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The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

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What Is the Book About?

The Culture Code points the way to some very specific action steps you can take. The book presents compelling case studies to support three sets of skills for building strong teams.

First, you have to “Build Safety” — create environments where it is ok to provide feedback regardless of status or role. Second, “Share Vulnerability” — describes how “habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.” Third, “Establish Purpose” — by creating a shared culture that clearly defines the group’s purpose, goals, and how they do things.

About the Author

Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, The Little Book of Talent, The Secret Race (co-authored with Tyler Hamilton), Hardball: A Season in Projects, and other books.  Winner (with Hamilton) of the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Prize, he is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and works as a special advisor to the Cleveland Indians. Coyle lives in Cleveland, Ohio during the school year and in Homer, Alaska, during the summer with his wife Jen, and their four children.

The Culture Code Summary

When we think of culture we usually think of groups as the sum of individual skills. In reality, however, nothing could be more wrong. A cohesive group culture enables teams to create performance far beyond the sum of individual capabilities. Strong cultures are created by a specific set of skills that can be learned and practiced.

In this book, Danny Coyle boils it down to three specific skills: Build Safety, Share Vulnerability, and Establish Purpose. 

The Importance of Company Safety

In the first chapter, Coyle argues that psychological safety is a much bigger issue in groups than one might think.

You’ve heard the term “bad apple” but did you know how influential the behavior of a bad apple really is? When you hear of a bad apple, you think of someone that might be a jerk, a slacker, or just a downright downer. And while many believe they aren’t influential in the workplace, research proves just how negative these bad apples can be.

Researchers used the “bad apple experiment” to study group behavior in which they hired someone to display certain behaviors in a meeting. While many groups proved to be affected by such bad behavior, there was one group that was able to overcome such negative tendencies. That was due to one member who met his group members with encouragement and changed the mood of the team. This person is considered the “good apple.” But how is such an individual able to affect his group’s performance? The good apple may not be a strong leader, but he instead, contributes to their success by making his group members feel safe.

All successful groups have the same traits. They make eye contact, shake hands, use active listening, laugh with one another, and overall make spending time with one another a rewarding experience. Collectively, the members are productive because they all feel safe. These groups have chemistry that provides comfort and allows each person to contribute meaningfully and feel appreciated.

What’s the difference between Google and Overture? Google made their employees feel safe and close with their leaders. You see, Overture was a bureaucratic company that used top-down decision-making where each innovation had to be discussed in a meeting. Google, however, was highly informal where employees and higher-ups worked closely together. Google simply beat Overture because employees felt safer.

Tips To Create safety

  1. Over-communicate Your Listening (and avoid interruptions)
  2. Spotlight your Fallibility Early On — Especially if you are a leader
  3. Embrace the Messenger
  4. Preview Future Connection — connecting the dots between where we are now and where we plan to be
  5. Overdo Thank-Yous — that includes “thanks for letting me coach you” — as a way of affirming the relationship and “igniting cooperative behavior.”
  6. Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process
  7. Eliminate Bad Apples
  8. Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces
  9. Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice
  10. Pick up the trash — make sure leaders are helping with tasks that are “menial” — rolling up their sleeves goes a long way to creating that safety
  11. Capitalize on Threshold Moments
  12. Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback — handle negative and positive feedback as two different processes
  13. Embrace Fun — “it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.”

Build a Sense of Belonging

What makes you want to stay at a company? Is it the money? Job satisfaction? Well, according to the one-hour experiment, people largely stay at companies when they feel a sense of belonging. When employees feel like they are part of the company culture, they are far more likely to stay long-term.

The one-hour experiment refers to an experiment conducted at WIPRO, a well-known call center in Bangalore, India. The company pays well and provides excellent benefits for its employees; however, in the late 2000s, the company saw employees leaving rapidly at a resignation rate of 70 percent. What do you do? Well, with the help of some researchers, WIPRO experimented with new hires. In the extra hour of the training process, one group of new hires attended a lecture about the success story of the company, they were asked their first impressions of WIPRO, and they even received sweatshirts with the call center logo. Meanwhile, another group of new hires was being interviewed about their best qualities and skills. They too received sweatshirts but theirs were embroidered with their name beside the company logo.

The researchers didn’t expect much; however, just a few months later, they found that the new hires in the second group were still working at WIPRO and expressed interest in continuing to do so. This is largely due to their feeling of safety and belonging within the company. The sweatshirts became signs of a common identity and connection, and the questions about themselves elicited a sense of safety. All of these became critical factors in their decision to stay with the company.

So how can you build this critical sense of belonging? Some key tips in being a good leader include being a good listener. Listen actively by sitting still and facing the speaker, affirm what the speaker is saying now and then and give your full attention. It’s important not to interrupt and let the speaker express his or her thoughts. Next, be a transparent leader. Let people get to know you, that you are just like them. You too are a person that makes mistakes and seek input and help. This will help garner confidence and make people feel like they are valuable to the group.

