. Nick, the “plant,” is tasked with trying to derail meetings as best he can using disruptive behavior — appearing bored, being argumentative, employing snark and sarcasm, and so on. Nick is highly successful in his efforts. In most of the groups, individuals follow his lead — clamming up or giving up. On several occasions, Nick laid his head down on the table during the meetings, and remarkably, one of the meetings actually ended with two attendees mimicking him — heads down. 

But there was one group that was impervious to Nick’s antics. The difference was that the group’s leader was able to defuse Nick’s efforts by laughing them off, making a joke out of them, or just generally finding a way to help everyone feel safe instead of threatened. Where Nick had been successful in reducing the productivity of every other meeting, this group was the most effective and productive. 

On the one hand, Coyle’s thesis seems overly simple because it doesn’t emphasize the usual suspects when it comes to business metrics: talent and intelligence. On the other, his conclusion is so simple — that it is a family atmosphere that makes people thrive — that it is a wonder that we are just now talking about this. 

What is not surprising, however, is that many of these culture building components could generally be called “old hat” for the Church. (After 2000 years, there is not much that is “new hat.”) For example, Coyle points out that Google and others actually have a “family” name for their employees (googlers), as do Twitter (tweaps) and Yahoo (yahoos). The Church has been using family names like Benedictines, Carmelites, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans for centuries. They even take it further with members receiving the monikers of brother, sister, mother and father. The family motif is deeply stamped into the Church’s religious structures. Through Christ, the centuries, and the saints, we have been handed the tools of kindness, forgiveness, listening, patience and charity. And Christ’s story is the greatest story ever told — one that has transformed the lives of billions. 

But if we look at the real nuts and bolts of these thriving cultures and the three pieces outlined by Coyle — belonging, a shared goal, and a sense of safety — we have to ask ourselves if we are doing this in our own families, and are we doing as a Church, as parishes? Do we have deep connections and a sense of belonging with those around us? Or are we like ships passing in the night at home or at church? Are we mindful of the fact, à la C.S. Lewis, that there are no ordinary people, but immortal horrors or everlasting splendors? Do we realize that we need each other for the common goal of becoming saints? And do we offer those around us a sense of safety? Of being listened to? Do we tell them that we are grateful for who they are? Do we laugh with them?

Of course, all of these realities are vital for evangelization. If we as Catholics lived out these familial realities, the Church could again acquire that infectious something that people just want to be a part of. Often, we approach evangelization as debate we must win or a battle of wills, which as I said in my book Nudging Conversions, is rarely effective:

The more we want a loved one to convert on our time and our terms, the more it eludes us. Remove the pressure and the conversion is much more likely to happen. Impatience, hostility, and other superficial motivations are the kind of pressure that the human heart cannot bear. Instead, the heart responds to the gentle pressures of joy, kindness, mercy, and patience.

Once a structure of trust and communication is established, then the hard truths that may be missing in their lives can be heard. Coyle uses San Antonio Spur’s coach, Greg Popovich, as a model for this. He does his due diligence to get to know his players well, to connect with them, and to instruct them that there are things more important than basketball. And when it comes time to deliver hard truths, his team responds productively.

These little things that we can offer each other, Coyle’s research makes clear, speak much louder than any of us realize. Like the experiment with Nick, the disruptive meeting attendee, we can go along with the crowd and mimic the most disruptive guy in the room or we can reclaim the way prepared for us millennia ago. Catholic culture cannot be renewed with snark and sarcasm, anger and abrasiveness, or condescension and self-righteousness. The Church in her long history has given us all the pieces we need to become a thriving culture. The key is to actually use them. 

C.S. Lewis said it best in The Weight of Glory:

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play.

But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.