The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle: Summary & Notes

Rating: 8/10

Available at: Amazon

Related: Never Split the Difference, Team of Teams

Summary

A book about creating a great culture. Actionable instructions on how to improve your own behavior, the behavior of your team, and of your organization, to build a great culture.

Highly recommended for anyone who works with others and wants to improve team performance. You will learn skills that are applicable to individual relationships too.

Key Points

The list of skills to create a great culture:

  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

To cultivate trust and safety, you should strive for the following attitude: "Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging, and I’m curious about what everybody else has to say"

Body language–things like physical touch, eye contact, energy levels–all have a big impact on culture and attitude. The best cultures and environments are almost physically addictive.

Belonging cues always send the message: "You are safe here".

Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one thing: We are safe and connected.

It's a misconception that highly successful cultures are happy, lighthearted places. At their core, they are about solving hard problems together.

Many small things–like small, cutting jokes and comments–can have an effect on the overall culture, and these things should be eliminated.

Instead, you need to focus on overcommunicating, show that you are listening to others, overdoing thank-yous, and encouraging positive behaviors.

Getting through hard things together is a great way to build teamwork.

Make sure your leaders are vulnerable first and often.

Deliver negative stuff in person.

Resist the temptation to interject while listening.

Language within the group can be important, and you should try and use it to your advantage.

Creating purpose is about clearly creating a link between two things: where you are and where you want to go.

Creating purpose is about providing a steady stream of ultra-clear signals that are aligned with where you want to go (rather than one big signal).

Notes

Introduction - When Two Plus Two Equals Ten

  • Being smart is overrated, that showing fallibility is crucial, and that being nice is not nearly as important as you might think.

Skill 1 - Build Safety

1: The Good Apples

Most of all he radiates an idea that is something like, Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging, and I’m curious about what everybody else has to say

When I visited these groups, I noticed a distinct pattern of interaction. The pattern was located not in the big things but in little moments of social connection. These interactions were consistent whether the group was a military unit or a movie studio or an inner-city school. I made a list:

  • Close physical proximity, often in circles
  • Profuse amounts of eye contact
  • Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs)
  • Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
  • High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone
  • Few interruptions
  • Lots of questions
  • Intensive, active listening
  • Humor, laughter
  • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.)

One more thing: I found that spending time inside these groups was almost physically addictive.

Yeah 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.

Their function is to answer the ancient, ever-present questions glowing in our brains: Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?

Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:

  • Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring
  • Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued
  • Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue

These cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here.

"While listening to the pitches, though, another part of their brain was registering other crucial information, such as: How much does this person believe in this idea? How confident are they when speaking? How determined are they to make this work?

Overall Pentland’s studies show that team performance is driven by five measurable factors:

  • Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
  • Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  • Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  • Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  • Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others.
  • Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.

2: The Billion-Dollar Day When Nothing Happened

  • This idea—that belonging needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced—is worth dwelling on for a moment.

3: The Christmas Truce, the One-Hour Experiment, and the Missileers

  • Belonging cues have to do not with character or discipline but with building an environment that answers basic questions: Are we connected? Do we share a future? Are we safe?

4: How to Build Belonging

The Relationship Maker

"A lot of coaches can yell or be nice, but what Pop does is different," says assistant coach Chip Engelland. "He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death."

One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together.

The feedback was not complicated. In fact, it consisted of one simple phrase.

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

Actually, when you look more closely at the sentence, it contains three separate cues:

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

5: How to Design for Belonging

The Architect of the Greenhouse

  • What mattered most in creating a successful team had less to do with intelligence and experience and more to do with where the desks happened to be located.
  • The key characteristic of the Allen Curve is the sudden steepness that happens at the eight-meter mark. At distances of less than eight meters, communication frequency rises off the charts.

6: Ideas for Action

"I used to like to try to make a lot of small clever remarks in conversation, trying to be funny, sometimes in a cutting way," he says. "Now I see how negatively those signals can impact the group. So I try to show that I’m listening. When they’re talking, I’m looking at their face, nodding, saying ‘What do you mean by that,’ ‘Could you tell me more about this,’ or asking their opinions about what we should do, drawing people out."