Be approachable. When someone approaches you with bad news, refrain from reacting negatively. Attempt to provide the best solution rather than reprimanding. Creating an environment where it is safe to discuss the truth is vital. Say “thank you.” Thank members of the group for their efforts. Thank them for the opportunity to work with them. Even thank those lowest in the group hierarchy, this includes utility personnel and custodians, for example. Feeling appreciated will motivate them and make them feel that they play an important role. Some final tips include: have recreational spaces in the office, give everyone a voice, welcome new hires warmly, reward positive feedback publicly, provide negative feedback confidentially, and finally, make working fun. All of these tips can help foster a sense of belonging and safety which will ensure company satisfaction and lead to success.

The Vulnerability Loop

The next skill in building a common sense of purpose is through vulnerability. In sharing vulnerability — teams can demonstrate their willingness to accept the help and support of others in a way that makes the entire team stronger. 

“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.” 

– Daniel Coyle

For example, imagine two strangers are asking each other sets of questions. The first set of questions might be surface-level, “What is your favorite song?” You can get to know somebody through asking such questions, but how do you build that sense of connection? By asking deeper questions and sharing stories that reveal personal information.

How do you feel when people ask you such personal questions? You might feel awkward and uncomfortable disclosing such information. However, the second set of questions bring the strangers closer together by taking them outside their comfort zone and breaking down barriers. Dr. Jeff Polzner, an expert in organizational behavior, describes this as a vulnerability loop. This loop includes two individuals receiving and sending signals of vulnerability to one another. Once they overcome their insecurities, they can set them aside, and get on with the task.

Techniques To Share Vulnerability

Building group vulnerability takes time and systematic, repeated effort. These are some techniques that successful teams follow.  

  • The Leader is Vulnerable First and Often “I screwed that up” is among the most important things a leader can say. Sharing of vulnerability makes the team feel it’s safe, to be honest in this group.
  • Deliver Clear Signals:  The best teams send repeated signals that set expectations for sharing vulnerability and align language and roles to achieve this.
  • Deliver the smallest of negative feedback in-person:  This avoids misunderstandings and reinforces clarity and connection.
  • Focus on Two Critical Moments:  The two most critical moments in group formation are the first vulnerability and the first disagreement. The way these moments are handled sets a clear template that privileges either competition or collaboration.
  • Practice Engaged Listening: The best listeners add energy to the conversation by responding actively and asking questions from multiple angles. They avoid the temptation to jump in with suggestions until “a scaffold of thoughtfulness” is established.
  • Create Candor-generating Practices: Practices like the AAR’s help the team share vulnerability and understand what works. These practices create a shared mental model for the groups to navigate future challenges.
  • Use Flash Mentoring:  Members pick a person they wish to learn from and shadow them for a few hours.  This breaks down barriers and builds relationships.
  • Make Leaders Disappear:  The best leaders occasionally leave their team alone at crucial moments to enable them to make key decisions themselves

Creating Cooperation in Groups

What’s the dynamic like at your place of work? Are higher-ups easily approachable? Do you just blindly follow directions out of fear of speaking up? If you fear to disagree with a boss, the results could not only be damaging to the morale of the company but in some scenarios, could even be deadly. Dave Cooper, for instance, learned this important lesson on a mission in 2001.

Navy SEALs training gives teams the remarkable ability to navigate complex and uncertain landscapes in complete silence. The training philosophy can be seen in an exercise called Log PT where teams perform a series of maneuvers with a wooden log. Log PT delivers strong doses of pure agony for extended durations and demands highly coordinated maneuvers. This interplay of vulnerability and interconnectedness is seen throughout the training program generating thousands of micro-events that build cooperation and trust.

Dave Cooper carries a reputation for building SEAL teams that collaborate seamlessly. For Cooper, the central challenge of creating a hive mind is to develop ways to challenge each other and ask the right questions. To do this, he continually gives signals that nudge them towards active cooperation, uses his first name and question his authority. Over time, Cooper has developed tools to improve team cohesion. One of the most effective ones is the After Action Review(AAR) that follows every mission. Cooper creates a safe space for everyone to talk by having “Ranks switched off, humility switched on”. The team puts their guns down and the start discussing the mission in excruciating detail, questioning every single decision.  AAR’s enable the team to have a shared mental model of what happened and model future behavior.

“As Dave Cooper says, I screwed that up are the most important words any leader can say.” 

– Daniel Coyle

Cooper’s methods were tested when his team was asked to fly into Pakistan on stealth helicopters to take down Osama Bin Laden. For the next few weeks, Cooper repeatedly simulated crashed-helicopter scenarios where teams would scramble to figure out how to crash-land and storm the mock compound. This was followed by AAR’s.  On May 1, when the actual mission took place, both helicopters faced difficulties and one crash-landed. Despite this, the mission was over in just 38 minutes. The teams knew exactly what to do.

