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Natalia Rossingol

The Culture Code: Summarized in 10 Minutes

What's the secret sauce that helps effective teams perform so well? That's the concept that Daniel Coyle wanted to explore in his book, "The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. Our summary will take you through the key points he discovered.

Would you enjoy building a structure using uncooked spaghetti, transparent tape, string, and a marshmallow?

Designer Peter Skillman wanted to find out why some groups work better than others. So he asked business school students and kindergartners to build such a structure, making it as tall as possible.

The students did it professionally, generating ideas and providing options. The children did not strategize – they didn’t even talk to each other much. Who do you think won? 

Strangely enough, the children did. Because sometimes two plus two equals ten – and this experiment proves it.

The infamous "spaghetti tower" challenge makes an appearance in Daniel Coyle's book “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. And that's because he interested in why some teams show incredible results, while others – mediocre or none at all.

Having researched eight of the world’s most successful groups, including a movie studio, a special ops military unit, and even a gang of jewel thieves, he discovered that the cultures of these groups were created by specific skills. Their success was not magical – it was made possible due to appropriately developed relationships within a group.

“The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle consists of three parts, each of which is dedicated to one of the three special skills. Below you can find a short summary where you can read more about them:   

Skill 1. Build Safety

“Building safety isn’t the kind of skill you can learn in a robotic, paint-by-numbers sort of way. It’s a fluid, improvisational skill – sort of like learning to pass a soccer ball to a teammate during a game. It requires you to recognize patterns, react quickly, and deliver the right signal at the right time.”

Safety – emotional safety – isn’t something we necessarily think of at work. But safety, says Coyle, is much more than just emotional weather. It’s a foundation on which a culture is built. So how can we reach the level of safety which would enable us to create a healthy culture?

Studying successful teams, Coyle noticed an interesting thing: all people would describe their teams with the same word. They didn’t call their colleagues friends or a tribe. They called them a family. We feel safe in a family circle, don’t we? This feeling is not rational, but it’s the connection those people developed with each other that made it possible for them to succeed.

Speaking about safety, Coyle mentions a thing that to a big extent determines if we feel safe or not – it’s the sense of belonging. He quotes Amy Edmonsdon, a specialist from Harvard who studies psychological safety, who explains that due to some evolutionary mechanisms, human beings are “incredibly attentive to interpersonal phenomena” – at the dawn of human civilization, to belong to a group meant survival, and being rejected meant death. 

This is why we still have a part of our brain that makes us worry about what other people say. We need signals (more than one or two) that would convince us that we belong.

These signals are called belonging cues. They include proto-language – the language that was used before people started using words: eye contact, body language, mimicry, proximity, and vocal pitch, to name a few. 

They help us assume what we can expect from the relationship and how a person treats us. Belonging cues, processed by our emotional brain, can give us a clear message – we are close, we are safe, we share a future.     

Creating safety, says Coyle, is about small moments that accumulate over time. It is a skill that can be developed and improved. He suggests the following actions to build safety:

Overcommunicate your listening

Listening is not only about capturing every single word of the speaker – it also involves non-verbal signals that reflect how exactly a person is perceiving information. Posture and face expressions are very important: they show your counterparts you are synchronized with them. 

Coyle says that in the successful cultures he visited, listeners expressed the same special signals: their heads were tilted forward; they were not blinking; their eyebrows were arched up, and their bodies were leaned forward the speaker.

Listening to a speaker, says Coyle, you have to avoid interruptions: they ruin the conversation smoothness. A good, productive conversation involves turn taking, but if someone keeps interrupting, it immediately breaks the cohesiveness of communication. 

However, interruptions can have a positive nature too: if they happen due to overexcitement during creative sessions, they may not have a detrimental impact.

Spotlight your fallibility early on – especially if you’re a leader

People naturally try to hide their weaknesses. But publicly showing your mistakes only benefits creating a safe environment.

So if you’re a leader, don’t try to appear too strong – let your colleagues see that you’re just a human. Ask for their feedback. Yes, it may be challenging for subordinates to answer questions about the leader’s mistakes, but it’s an effective way to develop trust.

Embrace the messenger

Have you ever heard the expression “shoot the messenger”? To create safety, no one in a group should feel that he might be punished for sharing bad news or giving tough feedback.

As Edmondson says, it’s not right to shoot the messenger – you have to hug him. This will encourage him to tell the truth the next time.

Overdo thank-yous

Thank-yous are not mere tokens of gratitude; they are powerful belonging cues that create connection. Some groups Coyle researched had a positive ritual: the most influential person in a group would publicly express gratitude for the least influential person – for example, to a dishwasher, saying that successes of the whole business are highly dependent on those who perform “the humblest tasks”.

Eliminate bad apples

Bad apple behavior – any behavior in a group that negatively influences other team members – should not be tolerated. In the successful groups Coyle researched, this type of behavior was not only noticed but also named; this way, it was easier to fight it.

Create collision-rich spaces

Design can be a lever for group cohesion, says Coyle; the more teams interact, the better. A simple coffee machine can be a perfect catalyst for interaction: it increases your chances to talk to someone else. 

