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Tight vs Loose | How to Build a Culture That Wins | Team Member Thursdays

Guiding Question: Coaches at all levels are trying to create, build, and sustain a culture that can produce wins, but what does that mean, what does it look like, and how do we make this happen?

Some people consider Dennis Rodman the best defensive player to ever play basketball, but to say that he was equally unpredictable on and off the court would be an understatement.

Rodman was the most controversial player in the NBA, and maybe all of professional sports, when he signed a contract with the Chicago Bulls in 1995, so people understandably questioned whether the Bulls, led by Michael Jordan would accept him.

But Rodman fit perfectly into the culture immediately. When Hall of Fame teammate Scottie Pippen was asked, “How did Dennis fit in with the team when he first arrived?” Scottie smiled and said, “Like a hand in a glove.”

In The Last Dance, a documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan tells a wild story about how Dennis Rodman needed a mid-season vacation to Las Vegas that highlights the kind of culture the Bulls had.

One day, Phil Jackson called Jordan into his office and said Rodman needed to tell him something, and Rodman said he needed 48 hours in Vegas. They had just got through a tough stretch of their season, and he needed some time off to let loose.

Phil Jackson knew that to get the most out of Dennis Rodman on the basketball court, you had to give him freedom off it, and they gave him a lot. In fact, they gave him so much that Michael Jordan had to go to Rodman’s apartment days later and pull him out of the bed and back to basketball.

Later that season, the Chicago Bulls won their third championship in a row, cementing themselves as one of the most successful dynasties in the history of sports.

But the question remains: Would you have let Dennis Rodman leave the team if he asked?

Coaches and leaders at all levels are trying to create, build, and sustain a culture that can produce wins and success, but what does that mean, what does it look like, and how do we make this happen?

Michele Gelfand is a cultural psychologist who has studied how people around the world and across history react to rules and how that impacts culture. She wrote a book called Rule Makers, Rule Breakers that explores the ins and outs of human cultures.

Culture is an invisible force that impacts everything we do.

In a Ted Talk about culture, Michele said, “If we can discover the laws of culture, the secret codes that are driving our differences, then maybe we can create a better planet for us all.”

Social norms are one of the most important aspects of culture because they help us predict each other’s behavior - they are the glue that keeps us together. Michele’s research has found that this glue is stronger and TIGHTER in some groups than others. 

Some groups are TIGHT and have strong norms and punishments for deviance, while other groups are LOOSE and have weaker norms and are much more tolerant. 

Gelfand says this distinction is important in understanding behavior all around the world because TIGHT-LOOSE is a way we can classify leadership, personalities, and culture.

TIGHT cultures, personalities, and leaders need structured systems, processes, and rules. They have less crime, more uniformity, discipline, and self-control.

LOOSE cultures, personalities, and leaders are more open to diversity, they are more creative, and they are more open to change.

TIGHT cultures are generally formed before or after experiencing more threats like natural disasters, invasions, or the spread of disease. When you have more threats, you need more clearly defined rules and roles for survival. When you have fewer threats, you can live more freely because you have less to worry about.

Michele says that in the United States, the South and Midwest tend to veer TIGHTER while the coasts tend to veer more LOOSELY. Data shows TIGHT states have more order and stability, more law enforcement, less divorce, and less homelessness. TIGHT states even rank as more polite, while LOOSE states are more creative, open, tolerant, and more fun.

Think about your relationship with rules. Her research says the working class has a better relationship with rules and is TIGHTER than the upper class because they face more threats because they have less of a financial safety net.

The upper class tends to be more creative and more tolerant of different people.


Michele argues neither is better and balance is key. Cultures that get too extreme in any direction face their own set of problems and become unbearable. We need a healthy balance of both for maximal happiness, hope, and engagement.

The best leaders are ambidextrous and know how to deploy TIGHTNESS and LOOSENESS at the right time. They know how to keep it LOOSE enough for creativity to flourish, but they know how to keep it TIGHT enough to create effective systems and processes so they can implement those creative ideas.

Understand your mindset and the mindset of others. Self-awareness helps us better understand our thoughts, actions, and interactions, and it helps us better understand the people we lead and work with.

Culture isn’t destiny. We can TIGHTEN up norms when they get too LOOSE, and we can LOOSEN up norms when they get too TIGHT. Managing this is how we can build and sustain a culture that wins.


1 - Do you have a TIGHT or LOOSER personality or leadership style? When do you feel like it helps you? When does it hurt you?

2 - Do we have a TIGHT or LOOSER culture?

3 - What are some areas in which we are too TIGHT, and what are some ways in which we can get LOOSE?

4 - What are some areas in which we are too LOOSE, and what are some ways in which we can get TIGHTER?

For a PDF version of this, click here: Tight vs Loose Cultures


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