Book Cover image

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

Book cover

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

Totally Scientific Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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This Book in a Minute (Or Less)

What are the common ingredients of great team cultures? We all have an idea of what a great team culture might look like. Few of us might even know what that feels like. This is a book that looks at the best team cultures and exposes the group behaviors with the most impact on the results they obtain. Turns out, people like to people feel safe, appreciated, and with a clear purpose to strive for.


Summary Notes

CULTURE: from the latin cultus, which means care.

The key for team performance is not so much the skills of individual players, but the quality of the interactions between them. It's the fostering of these interactions, how we take care of them, which defines the culture of a group at any given time.

“Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal.”

This book approaches 'team culture' from an interesting perspective. Its focus is on the 'ingredients' most common in the cultures of successful teams and organizations. Those 'ingredients' are three skills the best cultures preach, practice, and execute over and over again.

Skill 1 - Build Safety

The best leaders create the conditions for their teams perform at their best:

  • They build the environment;
  • They keep people solidly connected;
  • They make people feel safe, engaged, and willing to contribute.

It's more about the constant small gestures than one big exalting speech before the final battle. These small gestures are 'Belonging cues', and they have three basic qualities:

  • energy - investing in the exchange, and engagement, between people;
  • individualization - treating each person as unique and valued;
  • future-oriented - signaling that the relationship will continue in the future.

When belonging cues are missing (non-belonging cues) the message is not neutral, but a very negative “we are not safe” is communicated instead.

“Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: we are safe and connected.”

Building safety is a continuous process. As long as one relationship endures, we have to convey how interested we are in each other, and how the work we do together is the very thing responsible for keeping the relationship strong.

In actions, or words, at some level we must always be communicating:

  • We are close;
  • We have each other's backs;
  • We are safe;
  • We share a future.

Contrary to popular belief, in the best cultures, the feeling of safety is not a guarantee of a feeling of happiness at all times. These teams have their focus and energy concentrated on solving problems together and winning. Happiness is a byproduct of that.

Feedback is one of those things that might hurt at the moment, and cause the opposite of happiness to the parties involved, but that is indispensable as a growing tool in healthy team cultures. One of the best ways to do it is with what some researchers call 'The Magical Feedback'.

'The Magical Feedback' consists of framing difficult comments around the high expectations we have for the person we are giving it to. Here are the exact words:

I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

You can immediately see why this is super effective. It delivers a burst of 'Belonging cues':

  • You are part of this group;
  • This group is special, we have high standards here;
  • I believe you can reach those standards.

Actionable Ideas to Build Safety

  • “Over-communicate Your Listening”

    • Successful cultures have great listeners, that encourage the speaker to keep going and don't interrupt.
  • “Spotlight Your Failability Early” (especially if you're a leader)

    • Open up, show you make mistakes and have doubts;
    • Invite contributions from others.
  • “Embrace The Messenger”

    • It's after bad news are shared or tough feedback is given that we discover how safe we are in the group, and for that, it all depends on how we treat the 'messenger';
    • It's not enough to not "shoot the messenger", we have to thank them and praise them, so there's a "next time" and others can feel open to follow the example.
  • “Overdo Thank-Yous”

    • Gregg Popovich thanks his players at the end of seasons for allowing him to coach them;
    • Especially valuable when the recipient is not the most acknowledged person on the organization/team.
  • “Be Painstaking in Hiring Process”

    • “Deciding who's in and who's out is the most powerful signal any group sends”.
  • “Eliminate Bad Apples”

    • Don't tolerate assholes.
  • “Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice”

    • There are many ways to do this, but the main principle is that on every level of the organization there's a different light, showing different issues, and we have to provide a platform to listen to those.
  • “Pick Up Trash”

    • The leaders in the All-Blacks do the dirty jobs, setting the example of the work ethic and teamwork that it takes to be a part of the team.
  • “Capitalize on Threshold Moments”

    • First impressions count and the more we feel belonging from the start the better.
  • “Embrace Fun”

    • No ever laughed while feeling threatened.

Skill 2 - Share Vulnerability

The story of the United Airlines Flight 232 accident (185 passengers survived of the 285 onboard) serves to illustrate the importance of vulnerability sharing. When the conditions were most critical, and nothing seemed to work to stabilize the plane, Captain Al Haynes showed vulnerability and asked for help.