“Belonging cues are behaviors that create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, 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 Coyle

A Sense of Purpose

What’s the final skill in making a great team? Well, if you watch any successful sports team, there are a few similarities that each team shares. Take a look at the NFL team that consistently goes to the Super Bowl and has five or six titles. Or the NBA team that consistently makes it to the NBA Finals, what qualities do these teams share? Simply put, a sense of purpose.

So what does that even mean? If a team shares a sense of purpose, then they share a set of beliefs and values that shape their identity. They tell others what they stand for, and these values are critical when it comes to establishing a company culture. For instance, the Credo (or the statement of values and beliefs) of Johnson and Johnson is composed of three hundred and eleven words that represent the company’s values. Founded in 1943, the Credo is not only a part of their company culture, but it is even plastered on the walls and engraved in a block of granite outside the company’s headquarters.

Why plaster it everywhere? Well, by repeatedly reading and seeing this credo, it consistently reminds the company to instill the values and beliefs in every decision they make. These values were put to the test for Johnson and Johnson on September 30, 1982, when six people died in Chicago after consuming Extra-Strength Tylenol. Panic ensued as the company raced to figure out the issue and find a solution. Turns out that the product had been contaminated with cyanide and even though all the deaths were in a single area of Chicago, Johnson and Johnson decided to pull their product from shelves nationwide. A decision that would cost them a hundred million dollars. But, their values were to put consumer safety first, and the cost of money was far less than the cost of losing another life.

Meanwhile, J&J reinvented tamper-proof packaging and spent even more money to release a massive campaign on public safety. Over the next few months, the company’s stock slowly began to rise again and eventually, the company made a full recovery. The success of Johnson and Johnson can be credited to the company credo which guided the company’s decisions throughout their time of crisis. By putting consumer safety over their profits, they regained trust from their customers and made them feel safe to consume their products once again.

“[Building purpose is…] not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite a hymnal of catchphrases. It’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting and above all learning. High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high; they are dug out of the ground, over and over, as a group navigates it’s problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.” 

– Daniel Coyle

Tips To Establish Purpose

1. Name and Rank Your Priorities

2. Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be

3. Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where it Aims for Creativity

4. Embrace the Use of Catchphrases

5. Measure What Really Matters

6. Use Artifacts

Share a Common Goal

Danny Meyer, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, learned the significance of having a shared goal after opening his second restaurant in New York City. Back in 1984, Meyer had little experience in managing a restaurant, but when he opened up Union Square Café, he put his time and skills into training the staff personally and making himself present as often as possible. He even helped out by opening the doors and cleaning the tables. His main focus? Making customers feel at home.

By 1995, Union Square Café was a success, so Meyer took the opportunity to open a second restaurant, Gramercy Tavern. By splitting his time at two separate restaurants, Meyer soon saw a decline in both places. What went wrong? The two restaurants had great food, nice facilities, and accommodating staff, but something was missing. Meyer quickly took action and ordered his staff to attend a retreat and build up the company’s value and belief system. He ranked the company’s priorities with colleagues and customers topping the list, then putting their suppliers and investors last. He believed that the relationship of the staff must be at the core, once they had good relationships, then everything else would follow suit.

Meyer implemented new catchphrases and set the identity and purpose of the group. He put the language of kindness and caring at the forefront, which led staff to their common goal of making people feel at home. Today, Danny Meyer owns twenty-five restaurants in New York City and doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. The story of Danny Meyer confirms that times of crisis bring people together. And while problems will continue to rise, businesses must learn how to adapt and keep up with today’s changes. So how can they do this? Well, here are a few tips for building a sense of purpose and sharing a common goal.

First, prioritize harmony within the group. By putting the relationships of the members first, the group has a solid foundation to build upon. Therefore, when a problem arises, cooperation and teamwork will come naturally. Next, ensure that all members are aware of the purpose of the group. This could mean plastering it all over the walls like at Johnson and Johnson as well as inserting it in daily emails. Use catchphrases, while they seem cliché or even corny, they are clear reminders of the purpose and direction of the group. Lastly, turn the group values and mission into reality. To build purpose, groups should focus on a single task and invest in this task by making it the core of the group’s identity and expectations.

“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.” 

– Daniel Coyle


The Culture Code focuses on the three things necessary for developing highly successful groups. Those three things are safety, vulnerability, and purpose. When you focus on the wrong things, the culture of a company can quickly become toxic; however, building a healthy culture is possible. To build safety, the members must feel connected and secure with one another to share ideas, concerns, and implement changes. Sharing vulnerability might be a bit more complicated, but when members share hard times and overcome them together, they build trust and a tight connection. Lastly, establishing a purpose requires groups to know their values and beliefs and to use those standards when making decisions. Each day, you should work on building on the safety, vulnerability, and purpose of your group for success is a never-ending cycle that requires continuous growth and learning.

What did you learn from this summary of The Culture Code? What was your favorite takeaway? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.

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Adapted from JR Clark Medium post, Random House discussion guide, Youexec book summary, Daniel Coyle website, etc.

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