Harmonising Culture: what music can teach us about organisational success.

by Ben Bayes-Smith


In 2022, violinist Volkhard Steude sat in Vienna’s illustrious Musikverein Golden Hall.

He tuned his violin as a cacophony of trumpets, clarinets, and drums warmed up around him. It was just 24 hours before their highly anticipated performance at the Concert of the Society of Friends of Music, one of the pinnacle events of the year for the Vienna Philharmonic.

Steude lifted his head to see an unfamiliar face approaching the orchestra. It was one of the producers… this had an ominous feeling about it.

A hush fell over the orchestra. After a pregnant pause, she delivered some unexpected news: their conductor, Daniel Barenboim, had fallen ill and could not lead the orchestra. If they didn’t find a replacement, the following three shows would have to be cancelled.

A murmur spread through the orchestra. Steude was one of the most experienced members of the ensemble, and he knew the responsibility could fall to him to lead the performance. Whilst it had happened before with smaller groups, leading an orchestra the size of the Vienna Philharmonic had not. There were opportunities to derail others on every page of the score. Nevertheless, Steude felt the show must go on, as the saying goes. Years of rehearsing together had built a strong sense of trust amongst the group, and he believed he could rely on them to deliver in unique, pressured circumstances.

Determined to see this performance through for the good of both musicians and their audiences, Steude rose from his seat and volunteered to lead the orchestra. Just one night later, the Vienna Philharmonic performed a near flawless showcase of Mozart to a packed house.

From 200-piece orchestras to jazz trios, musical groups at the top of their game exemplify high-performing teams. But what facilitates this? To understand the secrets behind exceptional musical groups, we must delve into the elements of their cultures so we can apply lessons to our own cultures and teams at work.

Studies conducted to determine the characteristics needed to help a team perform well, show that the most important element that separates high-performing teams from low-performing ones is psychological safety. Popularised by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is where team members can share their thoughts and feelings and openly challenge ideas without fearing being degraded or shamed. When present, team members are more likely to collaborate and take risks, leading to more creative and innovative solutions.

Creating this psychological safety in teams can be difficult. However, one popular academic model – the Four Stages of Psychological Safety– suggests the higher levels of respect and permission in a team, the stronger the psychological safety.

It covers four stages:

  1. Inclusion safety: team members feel a sense of belonging and inclusion.
  2. Learner safety: team members feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes.
  3. Contributor safety: team members have the confidence to contribute their ideas, opinions, and expertise to the team.
  4. Challenger safety: team members feel comfortable challenging traditional norms and ideas within the group.

If respect and permission are the ingredients that help lead teams to high performance, let’s unpack how they played out at the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Respect is defined as the mutual recognition of each member’s skills and value to the group, which builds trust and cooperation. During their 2022 performance, Steude and the other musicians had to rely on each other to execute their piece flawlessly despite being unable to rely on a conductor.

This mutual respect translated into seamless coordination, as summed up by violinist Daniel Froschauer: “The special thing…is the rhythm and how we sense it.” This respect within the group allowed them to trust each other and work together to perform without a leader or focal point.

But respect was not the only factor that allowed Steude and The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to deliver such a flawless performance; permission also played a crucial role in their success. In this context, permission refers to the level of authority that team members are granted to take specific actions and express themselves without negative consequences from the group. The Philharmonic Orchestra had the right level of permission to take a risk and perform without a conductor, challenging the traditional norms. Without it, the orchestra might not have felt empowered to make such a significant decision, potentially leading to their following three shows being cancelled.


Team leaders can replicate respect by valuing each other’s knowledge, experience, and perspectives, fostering a positive working environment and open communication. Mutual recognition between team members also brews trust within the team. Like each member of the Vienna Philharmonic had to trust everyone would play their part well, high-performing team members must trust others to deliver on their responsibilities and decisions to benefit the team and the organisation.

Trust takes time to build and is a two-way street: individuals must allow others time, space and encouragement to achieve their tasks while ensuring they deliver on their own objectives and ask for support where necessary.

In many orchestras – and teams in large, established organisations – respect is usually more highly indexed than permission. Consider how scripted music scores, tightly controlled performances, and commanding conductors resemble long-standing organisations’ rigid hierarchies and structures. This is not to say that these groups cannot be successful. However, they will unlikely realise the innovation opportunity when psychological safety is prioritised. That is what makes the story of the Vienna Philharmonic so unique: when the chance for permission was presented, the group grabbed it with open arms and delivered a performance of the highest standard.

What happens when permission is highly indexed instead?

Let’s jump to the other end of the spectrum. In 1959, the Miles Davis Quintet recorded ‘Kind of Blue,’ the most successful jazz album ever, selling over five million copies and going quadruple platinum. Interestingly, many songs were improvised, and the whole album was recorded in a mere nine hours.

The Quintet excelled because it emphasised permission, allowing team members to participate and engage at all levels actively. In ‘Flamenco Sketches’, for example, Davis outlined a brief song structure with five modal scales of improvisation. For each modal, a member was allowed to take control of the song while everyone else followed and supported them. At the same time, the musicians respected the outline of the music Davis provided and trusted in one another to lead their respective sections.


When leaders permit team members to ‘improvise’ and explore new ideas, problem-solve independently, and adapt to changing circumstances, it can lead to more innovative solutions and teamwork. However, leaders must strike a balance by providing a supporting structure, just as Davis did with ‘Flamenco Sketches’.

In a team, this structure could look like scheduled progress meetings, clear accountability frameworks, and clarity on roles and responsibilities. This idea – often referenced as ‘freedom within a framework’ – when done well, means that leaders establish adaptable parameters that give team members a sense of control and ownership of their work while simultaneously giving them permission to test, fail and learn. Without such parameters, a culture of low accountability and a lack of trust can emerge.

Interestingly, Dr. Charles Limb, a neuroscientist, offers a neurological explanation for encouraging improvisation. By analysing brain imaging scans, Limb discovered that when musicians engaged in improvisation, their medial prefrontal cortex became active, the brain area associated with self-expression and creativity.

Simultaneously, their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, linked to self-criticism, became less active. Limb describes this concept as ‘neurologically letting go’.

Being overly self-conscious can inhibit creative freedom. But like Davis’ band members, when employees are granted permission, they become more inclined to take risks and ‘let go’, leading to more innovative solutions. Consider the similarities between start-up organisations and jazz groups; exploration is encouraged, agility is paramount, but high performance is still vital.

So, what do these two case studies teach us about how to enhance our team cultures?

  1. Psychological safety is essential in high-performing teams, allowing prevailing norms and ideas to be challenged and improved upon.
  2. Our levels of psychological safety increase when we focus on developing respect and permission in our teams. This allows us to progress to the challenger safety stage necessary for innovation.
  3. No matter which type of organisation you find yourself in, lessons from music can be applied. Consider whether your organisation might be over-indexed in either respect or permission, and brainstorm strategies about how you might balance the ledger within your team.
  4. The appetite for innovation and or structure will be different for every organisation. Reflect on the levels of each that would best allow teams to thrive, with the knowledge that both must be present to some degree so that your organisation is primed to capitalise on whatever the future holds.

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