The Culture Code Summary and Review

by Daniel Coyle
Has The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Working together makes the world go around. Everyone needs a helping hand now and then to get their ideas going, even the most brilliant geniuses this world has to offer. However, pulling together to achieve a common idea isn’t always as easy in practice as it is on paper. Whether it’s in an office or on a sports field, the atmosphere can quickly sour at the hands of a dysfunctional group dynamic.  So how does a team become more than the sum of its parts?  Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code draws on a wide range of evidence. From a study of kindergarteners building a spaghetti tower to the way that today’s most successful companies run their workplace, Coyle explores the importance of our interactions with our teammates, while giving many tips on how to avoid throwing a wrench into the project.  In this summary of The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, you’ll learn
  • why a group of children can easily beat lawyers in a simple teamwork exercise;
  • what makes us feel safe and why that matters; and
  • why stories are extremely effective when trying to establish a shared sense of purpose.

The Culture Code Key Idea #1: Weak group cultures tend to neglect interactions and focus solely on skills. 

We’re all members of a variety of groups, from families to friends to coworkers. Each group has its own culture, no matter how big or small the group itself is.  So what is group culture? Essentially, group culture is the relationships between people who are working to achieve a common goal.  Each group culture is unique: some work well, while others are dysfunctional.  Poor group culture is easy to spot. If you’ve ever been involved in a defective group culture at work or at home, you know that the tension is so palpable that you could cut it with a knife.  This is often caused by certain group members being focused on the wrong thing.  Instead of paying attention to the quality of their interactions, they struggle to conclude what their place is in the group, and spend time concerned about their own personal status amongst their peers.  Once one of the group members starts doing this, they are no longer focused on the task at hand. Everything becomes a question of who ideas can be criticized or put down and which group rules or dynamics are open for debate. All of this is a recipe for disaster.  Peter Skillman, an engineer, carried out a study where he asked groups of kindergartners, business school students, and lawyers to take part in. The aim of each group was to build the tallest possible structure using uncooked spaghetti, tape, a yard of string, and a single marshmallow.  If you were to guess who was most successful, you’d probably choose the students or the lawyers right? After all, they have the most life experience and expertise to give to this task.  However, it turned out that the kindergartners usually won.  How did these children prevail over their older and presumably wider competitors? The answer lies in group dynamics. The business school students, for example, typically started by analyzing the task and then discussing the correct strategy to follow, all while quietly establishing a hierarchy.  The kindergartners, on the other hand, followed a radically different approach. Instead of trying to assign tasks and determine who was responsible for what, they just got right to the task. Without wasting a word, they worked together and experimented. If one thing failed, they moved on to another idea.  The children won the competition because they were more focused on their interactions and were cooperating to achieve their shared goal, rather than competing amongst themselves.  So how can you make your groups more like that of the kindergartners? In the following summaries, we’ll dive deeper into the idea of group culture to find out.

The Culture Code Key Idea #2: The foundation of a strong group lies in cultivating an innate sense of safety and belonging. 