“Normally, a captain’s job in an emergency is to be in command and to project capability and coolness. Yet over and over Haynes notified his crew of a very different truth: Your captain has no idea what is going on or how to fix it. Can you help?”

“The crew of Flight 232 succeeded not because of their individual skills but because they were able to combine those skills into a greater intelligence. They demonstrated that a series of small, humble exchanges - Anybody has any ideas? Tell me what you want, and I'll help you - can unlock a group’s ability to perform.”

From vulnerability comes the opportunity for interaction. It's by sharing that we invite others to compensate where we are lacking. Like pieces of the puzzle, to get the result we want, we have to let others get a little bit into our territory while doing the same for others.

Navy SEAL's provoke these rich moments all the time. Their moments of vulnerability come after every exercise and mission, in the form of After Action Reports (AARs), where teams talk about what happened and why.

This is the moment used to face tough questions, leaving the ego, and rank, at the door: Where did we fail? What did each of us do, and why did we do it? What will we do differently next time?

This is not a fun exercise, it can be raw and painful, but it's the only place where the team can get to the bottom of what went wrong and how to fix it.

Successful cultures seem to seek these awkward/painful interactions, but we shouldn't dismiss how we reach to the painful side of things. It's everyone's responsibility to own their mistakes and come forward and not so much creating witch hunt sessions of accusations.

“If you never have that vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little micro task becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.”

The 'Vulnerability Loop', or why you don't show vulnerability after you trust the person, but is by being vulnerable that trust emerges:

  • person A sends a signal of vulnerability
  • person B detects the signal
  • person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability
  • person A detects this signal
  • a norm is established, closeness and trust increases

This can't be more beautiful than the Major League Baseball coach who began his first speech of the seasons with:

I was so nervous about talking to you today.

The story of Dave Cooper, ex-Navy SEAL, and “the best at creating great teams”, is interesting to show how cultural changes in large, hierarchical, organizations can start from the bottom.

It all changed for him when he was not able to "convince" a superior officer of how bad the plan was for the next mission (Of course, things went south, and lives were on the line). Humans have this feature, or bug, depending on how you look at it, of authority bias: when a superior tells us to do something we find it very hard to not do it, even if we see problems for us down the line.

The challenge for him was how to instill on his teams the ability to ask the right questions, to seek erroneous assumptions, to know how to deal with those types of orders coming from above. As always, and that's how leadership works, he created the conditions where the behavior he wanted was the clearest path of action:

  • Started small. He stopped letting people address him by his rank;
  • When he gave an opinion he made sure to attach phrases that encourage others to ask the questions on their minds;

    • “Now let's see if someone can poke holes in this”;
    • “Tell me what's wrong with this idea”.
  • He tried to steer away from giving direct orders and went more with asking questions.

Dave Cooper's vision about AARs:

The goal is not to excavate truth for truth's sake, or to assign credit or blame, but rather to build a shared mental model that can be applied in future missions. If you keep getting together and digging out what happened, then after a while everybody can see what's really happening, not just their small piece of it. They can see how what they do affects others, and we can start to create a group mind.

Actionable Ideas to Share Vulnerability

  • “Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often”

    • Cooperation comes from frequent moments of vulnerability and none carries more power than the ones from a leader;
  • “Overcommunicate Expectations”

    • Successful groups understand that cooperation is not there by default;
    • They send explicitly, and persistent, signs that establish that expectation.
  • “Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person”

    • You can only give bad news face-to-face.
  • “When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments”

    • First vulnerability and first disagreement.
  • “Listen Like a Trampoline”

    • Support the speaker and give them energy to continue the conversation;
    • Effective listeners do 4 things:

      • Make the other feel safe and supported;
      • They have a Cooperative stance;
      • Occasionally ask questions that gently, and constructively, challenge old assumptions;
      • Occasionally make suggestions to open alternative paths.
  • “Use Candor-Generating Practices like AARs”
  • “Embrace the Discomfort”

    • “emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency” from digging into what went wrong, “as with any workout, the pain is not the problem, but a path to building a stronger group”.
  • “Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear”

    • Again, the example Gregg Popovich.

      • “...about one time-out a month, the Spurs coaches huddle for a time-out (...) and then never walk over to the players. The players sit on the bench, waiting for Popovich to show up. Then, as they belatedly realize he isn’t coming, they take charge, start talking among themselves and figure out a plan.”