For example, when Bank of America was struggling with call center employee’s burnout, aligning their schedules so they shared the same 15-minute break every day increased productivity by 20 percent; replacing 4-person tables with ten-person one one boosted it by 10 percent. This happened because communication helped relieve the stress.

Make sure everyone has a voice

Some successful groups follow the rule that every person must say something during a meeting. It is not always easy (some people are too shy, passive or have other reasons why they don’t want to speak) but leaders should encourage their employees to express their opinions and share ideas.

Capitalize on threshold moments

Important moments like arrivals deserve special attention: acknowledging the presence of a new person, we let them know that now they are a part of the team, and that they belong to it. For example, at Pixar, they invite newcomers to the theater and tell them “you’re a filmmaker now. We need you to help us make our films better”.

Avoid giving sandwich feedback

The traditional “sandwich” method means that while giving feedback, leaders start with positive things, then mention weak areas, and finish with one more positive thing. It may look like a harmless and logical method but it confuses people, making them focus exclusively on either bad or good things, says Coyle. 

Instead of giving sandwich feedback, successful groups discuss positive and negative aspects of their work separately. Positive feedback is given through praise and recognition, and negative – through a dialogue.     

Embrace fun

Humor and fun are great instruments of connection; they are simple, but their power is enormous.

Skill 2. Share Vulnerability

“Building habits of group vulnerability is like building a muscle. It takes time, repetition, and the willingness to feel pain in order to achieve gains. And, as with building muscle, the first key is to approach the process with a plan.”

Imagine that you see a stranger, and you have to ask each other questions: set A includes questions like “What was the best gift you received and why?”, “What was the last pet you owned?”, while set B is more challenging: “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?”

Both sets of questions require you to share personal information; however, the second one makes you feel apprehensive and more uncomfortable. As Coyle says, the first one generates information, and the second one – vulnerability.

According to Dr. Jeff Polzer, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard, we shouldn’t think of vulnerability in a “touchy-feely way”: uncovering our weaknesses, we open up, and this is “the most basic building block of cooperation and trust.” 

Coyle emphasizes that vulnerability precedes trust, and not vice versa. We try to avoid it, but it leads to a productive cooperation. Such cooperation happens in a group of people engaged in a risky, sometimes painful process.

So what are the techniques the author suggests to achieve a successful cooperation using vulnerability?      

Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often

Group cooperation, says Coyle, is created by small moments of vulnerability – and when vulnerability is demonstrated by the leader, its power increases. 

According to Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, leaders should ask questions like – what do you want me to continue doing? What do you want me to do more often? It’s important to ask just one thing at a time, otherwise people will find it hard to answer.

Overcommunicate expectations

It’s impossible to meet expectations if you don’t know what they are. For cooperation to be successful, the expectations within a group must be clear; leaders must talk about them, and employees must know what roles they are expected to assume.

Expectations can be presented in both oral (as a request) and a written form (even right on the walls, as a motto).

Deliver the negative stuff in person

It’s definitely much more comfortable to write an email when you want to say something negative about your colleague’s performance or behavior. However, giving negative feedback or negative news (even if it’s something very small), it’s better to do it in person. An honest, face-to-face conversation will help avoid misunderstanding and won’t let the situation get worse.

Listen like a trampoline

According to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, owners of leadership consultancy, “the most effective listeners behave like trampolines. They aren’t passive sponges.” 

Not only do they listen carefully, absorbing information, they also respond to what is being said, and this way they add energy to the conversation. They encourage their counterpart to give more than one answer, making them see alternatives and constructively think about a problem, enabling cooperation.

Resists the temptation to reflexively add value

Listening to someone, we often feel a desire to offer solutions, interrupting with phrases like “here’s an idea”. Coyle says that to create vulnerability, it’s important to stop yourself and let the person keep talking: what you do not say matters more than what you say.

Use candor-generating practices

A great example of these practices is AAR – After Action Review. Originally, AARs were created for the military environment, but they can be applied in other areas. The main structural components of an AAR are built around the following questions: what was supposed to happen? What actually happened? What can be improved in the future? What should we continue doing?   

Another example is Brain Trusts. This method was created by Pixar, and it consists in gathering leaders and letting them discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the project. Talking about problems, they cannot provide suggestions. This way, they won’t just give orders, but actually get involved in the process.

The last candor-generating practice Coyle mentions is Red Teaming. Like AARs, this method also appeared in the military environment; its purpose was to test strategies. The essence of it is to create a red team that would try to defeat your existing plan, making you think out of the box and look for different ways to accomplish your task.  

Aim for candor; avoid brutal honesty

Honesty can hurt people, and that would not benefit cooperation. Candor, on the contrary, is not as brutal as honesty: it’s less personal and judgmental. Yet, a candid remark does his job, as you still let a person know what’s wrong.

Embrace the discomfort

The two discomforts vulnerability makes team members go through are emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency, says Coyle. However, it’s important to understand that pain only makes a group stronger.

For example, when you do an AAR, you may feel awkward, admitting your mistakes - but it will help you to improve in the future.