Imagine that you’ve been assigned to complete a complex task that will use all of your skills and expertise. You get to choose where you work to complete this task: your own home, or a room full of strangers. Which setting would you likely pick to achieve success?  The majority of us wouldn’t hesitate to choose our own home. It’s a safe and comfortable environment where we can experiment, fail, and eventually succeed. This exact principle applies to groups. If a group’s members feel safe, the entire group functions at a much higher level.  This brings up the concept of safety: what is it and why is it so important?  Overall, safety is about a sense of familiarity and connections. We know that unseen dangers aren’t lurking around every corner when we feel safe. A strong group culture nurtures this concept, and boosts its performance in turn.  For example, look at a study conducted by Will Felps, an associate professor at the University of South Wales. In the study, Felps told a man, Nick, that he must assume different roles in different groups that had all been tasked with creating a marketing plan for a company. In the role of an annoying idler, Nick would slack off on his tasks and slow down the progress of the group’s work. His behavior, unfortunately, was contagious, which caused others in the group to mirror his attitude and behavior.  Only one group was able to remain immune to his behavior. In this group, one of the members, Jonathan, consistently acted as a counterpoint to Nick’s bad attitude by spreading warmth and positivity. By doing this, Jonathan made those around him feel safe and comfortable, which allowed the group to perform well, despite Nick’s presence.  This discovery outs forward an important point: we tend to perform best when we feel we belong, which bolsters our perception of safety. Alex “Sandy” Pentlend conducted a different study at the MIT Media Lab where further proof of this can be found.  In his study, Pentland had two groups of students role play as bosses and employees engaged in negotiations about salary, vacations, and health benefits. Pentland then used what he calls a sociometer, which is a data-collecting sensor programmed to record belonging cues such as eye contact, mimicry, and physical proximity. He used this data to analyze the negotiations.  Following these cues allowed Pentland to gauge the overall sense of safety in each of the participants. Our brains are innately wired to constantly be on the lookout for danger, so this variety of behavioral traits prove to be a good indicator of when we are or aren’t feeling safe in our environment.  Pentland discovered that he could predict the outcome of each negotiating session by reviewing the first five minutes of the data he had gathered. What was being said didn’t determine the outcome, but the interaction itself did. 

The Culture Code Key Idea #3: Let people know that you know you aren’t perfect, and that you’re listening to them. 

Now that we know the success of groups relies on making everyone feel safe, how do we create a safe environment? Unfortunately, this isn’t some easy task that can be picked up from a book. Similarly to honing any other skill, it’s something that takes time and practice.  With this being said, below are a few tips that might help you along the way.  It’s necessary to let the people around you know that you’re listening to them in order to create a safe working environment.  Ben Waber, the founder of the behavior consultancy firm Humanyze says that whenever he visits different companies or organizations, he sees the same things that lead to successful group culture.  People demonstrate that they are listening to one another by tilting their head toward the speaker, raising their eyebrows, and using linguistic markers such as affirmative words like “uh-huh,” “right,” or “yes” to show that they’re paying attention.  This is a simple and effective way to make people feel safe and comfortable. Give it a try sometime! Another thing great listeners demonstrate is when to hold back: occasionally interjecting is not the same as interrupting, but it should constantly interrupt the speaker’s train of thought.  Interruptions tend to disturb the flow of the type of communication and group interactions that create a sense of safety and belonging for the group members. Another thing Waber noticed is that salespeople who constantly interrupted their potential clients often had far less success than salespeople who spent more time intently listening to their prospective clients. One more tip to creating a safe environment is to let people in the group see your weaknesses. Showing that you’re aware that you aren’t perfect and that you make mistakes lays a foundation for open communication, safety, and belonging.  Though this isn’t an easy thing to admit, it’s a much more effective strategy to making others feel like you need their help than trying to dazzle them with your perfect competency.  Admitting you’re imperfect can be as simple as asking others what they think about a particular issue, or using a phrase like, “I might be wrong, of course,” “did I miss anything?” Creating a culture of open communication and admitting when you’re wrong is the first key strategy to creating a safe environment. Below, we’ll take a closer look at a second, essential strategy.

The Culture Code Key Idea #4: If you want your group to perform at its highest possible level, it’s pertinent that you share your vulnerabilities. 

