The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Published by Mark Zerbach on


Let’s start with the question, which might be the oldest question of all: Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?
We tend to focus on what we can see – individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is interaction.

Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. We sense its presence inside successful businesses, championship team, and thriving families, and we sense when it’s absent or toxic. We can measure the impact on the bottom line (A strong culture increases net income 756% over eleven years, according to a Harvard study of more than 200 companies.) Yet the inner workings of culture remain mysterious. We all want a strong culture in our organizations, communities, and families, we all know that it works. We just don’t know quite how it works.
The reason may be based in the way we think about culture. We tend to think about it as a group trait, like DNA. Strong, well-established cultures like those of Google, Disney, and the Navy SEALs feel so singular and distinctive that they seem fixed, somehow predestined. In this way of thinking, culture is a possession determined by fate. Some groups have the gift of strong culture; others don’t.
This book takes a different approach. I spent the last 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*. I found their cultures are created by a specific set of skills. These skills, which tap into the power of our social brains to create interactions exactly like the lines used by the kindergartners building the spaghetti tower, form the structure of this book. – this is talked about in the introduction. The kindergartners always out performed the business students in an exercise.
The skills are:
Skill 1 – Build Safety – Explores how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.
Skill 2 – Shared Vulnerability – Explains how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.
Skill 3 – Establish Purpose – Tells how narratives create shared goals and values.
The three skills work together from the bottom up, first building group connection and then channeling it into action. Each part of the book is structured like a tour: We’ll first explore how each skill works, then we’ll go into the field to spend time with groups and leaders who use these methods every day. Each part will end with a collection of concrete suggestions on applying these skills to your group.
In the following pages, we’ll spend time inside some of the planet’s top-performing cultures and see what makes them tick. We ‘ll take a look inside the machinery of the brain and see how trust and belonging are built. Along the way, we’ll see that being smart is overrated, that showing fallibility is crucial, and that being nice is not nearly as important as you might think. Above all, we’ll see how leaders of high-performing cultures navigate the challenges of achieving excellence in a fast-changing world. While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.
*I chose groups using the following qualifications:
1. They performed in the top 1 % of their domain for at least a decade (where applicable).
2. They had succeeded with a range of different personnel.
3. Their culture had been admired by knowledgeable people across their industry and beyond. To help guard against bias, I also looked at many cultures that weren’t so successful.

Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain behaviors. As far as our brain is concerned, if our social system rejects us, we could die. Given that our sense of danger is so natural and automatic, organizations have to do some pretty special things to overcome that natural trigger.
The key to creating psychological safety is t recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brain are with it. A mere hint of belonging is not enough. We are built to require lots of signaling, over and over. That is why a sense of belonging is easy to destroy and hard to build.
Overall studies show that team performance is divided by five measurable factors:
1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keep contributions short.
2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
4. Members carry on back channel or side conversations within the team.
5. Members periodically break, go explore outside the team, and bring back information to share with the others.
These factors ignore every individual skill and attribute we associate with high-performance groups, and replace them with behaviors we would normally consider so primitive as to be trivial. And yet when it comes to predicting team performance, nothing is more powerful.
Collective intelligence is not that different in some ways than apes in the forest. One is enthusiastic, and that signal recruits’ others, and they jump in and start doing stuff together. That’s the way group intelligence works, and this is what people don’t get. Just hearing something said rarely results in a change in behavior. They’re just words. When we see people in our peer group play with an idea, our behavior changes. That’s how intelligence is created. That’s how culture is created.
They’re just words. This is not how we normally think. Normally, we think words matter; we think that group performance correlates with its members’ verbal intelligence and their ability to construct and communicate complex ideas. But that assumption is wrong. Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.
Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:
1. Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring.
2. Individualization: They treat people as unique and valued.
3. Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue.
As humans, we are very good at reading cues; we are incredibly attentive to interpersonal phenomena. We have a place in our brain that’s always worried about what people think of us, especially higher-ups.
In the 1990s, sociologists analyzed the founding cultures of nearly two hundred technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. They found that most followed one of three basic models:
1. The Star Model: focused on finding and hiring the brightest people
2. The Professional Model: focused on building the group around specific skill sets.
3. The Commitment Model: focused on developing a group with shared values and strong emotional bonds.
Of these, the commitment model consistently led to the highest rates of success.
(pg. 21)
Are we connected?
Do we share a future?
Are we safe?
Build Safety:
• The Good Apples
• The Billion-Dollar Day When Nothing Happened
• The Christmas Truce, the One-Hour Experiment, and the Missileers
• How to Build Belonging
• Ideas for action (pg.74)

o Overcommunicate your listening
o Spotlight your fallibility early on – especially if you’re a leader
o Embrace the messenger
o Preview Future connection
o Overdo Thank-you
o Be painstaking in the hiring process
o Eliminate bad apples
o Create safe, collision-rich spaces
o Make sure everyone has a voice
o Pick up trash
o Capitalize on threshold moments
o Avoid giving sandwich feedback
o Embrace fun
Share Vulnerability:
• Tell Me What You Want, and I’LL Help You
• The Vulnerability Loop
• The Super-Cooperators
• How to Create Cooperation in Small Groups
• How to Create Cooperation with Individuals
• Ideas for Actions

o Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often
o Overcommunicate expectations
o Deliver the negative stuff in person
o When forming new groups, focus on the two critical moments
 The first vulnerability
 The first disagreement
o Listen like a trampoline
o In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value
o Use candor-generating practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and red-teaming
o Aim for candor, avoid brutal honesty
o Embrace the discomfort
o Align language with Action
o Build a way between performance review and professional development
o Use flash mentoring
o Make the leader occasionally disappear
Establish Purpose:
• Three Hundred and Eleven Words
• The Hooligans and the Surgeons
• How to Lead for Proficiency
• How to Lead for Creativity
• Ideas for Action
o Name and Rank your priorities
o Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be
o Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity
o Embrace the use of catchphrases
o Measure what really matters
o Use artifacts
o Focus on bar-setting behaviors
Some catch phrases:
• We don’t have problems we have opportunities to show people the right way to do things
• Picking up Nickels while millions of dollars fly over your head
• 80/20 – 80% capacity towards meeting customer demand; 20% towards improving to meet future demand
• You are interviewing for your next job everyday
• I don’t mind you bringing me problems, but I pay you for solutions
• People don’t care what you know until they know you care.
• Don’t enable bad habits (don’t step in and do things for others because you are impatient or thinking you are helping them out)
• Ask good questions rather than provide answers
• Set the bar based on your team’s potential
• Keep the ownership where it belongs
• Seamless is apparent when it is not happening
• Friction cost money (every time things are not going smoothly – we are spending money)
• Smart does not over ride action (action is louder than words)
• There are no silver bullets (define the process and improve it before you try to buy you way out with technology)
• I reached in my hat and there are no more rabbits (I have no more capacity)
• 10 # One priorities (nothing gets done)
• Boot size priorities (when the org chart determines when jobs get done)
• Tri-storming versus brain storming (leads to immediate action)
• Learn from others rather than invent it yourself (faster implementation time)
• Untapping the potential (get people to believe in themselves)
• Business Smart (give people a business conscience and they will make the right choices)
• Data@fingertips (data available when needed so we can get innovative decisions)
• Living/Learning organization (we are better at innovating if our minds are open to new ideas)
• It doesn’t matter if the tail is wagging if the dog is dead (think about the whole system – not just your part)

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