Creating safety is about dialing in to small, subtle moments and delivering targeted signals at key points. The goal of this chapter is to provide a few tips on doing that.

Overcommunicate Your Listening: When I visited the successful cultures, I kept seeing the same expression on the faces of listeners. It looked like this: head tilted slightly forward, eyes unblinking, and eyebrows arched up. Their bodies were still, and they leaned toward the speaker with intent. The only sound they made was a steady stream of affirmations—yes, uh-huh, gotcha—that encouraged the speaker to keep going, to give them more.

  • Relatedly, it’s important to avoid interruptions.

Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On—Especially If You’re a Leader: In any interaction, we have a natural tendency to try to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. If you want to create safety, this is exactly the wrong move. Instead, you should open up, show you make mistakes, and invite input with simple phrases like "This is just my two cents." "Of course, I could be wrong here." "What am I missing?" "What do you think?"

Embrace the Messenger: One of the most vital moments for creating safety is when a group shares bad news or gives tough feedback. In these moments, it’s important not simply to tolerate the difficult news but to embrace it. "You know the phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’?" Edmondson says. "In fact, it’s not enough to not shoot them. You have to hug the messenger and let them know how much you need that feedback. That way you can be sure that they feel safe enough to tell you the truth next time."

Preview Future Connection: One habit I saw in successful groups was that of sneak-previewing future relationships, making small but telling connections between now and a vision of the future.

Overdo Thank-Yous: When you enter highly successful cultures, the number of thank-yous you hear seems slightly over the top.

Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process: Deciding who’s in and who’s out is the most powerful signal any group sends, and successful groups approach their hiring accordingly.

Eliminate Bad Apples: The groups I studied had extremely low tolerance for bad apple behavior and, perhaps more important, were skilled at naming those behaviors.

Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces: The groups I visited were uniformly obsessed with design as a lever for cohesion and interaction.

  • The lesson of all these studies is the same: Create spaces that maximize collisions.

Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice: Ensuring that everyone has a voice is easy to talk about but hard to accomplish. This is why many successful groups use simple mechanisms that encourage, spotlight, and value full-group contribution.

Pick Up Trash:

  • This is what I would call a muscular humility—a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group. Picking up trash is one example, but the same kinds of behaviors exist around allocating parking places (egalitarian, with no special spots reserved for leaders), picking up checks at meals (the leaders do it every time), and providing for equity in salaries, particularly for start-ups. These actions are powerful not just because they are moral or generous but also because they send a larger signal: We are all in this together.

Capitalize on Threshold Moments: When we enter a new group, our brains decide quickly whether to connect. So successful cultures treat these threshold moments as more important than any other.

Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback: In many organizations, leaders tend to deliver feedback using the traditional sandwich method: You talk about a positive, then address an area that needs improvement, then finish with a positive. This makes sense in theory, but in practice it often leads to confusion, as people tend to focus either entirely on the positive or entirely on the negative.

  • In the cultures I visited, I didn’t see many feedback sandwiches. Instead, I saw them separate the two into different processes. They handled negatives through dialogue, first by asking if a person wants feedback, then having a learning-focused two-way conversation about the needed growth. They handled positives through ultraclear bursts of recognition and praise

Embrace Fun: This obvious one is still worth mentioning, because laughter is not just laughter; it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.

Skill 2 - Share Vulnerability

7: “Tell Me What You Want, and I’ll Help You"

  • They demonstrated that a series of small, humble exchanges—Anybody have any ideas? Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you—can unlock a group’s ability to perform. The key, as we’re about to learn, involves the willingness to perform a certain behavior that goes against our every instinct: sharing vulnerability.

8: The Vulnerability Loop

The interaction he describes can be called a vulnerability loop. A shared exchange of openness, it’s the most basic building block of cooperation and trust. Vulnerability loops seem swift and spontaneous from a distance, but when you look closely, they all follow the same discrete steps:

  • Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.
  • Person B detects this signal.
  • Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability.
  • Person A detects this signal.
  • A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.

