12 min read ⌚
Quick Summary: “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle is the result of a four-year-long study by the author during which he visited and researched eight of the world’s most successful groups to discover that it is a specific set of skills which sets them apart from the rest: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.
Who Should Read “The Culture Code”? And Why?
“If you want to understand how successful groups work—the signals they transmit, the language they speak, the cues that foster creativity—you won’t find a more essential guide than The Culture Code,” wrote none other than Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit.
Recommended especially for leaders, managers, and CEOs who want to organize their employees into unified, cohesive, and unstoppable juggernauts of work teams.
The Culture Code Summary
After demonstrating in The Talent Code that individual greatness isn’t born, but grown, in The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle turns to team greatness and tries to uncover the secrets of highly successful groups.
And he starts with a simple question: Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?
Fortunately for Coyle, Peter Skillman, a designer and engineer, tried to give an answer to the question above just a few years ago via an interesting series of studies which included a simple challenge: building the tallest possible structure using the four following items:
• twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti
• one yard of transparent tape
• one yard of string
• one standard-size marshmallow
The only two rules of the contest were:
• the marshmallow had to end up on top
• the groups had to consist of four people
The business students who took participation in this experiment were “professional, rational, and intelligent.” They started by examining the materials and devising a proper strategy. Then they divided up the tasks and started building.
Interestingly, neither they nor the lawyers or the CEOs built the tallest structures. It was, believe it or not, the kindergartners that won.
“In dozens of trials,” writes Coyle, “kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.” In case you’re wondering, the towers of the lawyers’ averaged fifteen inches and those of the CEOs twenty-two.
So, what happened? How did the kindergartners do it?
Strangely enough, by not strategizing or analyzing anything beforehand. They just started building, abruptly grabbing materials from one another and speaking in short bursts: “Here! No, here!” Their entire technique was nothing more but trying a bunch of stuff together.
“The kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter,” writes Coyle, “but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.”
Unsurprisingly, Coyle’s book—and, consequently, our summary—is the story of how and why the kindergarten method works.
Its final formulation, of course, owes a lot to modern scientific findings, but also, even more, to Coyle’s dedicated research: he spent four years visiting and researching “eight of the world’s most successful groups, including a special-ops military unit, an inner-city school, a professional basketball team, a movie studio, a comedy troupe, a gang of jewel thieves, and others.”
To be subject of his research, the groups had to have the following three qualifications:
• they had to have performed in the top 1 percent of their domain for at least a decade (where applicable);
• they had to have succeeded with a range of different personnel; and
• they had to have built a culture admired by knowledgeable people across their industry and beyond.
What Coyle found was that all of these cultures are created by a specific set of skills. These skills, he says, tap into the power of our social brains to create interactions exactly like the ones used by the kindergartners building the spaghetti tower. Interestingly, they are three in total:
Skill 1: Build Safety: “signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.”
Skill 2: Share Vulnerability: “habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.”
Skill 3: Establish Purpose: “narratives create shared goals and values.”
“The three skills work together from the bottom up,” Coyle writes, “first building group connection and then channeling it into action.”
So, let’s explore how each of these skills works—both in theory and in practice!
Skill 1 · Build Safety
The “Bad Apple” Experiment
Nick is a handsome, dark-haired man in his twenties with a simple mission: to sabotage the performance of a four-person group in a wood-paneled conference room in Seattle.
It’s not like he’s a bad person or something: he’s merely part of an experiment run by the not-so-mad Australian scientist Will Felps.
Felps has hired Nick so as to investigate organizational behavior, and, with this in mind, has tasked him to portray three negative archetypes inside forty different four-person groups tasked with devising a marketing plan for a start-up.
The negative archetypes in question are the following:
• The Jerk: an aggressive, defiant deviant;
• The Slacker: a withholder of effort; and
• The Downer: a depressive Eeyore type.
For obvious reasons, Felps calls this “the bad apple” experiment.
For even more obvious reason, the results are not at all surprising: almost all groups react the way a body would if injected with a deadly virus—after some struggle, they discover that resistance is futile and give up.
The only exception: the Jonathan group.
The Jonathan group has, well, a Jonathan, “a thin, curly-haired young man with a quiet, steady voice and an easy smile,” who constantly counters Nick’s efforts to ruin everything with warmth and understanding.
Basically, he works as an antiviral medication: he deflects the effects of Nick’s behavior, making everybody around him feel safe and secure.