Skill 3 - Establish Purpose

Successful groups devote a surprising amount of time to telling their own story, reminding each other, precisely, what they stand for.

Purpose is not about tapping into something mystical fountain of motivation, but about creating small beacons that focus the attention of everyone on the same shared goals. We want to be relentless in finding ways to tell the story of what makes us.

“High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.”

There are some patterns of real-time signals through which team members show engagement with the purpose of their work:

  • Framing

    • they conceptualize the invisible work, like training and preparation, as vital for the end result.
  • Roles

    • they were explicitly told by their leaders why their individual and collective skills were important for the team's success.
  • Rehearsal

    • they prepare for different scenarios.
  • Explicit encouragement to speak up

    • they were told by team leaders to speak up if they saw a problem.
  • Active Reflection

    • they went over performance and suggested improvements.

“Do highly experienced professionals like nurses and anesthesiologists really need to be explicitly told that their role in a cardiac surgery is important? Do they really need to be informed that if they see the surgeon make a mistake, they might want to speak up? The answer is a thundering yes. The value of those signals is not in their information but in the fact that they orient the team to the task and to one another. What seems like repetition is, in fact, navigation.”

The story of Danny Meyer, restauranteur, and 'culture broadcaster', is interesting to show how does this look in practice.

He invited all his staff for a retreat where the conversation started around values: “what were they really about? what did they stand for? who came first?”, and also asked his staff to rank their priorities: colleagues, guests, community, suppliers, investors.

Meyer adopted a catchphrase-oriented approach. Tiny expressions that identify the specific behaviors and interactions he wanted to create at his restaurants. Some examples:

  • Read the guest;
  • Writing a great final chapter;
  • Loving problems;
  • Creating raves for guests;
  • One size fits one;
  • Put us out of business with generosity.

While these catchphrases alone might mean little, broadcasted together, repeatedly, they provide a “conceptual framework that connects with the group's identity and expresses its core purpose: We take care of people”. They are part of all communications, trainings, and meetings. They serve as heuristics, providing an almost if-then-else, in a memorable way, bringing clarity in moments of confusion.

Successful cultures seem to take advantage of a crisis to define their purpose. Painful moments are remembered with gratitude because they were responsible for helping groups discover what they are made of, and what they could be.

Actionable Ideas to Establish Purpose

  • “Name and Rank Your Priorities”

    • To move to a target you must first define it;
    • Listing priorities means making choices in what will be our identity, and will define us, but also what we want to discard, and not want to be.
  • “Be Ten Times as Clear About Priorities as You Think You Should Be”

    • Leaders are inherently biased to presume everyone in the group sees things as they do;
    • They need to create conversations that bring people around the 'big questions'
  • “Embrace the Use of Catchphrases”

    • They might be corny, but that's not a bug, it's a feature since that allows for clarity and ease of recollection;
    • They must be simple, action-oriented, clear.
  • “Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors”

    • One challenge of building purpose is to translate abstract ideas (values, mission) into concrete terms. One way successful groups do this is by spotlighting a single task and using it to define their identity and set the bar for their expectations.
  • “Quinnipiac’s coach, Rand Pecknold, has built a culture around a specific behavior he calls “Forty for Forty.” The phrase refers to back-checking, which means rushing back to the defensive end in response to the other team’s attack - basically, chasing them down. Back-checking happens around forty times per game, and it is Pecknold’s goal that his players go all-out with 100 percent effort on each one.”
  • ““It almost never pays off,” Pecknold says. “You can back-check thirty-nine times in a row, and it doesn’t make any difference at all in the play. But the fortieth time, maybe something happens. You get a stick in, you steal the puck, you stop a goal, or you create a turnover that leads to a goal, That one back-check doesn’t show up anywhere in the stat books, but it can change a game. That’s why we are Forty for Forty. That’s who we are.” (...) And on those rare moments when a successful backcheck happens in a game, Pecknold spotlights the moment. (...) 'Watch Shutty [forward Tommy Shutt] right here. Look at fucking Shutty go. Look at him take this guy out.’ And everybody goes nuts. Even if Shutty’s back-check leads to a goal, I never talk about the guy who scored the goal or the guy who had the assist-they don’t even exist. All I talk about is Shutty and this great back-check, and how it happened because we were Forty for Forty. You can see all the guys feeling it, and the next time we practice, everybody is on it, doing it, loving it.”


If you enjoyed this, there are many others to come.

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