The mechanism of cooperation can be summed up as follows: Exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.

10: How to Create Cooperation in Small Groups

  • Merely creating space for cooperation, he realized, wasn’t enough; he had to generate a series of unmistakable signals that tipped his men away from their natural tendencies and toward interdependence and cooperation.
  • He started with small things. A new team member who called him by his title was quickly corrected: "You can call me Coop, Dave, or Fuckface, it’s your choice." When Cooper gave his opinion, he was careful to attach phrases that provided a platform for someone to question him, like "Now let’s see if someone can poke holes in this" or "Tell me what’s wrong with this idea." He steered away from giving orders and instead asked a lot of questions. Anybody have any ideas?
  • Cooper began to develop tools. "There’re things you can do," he says. "Spending time together outside, hanging out—those help. One of the best things I’ve found to improve a team’s cohesion is to send them to do some hard, hard training. There’s something about hanging off a cliff together, and being wet and cold and miserable together, that makes a team come together."
  • AARs happen immediately after each mission and consist of a short meeting in which the team gathers to discuss and replay key decisions. AARs are led not by commanders but by enlisted men. There are no agendas, and no minutes are kept. The goal is to create a flat landscape without rank, where people can figure out what really happened and talk about mistakes—especially their own.
  • In fact, I’d say those might be the most important four words any leader can say: I screwed that up."
  • Good AARs follow a template. "You have to do it right away," Cooper says. "You put down your gun, circle up, and start talking. Usually you take the mission from beginning to end, chronologically. You talk about every decision, and you talk about the process. You have to resist the temptation to wrap it all up in a bow, and try to dig for the truth of what happened, so people can really learn from it. You have to ask why, and then when they respond, you ask another why. Why did you shoot at that particular point? What did you see? How did you know? What other options were there? You ask and ask and ask."

11: How to Create Cooperation with Individuals

The Nyquist Method

Nyquist by all accounts possessed two important qualities. The first was warmth. He had a knack for making people feel cared for; every contemporary description paints him as “fatherly." The second quality was a relentless curiosity. In a landscape made up of diverse scientific domains, he combined breadth and depth of knowledge with a desire to seek connections.

(The best way to find the Nyquist is usually to ask people: If I could get a sense of the way your culture works by meeting just one person, who would that person be?) If we think of successful cultures as engines of human cooperation, then the Nyquists are the spark plugs.

She uses the idea of dance to describe the skills she employs with IDEO’s design teams: to find the music, support her partner, and follow the rhythm.

They asked her [Givechi] to create modules of questions teams could ask themselves. For example, here are a few:

  • The one thing that excites me about this particular opportunity is
  • I confess, the one thing I’m not so excited about with this particular opportunity is
  • On this project, I’d really like to get better at
  • The interesting thing about Givechi’s questions is how transcendently simple they are. They have less to do with design than with connecting to deeper emotions: fear, ambition, motivation.

12: Ideas for Action

Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often: As we’ve seen, group cooperation is created by small, frequently repeated moments of vulnerability. Of these, none carries more power than the moment when a leader signals vulnerability. As Dave Cooper says, "I screwed that up" are the most important words any leader can say.

Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:

  • What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
  • What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
  • What can I do to make you more effective?

"The key is to ask not for five or ten things but just one," Bock says. "That way it’s easier for people to answer

Overcommunicate Expectations: The successful groups I visited did not presume that cooperation would happen on its own. Instead, they were explicit and persistent about sending big, clear signals that established those expectations, modeled cooperation, and aligned language and roles to maximize helping behavior.

Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person: This was an informal rule that I encountered at several cultures. It goes like this: If you have negative news or feedback to give someone—even as small as a rejected item on an expense report—you are obligated to deliver that news face-to-face.

When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments:

  • The first vulnerability
  • The first disagreement
  • These small moments are doorways to two possible group paths: Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together? Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together?