Align language with action

Words have more power than you could imagine. Little shifts in meaning can make the situation look totally different. 

This technique is often used by groups to highlight their identity and other details they want to emphasize: instead of “project managers”, IDEO uses the term “design community leaders”.

Build a wall between performance review and professional development

These two categories are similar, but not the same; Coyle recommends keeping them separate, not to “muddy the waters”.

Performance concerns the work you actually get paid for, and if it’s not good enough, that will have an impact on your salary; while development is about growth, which is more personal. 

Use flash mentoring

Mentoring is shadowing a person you want to learn from; it can last for months and years. The concept of flash mentoring is the same – the only difference is that it lasts for hours. Such short interactions are very useful since they help develop strong relationships of mutual support.

Make the leader occasionally disappear

The best teams are self-sufficient and do not rely on the leader, so it makes sense to give them a chance to function without a leader from time to time. 

Skill 3. Establish Purpose

“The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to crystallize their purpose. When leaders of those groups reflect on those failures now, they express gratitude (and sometimes even nostalgic desire) for those moments, as painful as they were, because they were the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be”.

Mental contrasting – comparing your goals with obstacles between you and them – is a powerful instrument. It can improve communication, can help you speak in public, negotiate deals, and so on. We rarely think about our motivation and goals in this way, though. Instead, we think of them as if they were coming from our heart. 

However, motivation is “a two-part process of channeling your attention”: it arises from understanding the gap between where you currently are, and where you want to end up. Thinking about it this way, it makes complete sense to engage in mental contrasting - establishing the link between the present and the future.

To create and sustain purpose, successful cultures create high-purpose environments - environments filled with small but vivid signals that link the present moment with the future ideal they’re trying to reach. And to create such high-purpose environments, they work in two directions, focusing either on consistency (delivering reliable performance) or on innovation (creating something new). 

Building purpose is not easy – it’s a never-ending process of failing, learning, and trying again. Below are the actions Coyle suggests doing to develop a high-purpose environment.

Name and rank your priorities

According to Coyle, most successful groups not only make priority lists – they shorten those lists, ending up with a couple priorities. And the top priority is always building a group itself and nourishing the relationships among its members. Without a cohesive team, there will be no chance to produce successful products or provide services.

Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be

Once Inc. magazine did an experiment, in which they asked executives at 600 companies to roughly estimate the percentage of their employees who could name the company’s top 3 priorities.

The answer was – 64 percent. The truth was – 2 percent. Coyle says that this is a typical problem – leaders presume that everyone knows the priorities, while in fact, very few people do.

This is necessary to constantly communicate the company’s priorities – over and over again. There are many ways how to do it: in the groups Coyle visited, “statements of priorities were painted on walls, stamped on emails, incanted in speeches, dropped into conversation, and repeated over and over until they became part of the oxygen.” 

Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity

Coyle says that there are two main types of skills – skills of proficiency, and skills of creativity. Of course, some areas require a specific type of skills, so a group must clearly understand what exactly is needed in each particular situation.

Skills of proficiency are those that help do the task in the same, machine-like way. To build purpose for these skills – in other words, to motivate employees to apply them - you would have to provide clear directions: this can be done through high-repetition training and developing rules of thumb.

Creative skills are required when a group is supposed to create something that has never existed before. To inspire people, leaders would have to be very supportive: encourage initiative, give the team enough autonomy to be creative, and make it safe to fail. 

Embrace the use of catchphrases

Even though they may sound obvious, catchphrases are not just cultish jargon – they are a feature. “Work hard, be nice” (KIPP) is more than a slogan – it’s rather a reminder for the employees in what direction the company is moving, says Coyle.

Measure what really matters

Success and achievements must be measured by things that are important for your company and reflect the bigger vision behind it. For example, Zappos call center workers were measured by the number of calls they handled per hour – but it had nothing to do with their real purpose, and, even worse, being in a hurry meant people made more mistakes.

So the measure was changed – instead of the traditional approach, they started using Personal Emotional Connections measure, which consisted in creating a connection with clients. As Coyle underlines, it was impossible to measure the results, but such an approach helped the call center workers clearly see the real purpose.

Use Artifacts

Artifacts have the same meaning as catchphrases: they represent identity and purpose. Group artifacts - like awards and trophies - are physical reminders of what the team stands for.

Focus on bar-setting behavior

Purpose does not necessarily have to be an abstract term – it can be translated into an action, says Coyle. For example, a coach of a hockey team at Quinnipiac university developed a team culture around “Forty for Forty” – a term they used for back-checking (which happens around 40 times per game). Back-checking doesn’t really make a difference – but if it does, the coach spotlights it, this way connecting the group.                                      

“Being smart is overrated… showing fallibility is crucial… being nice is not nearly as important as you might think.” 

As we can see, the planet’s top-performing groups follow a path, different from our traditional idea of how to achieve success. People belonging to these group cultures are not scared to trust each other, not ashamed to show weaknesses, and continuously remind themselves about their purpose. Because these are things that really make the difference.

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