The Culture Code

Written by Travis Lowdermilk on December 24, 2018

In his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. author Daniel Coyle visits a variety of diverse teams to identify what makes some cultures succeed and others fail.

Coyle spent four years exploring and defining what cultural attributes make teams successful. His journey led him to spend time with the U.S. Navy Seals, CEO of Zappos - Tony Hsieh, Pixar, and legendary coach of the San Antonio Spurs - Gregg Popovich. Just to name a few.

The book is full of inspiring stories from leaders who have built cultures that have not only performed exceptionally but have built a lasting impression in those that have lived within them. These are successful teams whose behavior is worth studying and adopting. When looking at them together, patterns begin to emerge.

The 3 Skills of Highly Successful Teams

Coyle identified that every successful culture is built using 3 specific skills. These are a small set of actions that create a lasting culture and the entire book is organized around them:

  1. Build Safety
  2. Share Vulnerability
  3. Establish Purpose

Build Safety

In order for a group to be productive and work together, each participant must feel connected and safe. Our brains are hardwired to detect and deal with threats. In our modern lives, many of these threats aren’t physical, but rather emotional or societal. We’re constantly assessing our place within a group (team, family, society) and examining those relationships for vulnerabilities.

Within our working environments, Coyle suggests that we continually look for belonging cues that communicate a team’s mode of operation. Essentially, these cues give us insight into the values of the group and also whether or not we’re living up to the group’s standard.

Belonging cues are incredibly important and the best leaders leverage these cues to help teams tackle difficult problems. Building safety isn’t necessarily about building “happiness” within the team (although many team members experience happiness as a result). Instead, the best teams build safety through many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth telling, and consistent examining of where the team is and where they want to be.

You can’t achieve this type of truth if participants don’t feel safe. If they feel like their job is at risk for making a mistake, if they feel like their ideas will be stolen for someone else’s profit, or that there is no future growth in their role within the company - you cannot expect your culture to grow.

Leaders create belonging by taking an invested position in their employees. Popovich spends 1-on-1 time with each of his players; getting to know them on deep personal levels. Hsieh is well known for making connections between people based on their mutual interests and personal tastes. Consistently, leaders in this book are successful connectors. They not only connect team members to each other, but they also connect everyone to the group’s greater purpose.

Successful leaders create belonging by continuing to exhibit behaviors that communicate to each and every individual:

  1. You are part of this group
  2. This group has high standards
  3. I believe you can reach those standards

Share Vulnerability

Once a team is operating with mutual safety, they can share in being vulnerable. Tackling difficult problems requires a vulnerability loop where teams can give and receive short bursts of supportive but direct feedback. When pilots due this in the cockpit, they call it giving each other “notifications”. This feedback is not just given from leaders; it’s expected from everyone. If a flight is going down, the hierarchical command of the pilots on board is irrelevant. It comes down to whomever has the best idea to land safely. The team (and yes even the leaders) need to share that vulnerability for the entire group to succeed.

Shared vulnerability leads to shared cooperation.

Coyle gives numerous examples where leaders admit mistakes, express concern or doubt, and solicit advice on how to improve themselves or the project. These leaders are focused on outcomes over their stature. Coyle even found this behavior within the military (U.S. Navy Seals and Army’s Delta Force) where one would imagine that a top-down “do it because I said so” mentality would be ingrained in the culture.

This behavior, creating shared vulnerability, sends a strong cue to the entire group: we’re in this together.

Establish Purpose

A group cannot function if it does not understand its purpose. Highly successful teams know their purpose and more importantly they connect their actions with that purpose every day.

Leaders of these groups continually find opportunities to connect their team with its purpose.

Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story.

Stories embody where the team has been and in most cases where they are going. They give us rich, vivid, examples of the impact of our journey. Stories are lasting and memorable. They tell us What are we about? Where are we headed?

An example of this is when Adam Grant, author and organizational psychologist, was asked to investigate the low performance of the University of Michigan’s call centers for alumni donations.

He found that the work of a call center worker was boring and tedious and the rejection rate, when asking for donations, stood at a solid 93 percent. The university had tried numerous incentives to improve call quantity and revenue (prizes, contests, etc.), but none of these efforts produced a positive outcome.

Grant decided to try something different. He made a concerted effort to connect the team to the impact of the donations they were trying to raise.

In one example, he shared a letter from a student who had received a scholarship through alumni donations:

When it came down to making the decision, I discovered that the out-of-state tuition was quite expensive. But this university is in my blood. My grandparents met here. My dad and his four brothers all went here. I even owe my younger brother to this school - he was conceived the night we won the NCAA basketball tournament. All my life I’ve dreamed of coming here. I was ecstatic to receive the scholarship, and I came to school ready to take full advantage of the opportunities it afforded me. The scholarship has improved my life in many ways.

Additionally, Grant invited “guests” to come and share similar, heart-warming, stories of how the foundation’s scholarships had impacted their lives.

It worked. Over the next month, workers spent 142% more time on the phone and revenues increased 172%.

Teams cannot function if they don’t see, hear, and feel their purpose.

Language is Crucial

Beyond the 3 skills, one major theme stands out. The language you use embodies your culture. Time and again, Coyle points to catchy “rules” or “principles” that leaders employ to express the culture they’re trying to build.

Coach Popavich distills his entire approach by telling his staff to continually care for the players by “hugging ‘em and holding ‘em.”

Danny Meyer, the incredibly successful New York restaurateur, has numerous maxims that he uses within his restaurants:

  • Read the guest
  • Athletic hospitality
  • Loving problems
  • Be aware of your emotional wake
  • Making the charitable assumption

Coyle explains why these sayings are so helpful in building a successful culture:

On the surface, these look like garden-variety corporate aphorisms. In fact, each of them functions as a small narrative in itself, providing a vivid mental model for solving routine problems.

These sayings become short-hand “cultural heuristics” that embody the culture of the team. These sayings become short-hand “cultural heuristics” that embody the culture of the team. They can be easily taught to new members and also used to remind existing members of their responsibilities to their customers and each other.

Coyle highlights that successful teams are thoughtful and careful about the words they use. They spend time reflecting on their language and continually send belonging cues and cultural signals, not just through their actions, but also through their words.