Listen Like a Trampoline: Good listening is about more than nodding attentively; it’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery.

  • They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported
  • They take a helping, cooperative stance
  • They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions
  • They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths
  • As Zenger and Folkman put it, the most effective listeners behave like trampolines. They aren’t passive sponges. They are active responders, absorbing what the other person gives, supporting them, and adding energy to help the conversation gain velocity and altitude.

In Conversation, Resist the Temptation to Reflexively Add Value: The most important part of creating vulnerability often resides not in what you say but in what you do not say. This means having the willpower to forgo easy opportunities to offer solutions and make suggestions.

  • Skilled listeners do not interrupt with phrases like Hey, here’s an idea or Let me tell you what worked for me in a similar situation because they understand that it’s not about them. They use a repertoire of gestures and phrases that keep the other person talking. "One of the things I say most often is probably the simplest thing I say," says Givechi. "‘Say more about that.’ "

Yeah Use Candor-Generating Practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Red Teaming: While AARs were originally built for the military environment, the tool can be applied to other domains. One good AAR structure is to use five questions:

  • What were our intended results?
  • What were our actual results?
  • What caused our results?
  • What will we do the same next time?
  • What will we do differently?

Some teams also use a Before-Action Review, which is built around a similar set of questions:

  • What are our intended results?
  • What challenges can we anticipate?
  • What have we or others learned from similar situations?
  • What will make us successful this time?

Red Teaming is a military-derived method for testing strategies; you create a "red team" to come up with ideas to disrupt or defeat your proposed plan. The key is to select a red team that is not wedded to the existing plan in any way, and to give them freedom to think in new ways that the planners might not have anticipated.

Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty: Giving honest feedback is tricky, because it can easily result in people feeling hurt or demoralized. One useful distinction, made most clearly at Pixar, is to aim for candor and avoid brutal honesty. By aiming for candor—feedback that is smaller, more targeted, less personal, less judgmental, and equally impactful—it’s easier to maintain a sense of safety and belonging in the group.

Embrace the Discomfort: One of the most difficult things about creating habits of vulnerability is that it requires a group to endure two discomforts: emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency. Doing an AAR or a BrainTrust combines the repetition of digging into something that already happened (shouldn’t we be moving forward?) with the burning awkwardness inherent in confronting unpleasant truths. But as with any workout, the key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group.

Align Language with Action: Many highly cooperative groups use language to reinforce their interdependence. For example, navy pilots returning to aircraft carriers do not “land" but are “recovered." IDEO doesn’t have "project managers"—it has "design community leaders." Groups at Pixar do not offer “notes" on early versions of films; they “plus" them by offering solutions to problems. These might seem like small semantic differences, but they matter because they continually highlight the cooperative, interconnected nature of the work and reinforce the group’s shared identity.

Build a Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development: While it seems natural to hold these two conversations together, in fact it’s more effective to keep performance review and professional development separate.

Use Flash Mentoring: One of the best techniques I’ve seen for creating cooperation in a group is flash mentoring. It is exactly like traditional mentoring—you pick someone you want to learn from and shadow them—except that instead of months or years, it lasts a few hours. Those brief interactions help break down barriers inside a group, build relationships, and facilitate the awareness that fuels helping behavior.

Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear: Several leaders of successful groups have the habit of leaving the group alone at key moments.

Skill 3 - Establish Purpose

13: Three Hundred and Eleven Words

  • When I visited the successful groups, I noticed that whenever they communicated anything about their purpose or their values, they were as subtle as a punch in the nose. It started with the surroundings. One expects most groups to fill their surroundings with a few reminders of their mission. These groups, however, did more than that—a lot more.
  • High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go. The surprising thing, from a scientific point of view, is how responsive we are to this pattern of signaling.
  • Envision a reachable goal, and envision the obstacles. The thing is, as Oettingen discovered, this method works, triggering significant changes in behavior and motivation.
  • That shared future could be a goal or a behavior. (We put customer safety first. We shoot, move, and communicate.) It doesn’t matter. What matters is establishing this link and consistently creating engagement around it. What matters is telling the story.
  • The main challenge to understanding how stories guide group behavior is that stories are hard to isolate. Stories are like air: everywhere and nowhere at the same time. How do you measure the effect of a narrative?