The conclusion of this study—and a few similar ones—is twofold:
• Group performance doesn’t depend solely on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience: small “bad apple” behaviors are capable of ruining everything;
• Bad apples can be countered via something called belonging cues: if a member of a group makes the other members feel safe, protected, and solidly connected, the “bad apple” effects are canceled out.
Ideas for Action
In other words, if you want a group that will outperform its members, then you want them to be solidly connected, i.e., to form a single body from which everyone benefits.
The key thing to do that is building a safe environment by “dialing into small, subtle moments and delivering targeted signals at key points.”
Here are a few tips for doing that:
• Overcommunicate Your Listening. Smooth turn-taking sessions peopled with listeners and not interrupters are the hallmark of successful cultures; the only words allowed: “yes,” “uh-huh,” and “gotcha”—of course, until your turn comes.
• Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On—Especially If You’re a Leader. Nobody’s perfect—that’s not merely an aphorism Some Like It Hot engraved it in our minds, but the starting point on your journey to build a successful culture;
• Pick Up Trash. It’s literal—that’s precisely what John Wooden, Billy Donovan, and even Ray Croc did. It sends a powerful egalitarian signal: we’re all in this together.
• Embrace the Messenger. Don’t just tolerate bad feedback—welcome and accept it.
• Preview Future Connection. Sneak-preview future relationships, making small but telling connections between now and a vision of the future.
• Overdo Thank-Yous. You know what Gregg Popovich says at the end of each basketball season? “Thank you for allowing me to coach you.” Thanking ignites cooperative behavior—and is almost never over the top.
• Capitalize on Threshold Moments. Entering a new group can be stressful unless you make it enjoyable; the latter creates together-moments—and groups;
• Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback. It’s a bad idea to give negative feedback wrapped between two positives—it leads to confusion.
The rest of the tips are pretty self-explanatory:
• Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process
• Eliminate Bad Apples
• Create Safe, Collision-Rich Space
• Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice
• Embrace Fun
Skill 2 · Share Vulnerability
The Vulnerability Loop
The reason why the “bad apple” experiment works so well is quite simple: just like most animals, humans are exceptionally good at picking up subtle clues and mirroring other people’s behaviors.
This is the reason why you may sometimes be amazed at some of the actions of your child, wondering “when and how did he/she learn to do that?” It is also the reason why acting as if you know everything when you only know something will create a culture of pseudo-competent employees who’d never dare to share their vulnerabilities.
It works the other way around: when you, as a leader, are the one willing to share his vulnerabilities first, then everybody will follow.
A group of people who know precisely what they know between them, and who are pretty aware both of their failings and their strengths at any moment.
Jeff Polzer calls this mechanism the vulnerability loop: admitting weaknesses results in cooperation because it signals other group members that they can do the same.
And you know who you are comfortable with sharing your weaknesses?
Of course—the people you trust the most.
“Normally,” writes Coyle, “we think about trust and vulnerability the way we think about standing on solid ground and leaping into the unknown: first we build trust, then we leap. But science is showing us that we’ve got it backward. Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.”
That’s basically the essence of Kierkegaard’s existential “leap of faith” and the reason why Brené Brown is so adamant that being vulnerable is both courageous and revolutionary.
Ideas for Action
“Building habits of group vulnerability is like building a muscle,” writes Coyle. “It takes time, repetition, and the willingness to feel pain in order to achieve gains.”
With that in mind, he offers a few workout ideas, both for individuals and for groups:
• Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often. The Leader is the one who sets the example: his vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s his strength.
• Overcommunicate Expectations. Don’t just expect collaboration to happen on its own: send clear signals that it is a prerogative.
• Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person. You are obligated to deliver negative feedback face-to-face: not easy, but necessary to create shared clarity and connection.
• When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments. The moments are the first vulnerability and the first disagreement.
• Listen Like a Trampoline. Or, in other words: nod attentively and gain amplitude by repetition.
• In Conversation, Resist the Temptation to Reflexively Add Value. Skilled listeners don’t interrupt to make suggestions or give obvious solutions: resist the temptation.
• Use Candor-Generating Practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Red Teaming.
• Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty.
• Embrace the Discomfort. Learn to endure emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency.
• Align Language with Action. Don’t just talk the talk—walk the walk as well.
• Build a Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development.
• Use Flash Mentoring. “It is exactly like traditional mentoring—you pick someone you want to learn from and shadow them—except that instead of months or years, it lasts a few hours.”
• Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear. Just like Greg Popovich, leave your team to think on its own and reach a decision independently from time to time. It will.
Skill 3 · Establish Purpose
As Yuval Noah Harari has repeatedly demonstrated, the difference between humans and other animals is not only that we’re smarter, but also that, by being smarter, we are able to share beliefs, even when they are not true.
In his exceptional and wide-ranging book, The Human Swarm, Mark W. Moffett made an even bolder step, claiming that without shared beliefs, humans would have remained chimpanzees and would have never created societies.
What does that tell us about work culture and teamwork?
Precisely what you would expect it to tell us: teams which share a common purpose are teams and those who don’t are just a collection of distrustful individuals.
And common purposes come pre-packed in narrative arcs: facts may do nothing for us, but stories we like so much that Terry Pratchett dared to designate a new Latin term for our species, “pan narrans,” the “storytelling chimpanzee.”
Science has recently discovered why it is so: when we listen to facts, our brains are barely active. However, when we listen to stories, they are actively engaged.
Our immediate reaction to a story is one of interest and curiosity: we can’t help ourselves from believing that they have some greater meaning and that some events in the story are causes, and others effects.
Using this to create purpose-driven work culture, however, is not easy: it goes beyond devising a mission statement and a few catchphrases. As Coyle says, “it’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning.”
Ideas for Action
“High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high,” writes Coyle. “they are dug out of the ground, over and over, as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.”
These are his tips to help you do that:
• Name and Rank Your Priorities. In order to move toward a target, you must first have one. “Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships—how they treat one another—at the top of the list.”
• Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be. Overcommunicate your priorities: employees do not see the things as their leaders do.
• Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where It Aims for Creativity. The key is, once again, clarity: by strictly separating these areas, you can tailor your leadership accordingly. Creativity asks for a different leader than proficiency.
• Embrace the Use of Catchphrases. Keep them simple, forthright, and action-oriented, so that they can work as “clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.”
• Measure What Really Matters. There’s too much noise and endless alternative purposes out there. Create simple universal measures that place focus on what matters to keep you on track.
• Use Artifacts. Embed your environment with artifacts which embody your purpose and identity.
• Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors. Spotlight a small, effortful behavior that transmits, amplifies, and celebrates the purpose of the whole group.
Key Lessons from “The Culture Code”
1. Successful Groups Feel Safe
2. Successful Groups Share Their Vulnerabilities and Know Their Real Advantages
3. Successful Groups Have a Clear and Unchanging Purpose
Successful Groups Feel Safe
The reason why you’d rather spend your time with people you know than with strangers is quite simple: you don’t feel safe in the latter case.
The same is true when it comes to your work environment: if leaders don’t build safety, then it’s every man for himself.
And that’s not a team, but a group of individuals.
Successful Groups Share Their Vulnerabilities and Know Their Real Advantages
A great way to build safety and trust at your workplace is by sharing your weaknesses.
It may seem counter-intuitive (usually, we share our vulnerabilities only with people who we already trust), but studies have shown that it is actually the other way around: vulnerability breeds trust.
And if you are a leader, make sure that you are the one who is vulnerable first—and often.
Successful Groups Have a Clear and Unchanging Purpose
What unites work groups is the same thing which unites bands, sports teams, religious groups, and even nations: common, shared purpose.
Without it, there’s nothing to work as adhesive tissue, nothing to glue the individuals into a single body.
With it, suddenly, it’s all about us vs. them.
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The Culture Code QuotesVulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet. Click To Tweet Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they’ll find a way to screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. Click To Tweet The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding. Click To Tweet Hire people smarter than you. Fail early, fail often. Listen to everyone’s ideas. Face toward the problems. B-level work is bad for your soul. It’s more important to invest in good people than in good ideas Click To Tweet As Dave Cooper says, I screwed that up are the most important words any leader can say. Click To Tweet
Named one of the best books of the year by both Bloomberg and The Library Journal, The Culture Code is both simple and comprehensive, both enjoyable and applicable.
“I’ve been waiting years for someone to write this book,” wrote Adam Grant, author of Originals, Give and Take and Option B, in a review full of praises. “It is even better than I imagined. Daniel Coyle has produced a truly brilliant, mesmerizing read that demystifies the magic of great groups. It blows all other books on culture right out of the water.”
So, now you know: if it is work culture you’re interested, there’s no better book than this. Adam Grant approves this message.