Take a second and consider how you interact with other people. Have you ever gone to extensive lengths or exaggerated your skills or knowledge in order to prove your competency?  If that sounds like you, you should stop! Though this might sound counterintuitive, sharing your personal vulnerabilities typically boosts group performance.  So how does this work? Mirroring, where we pick up on the way people act and communicate around us and then follow those patterns, is a common dynamic in groups. So, if you admit your weaknesses right off the bat, others will be less likely to feign competence, which will build trust and cause the work to go smoothly.  Jeff Polzer, a professor in organizational behavior at Harvard, refers to this as the vulnerability loop. Essentially, this is a feedback loop among members of a group, which can create a sense of closeness which heightens group performance and dynamic.  A dramatic example of this happened during a plane crash in 1989. A domestic flight to Chicago piloted by Al Haynes suddenly ran into dire issues following an engine explosion mid-flight. Haynes immediately told his colleagues he needed their help instead of trying to solve the problem on his own, a decision that saved 200 lives. When Haynes admitted his vulnerability, he showed other crew members that it was okay to ask for help. Once this occurred, they all began working together to regain control of the plane.  Unfortunately, the plane crashed, killing 100 people. However, 185 lives were saved, which was a miracle. This incident was later recreated in multiple simulations. None of these simulations were able to reproduce the same result as Haynes and his crew, and most of them resulted in the deaths of all individuals aboard.  Several other studies have also confirmed this connection between admitting vulnerabilities and cooperation.  For example, David DeSteno, a psychology professor, conducted a study where participants were asked to complete a laborious and time-consuming task on a computer. When the task was close to completion, the computers would suddenly crash.  DeSteno planted an assistant amongst the group that would come to the rescue of the participants and restore the work they had done prior to the crash. Later on, the participants showed an increased willingness to cooperate both with their fellow participants as well as DeSteno’s assistant when playing a game specially designed for this study. They pulled together to work as a group, despite being complete strangers.  DeSteno got this result because the members of the study had experienced a vulnerability and then had been “rescued,” which often results in feelings of trust and safety among other group members. 

The Culture Code Key Idea #5: Clearly communicate the expectation that group members will cooperate, and show your vulnerabilities to lead the way. 

How do you go about building a strong team? A good starting place is to demonstrate that you expect people to cooperate with each other, which is another way to express that you need their help. Yet again, this is a way to express your vulnerabilities to the group.  Letting people know that you’re reliant on their help allows them to feel comfortable when admitting their shortcomings. This creates a work environment where group members don’t feel like they have to work on a problem alone or do everything by themselves.  Tim Brown, the head of the international consulting agency called IDEO puts this tactic into practice. At the beginning of each task, he clearly communicates the need for cooperation and informs his colleagues that the more challenging the problem is, the more they will need to cooperate to solve it. This philosophy of cooperation is at the heart of IDEO’s success. So what’s the role of leaders in all of this?  The answer is simple: being a leader means to lead: being the first one to admit vulnerabilities.  It’s clear that this is important when you look at the culture of office meetings: unfortunately, it’s common for colleagues to be fearful of managers. They worry about demonstrating their competency, keeping up appearances, and showing that they’re knowledgeable.  Making mistakes is normal, however -- we all do it! Mistakes are part of the learning process, and without them, we don’t make strides forward. Leaders need to be role models in admitting their mistakes, vulnerabilities, or incompetencies so other members of the group feel comfortable doing this too. This allows everyone to work toward a solution together.  Look at this example of Danny Meyer, the successful American restaurateur. Meyer delivered a TED Talk, and held a staff meeting the morning after with his employees to watch the footage. Following the video, Meyer asked his staff for feedback and shared his experiences with them.  He expressed how nervous he had been during the talk: like how much his legs had been shaking or how he had severely messed up in rehearsal. To finish, Meyer publicly thanked two colleagues, and said that he wouldn’t have been able to give the talk at all without their help.  Meyer chose a great way to lead by example. He shared his vulnerabilities with candor, and in turn created a working environment where each employee would feel comfortable doing the same. 

The Culture Code Key Idea #6: The secret to unlocking great group performance is to establish a shared sense of purpose. 