14: The Hooligans and the Surgeons

The Fastest Learners

  • This is the way high-purpose environments work. They are about sending not so much one big signal as a handful of steady, ultra-clear signals that are aligned with a shared goal.
  • They are less about being inspiring than about being consistent. They are found not within big speeches so much as within everyday moments when people can sense the message: This is why we work; this is what we are aiming for.

15: How to Lead for Proficiency

This is why so many of Meyer’s catchphrases focus on how to respond to mistakes.

  • The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

16: How to Lead for Creativity

  • On a fundamental level, Danny Meyer, KIPP, and the All-Blacks are using the same purpose-building technique. We might call it the lighthouse method: They create purpose by generating a clear beam of signals that link A (where we are) to B (where we want to be). There’s another dimension of leadership, however, where the goal isn’t to get from A to B but to navigate to an unknown destination, X. This is the dimension of creativity and innovation.

17: Ideas for Action

Name and Rank Your Priorities: In order to move toward a target, you must first have a target. Listing your priorities, which means wrestling with the choices that define your identity, is the first step. Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships—how they treat one another—at the top of the list. This reflects the truth that many successful groups realize: Their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself. If they get their own relationships right, everything else will follow.

Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be: 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: Every group skill can be sorted into one of two basic types: skills of proficiency and skills of creativity.

Skills of proficiency are about doing a task the same way, every single time. They are about delivering machine-like reliability, and they tend to apply in domains in which the goal behaviors are clearly defined, such as service. Building purpose to perform these skills is like building a vivid map: You want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way. Ways to do that include:

  • Fill the group’s windshield with clear, accessible models of excellence.
  • Provide high-repetition, high-feedback training.
  • Build vivid, memorable rules of thumb (if X, then Y).
  • Spotlight and honor the fundamentals of the skill.

Creative skills, on the other hand, are about empowering a group to do the hard work of building something that has never existed before. Generating purpose in these areas is like supplying an expedition: You need to provide support, fuel, and tools and to serve as a protective presence that empowers the team doing the work. Some ways to do that include:

  • Keenly attend to team composition and dynamics.
  • Define, reinforce, and relentlessly protect the team’s creative autonomy.
  • Make it safe to fail and to give feedback.
  • Celebrate hugely when the group takes initiative.

Most groups, of course, consist of a combination of these skill types, as they aim for proficiency in certain areas and creativity in others. The key is to clearly identify these areas and tailor leadership accordingly.

Embrace the Use of Catchphrases: When you look at successful groups, a lot of their internal language features catchphrases that often sound obvious, rah-rah, or corny. Many of us instinctively dismiss them as cultish jargon. But this is a mistake. Their occasionally cheesy obviousness is not a bug—it’s a feature. Their clarity, grating to the outsider’s ear, is precisely what helps them function.

  • The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright: "Create fun and a little weirdness" (Zappos), "Talk less, do more" (IDEO), "Work hard, be nice" (KIPP), "Pound the rock" (San Antonio Spurs), "Leave the jersey in a better place" (New Zealand All-Blacks), "Create raves for guests" (Danny Meyer’s restaurants).

Measure What Really Matters: The main challenge to building a clear sense of purpose is that the world is cluttered with noise, distractions, and endless alternative purposes. One solution is to create simple universal measures that place focus on what matters.

Use Artifacts: If you traveled from Mars to Earth to visit successful cultures, it would not take you long to figure out what they were about. Their environments are richly embedded with artifacts that embody their purpose and identity.

Yeah 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.

Epilogue

  • We adopted a "What Worked Well/Even Better If" format for the feedback sessions: first celebrating the story’s positives, then offering ideas for improvement.

Want to get my latest book notes? Subscribe to my newsletter to get one email a week with new book notes, blog posts, and favorite articles.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Your link text