A great example to start with is sports teams. If you’ve ever played on a team yourself or even watched a sports team that regularly performs well, you’ll know that the key to this is that each member of the team shares a strong vision of how to play together and what they want to achieve.  This happens because common sense of purpose is essential to group performance. Let’s define this for a second. A sense of purpose is simply a set of beliefs and values that explain people’s actions. Sense of purpose shapes group identity and expresses what the group stands for. Cooperative cultures can’t do without it. A shared sense of purpose provides a common stock of ideas and aligns the behavior of group members. Companies tend to create what is called a high-purpose environment, since a sense of purpose is so important to group cohesion and performance. This brings the purpose of the group to the front of its member’s minds, which can guide their actions.  High-purpose environments are packed with signals that connect members of the group to their shared future goal. Imagine it like a bridge between the present and the future: group members all agree that we are here today, and we will be going there tomorrow.  Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology, has proved in several studies that simply communicating a common goal can help unite members of a group while making their shared aim easily accessible. Our minds are highly receptive to storytelling, and “bridges” are like stories with a distinctive narrative arc.  If we are given a simple fact, our brains grasp onto the meaning of the fact, but generally remain fairly inactive. In contrast, stories actively engage our minds since we can’t help but begin thinking about cause and effect, as well as the overarching meaning and reason of the story.  Storytelling is a powerful call to action which motivates us to pursue a common goal like putting customer safety first. 

The Culture Code Key Idea #7: Repetition is the key to creating a sense of purpose. Don’t shy away from corny slogans!

You can’t establish a sense of purpose overnight. Carving a mission statement out of a block of granite and putting it outside your company headquarters won’t quit do the trick.  This is a process that will inevitably involve failures that you can learn from, so take your time. Though this mistake will happen, you will find some tips below to help you along the way!  Repetition is essential to a shared sense of purpose. And yes, repetition really does mean repetition! You should repeat your company’s core convictions over and over to your employees.  Since we know what we’re trying to say when we speak to others, we often assume that our priorities have been received and understood by the people we’re addressing. However, this is often not the case. If you want to be perfectly clear about your needs and expectations, repeat them heavily.  A survey by Inc. magazine conducted a survey that asked managers how many people in their companies knew what the firm’s top priorities were. Executive’s typically answered around 64 percent, but following the survey, it was revealed that it was actually as low as 2 percent!  It’s clear why repeating your priorities is important, and a clever way of bolstering awareness is by overcommunicating your company’s sense of purpose in regular meetings. This tactic becomes especially effective when you expect people to actively engage with the material, and encourage them to both reflect on and challenge the company’s goals.  Johnson & Johnson, an American healthcare company, does this to great effect. They hold frequent meetings with senior managers designed to encourage robust discussion of the company’s credo, which is conveniently carved into granite right outside the building where the meetings are held. Though Johnson & Johnson’s core aims haven’t changed much as a result, this practice does encourage managers to actively engage with the company’s priorities.  Developing short and snappy catch phrases is another method to establish a common sense of purpose.  Though these phrases tend to be corny, that doesn’t mean they’re not effective. Think about some memorable slogans for example, like online shoe store Zappo’s “Create fun and a little weirdness” or consulting firm IDEO’s “Talk less, do more.” Cheesy or not, they’re useful reminders of what the company stands for. Embrace them!

In Review: The Culture Code Book Summary

The key message in this book: Group dynamics determine outcomes. A team might lose sight of what’s most important to its performance if it focuses its attention on the wrong things – the interactions of its members. However, a healthy and productive group dynamic is possible. Creating a safe environment is the best way to achieve this dynamic, since everyone can share their vulnerabilities. Throw a common sense of purpose into the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for success! Actionable advice: Learn how to be a great listener. From your family, to the local soccer team, to the workplace, chances are that you’re part of at least one group. So how do you contribute to its success? Of course your individual performance is essential, but you shouldn’t pass up creating a healthy group dynamic. Openness and paying attention to your group members are key, not simply doing this, but showing you’re listening as well. When it’s your turn to speak, make sure to ask for feedback from other members of the group, allowing an open platform for communication and idea sharing.