The Culture Code – Daniel Coyle


Are you ready to rethink your approach to company culture and to learn the secrets of some of the most successful teams in our modern world? If so, you’ve come to the right place.

Daniel Coyle’s bookOpens in a new tab. is all about helping leaders to replicate the culture of teams as diverse as Pixar and Google to the iconic Navy SEALs of the United States army. He does a great job of blending science and philosophy together into a practical handbook that can help you to revolutionise your workplace.  (Check out the latest price on Amazon HEREOpens in a new tab.)

So, if you’re ready to turn your place of work into a place where innovation flourishes and ideas are created on an industrial scale, read on. It’s time to see what Daniel Coyle has to teach us about the culture code and its applications in the modern workplace.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

Coyle starts the book with a much needed reminder of where the word “culture” actually comes from: the Latin word “cultus”, which means “care”. It’s culture – and thus it’s also care – which makes any one team different than any other.

He illustrates this by referring to a competition that Peter Skillman held in which he challenged teams to build the tallest structures possible with a set of tools including uncooked spaghetti, string and a marshmallow. Some teams consisted of business school students, and some consisted of kindergartners. Not only did the kindergarteners come out on top, but also they outperformed teams of lawyers and CEOs.

And there’s a reason for that. “The business school students appear to be collaborating,” Coyle says, “but in fact they’re engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? Their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behaviour is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focussing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another.”

Coyle says that the kindergartners succeeded not because they’re smarter but because they worked together more efficiently. “They’re tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts,” he says. “This book is the story of how that method works.”

The Good Apples

The bulk of Coyle’s book takes the form of a series of short chapters on different experiments that have shown how culture can have an impact on the workforce. For example, he covers an experiment in which an actor was hired to play three different negative stereotypes: “the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type).” Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that when the actor played one of these characters, productivity dropped by 40%. The moral of the story? You need to weed out the bad apples before they spoil the whole bunch.

A great example of these stories comes in during the next chapter. During Google’s early days, when the site was trying to perfect its AdWords platform, founder Larry Page pinned up a note that says “these ads suck”Opens in a new tab.. One employee looked at it, started thinking and then took the problem home, working on it all weekend before sending a suggested fix around first thing on Monday morning and promptly falling asleep. The surprising thing here is not the story but the fact that many at Google forget that it happened, despite it making them billions of dollars. That was just normal at the time, a part of the company culture.

In the next couple of chapters, Coyle introduces us to further concepts aimed at helping to establish a powerful culture, drawing on a range of stories to illustrate his point including the famous Christmas truce of the First World War and the advice of Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, there are so many stories throughout this book that we could never hope to cover them all, and so we’re not even going to try. We’ll focus instead on the best of them.

Designing for belonging

A key part of Coyle’s approach to culture is to create a situation which encourages a sense of belonging. When we feel like we “belong” at work, we’re able to do a better job of things. This goes back to those kindergartners building their towers. If we feel that we belong, we can focus on the task of building instead of worrying about office politics. Of course, creating this culture is easier said than done, which is why he dedicated a couple of lengthy chapters to the subject.

In one of them, he covers the story of Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh. At one point, when the company was struggling, he had employees living with him at his apartment. Nowadays, it’s harder to get a job at Zappo’s than it is to get into Harvard. “This place is like a greenhouse,” Hsieh explained. “In some greenhouses, the leader plays the role of the plant that every other plant aspires to. But that’s not me. I’m not the plant that everyone aspires to be. My job is to architect the greenhouse.”

This idea of specifically designing for culture isn’t necessarily a new one, but it is one that has gained strength in recent years. Coyle highlights a range of studies that show how companies can specifically design for culture, including one that showed that visual communication is important. When people are more than eight metres away, the frequency with which we communicate takes a rapid dip, which has obvious ramifications when it comes to our working environments.

Ideas for action

Throughout the majority of the book, Coyle puts a much greater emphasis on the ideas behind the concepts he shares than on the steps you can take to improve performance at your company. With that said, there’s also a fantastic chapter called Ideas for Action in which he shares a few insights that can be put into practice at any business. These include:

Over-communicate your listening: “When I visited the successful cultures,” Coyle says, “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.”

Spotlight your fallibility early on – especially if you’re a leader: No one is infallible and everyone makes mistakes. If everyone at your company is afraid to make a mistake, no one will ever make any progress.

Embrace the messenger: You’ve probably heard of the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger”. Coyle says that instead we should embrace them, thanking them for their feedback even when they’re delivering bad news.

Preview future connection: The idea here is that by teasing what could happen in the future, we give people a reason to work towards it. The example the author uses is of a coach telling a wannabe baseball player, “Three years ago, the pitcher was sitting in the same seat you’re sitting in.”

Overdo thank yous: Everyone appreciates being thanked for the work they do, and just a few simple words can go a long way. Coyle suggests overdoing thank yous because there’s scientific support that shows it ignites cooperative behaviour. And let’s face it – it’s also the polite thing to do.

Be painstaking in the hiring process: In other words, the input dictates the output. If you hire bad people, don’t be surprised if the company doesn’t perform at its best.

Eliminate bad apples: As discussed earlier, this comes in useful when those inevitable bad hires still slip through.

Create safe, collision-rich spaces: By creating an environment in which people have plenty of opportunities to bump into each other, you help to facilitate creativity and collaboration.

Make sure everyone has a voice: At some companies, people feel as though they’re unable to voice their opinions in case they get laughed at or shot down by senior management. You need to make sure that your company isn’t one of them.

Pick up trash: The idea here is that we need to establish company cultures in which everyone feels compelled to metaphorically pick up trash. Picking up real trash helps to keep the environment clean and is a small act that we can do as individuals that will impact our surroundings as a whole. We need to find ways to do the same thing inside the workplace.

Capitalize on threshold moments: “When we enter a new group,” Coyle says, “our brains decide quickly whether to connect. So successful cultures treat these threshold moments as more important than any other. For example, suppose you are hired at Pixar, whether it’s as a director or a barista in the company café. On your first day, you and a small group of fellow newbies are ushered into the theatre where screenings are held. You are asked to sit in the fifth row – because there’s where the directors sit. Then you hear the following words: ‘Whatever you were before, you are a filmmaker now. We need you to help us make our films better.’”

Avoid giving sandwich feedback: Sandwich feedback is when we deliver a piece of bad news, then a piece of good news and then a piece of bad news. The idea is to soften the blow of the bad news, but what it actually tends to do is to confuse people, leaving them uncertain about which feedback to act upon. Instead, focus on being as clear as is reasonably possible.

Embrace fun: Ultimately, the work that we do should be fun if we want to feel engaged on the job and to allow our creativity to be its best.

What else?

Believe it or not, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lessons that this book has to share with us. In fact, all of the lessons that we’ve shared so far have tied in with the first of the three skills that Coyle has to teach us: the ability to build safety.

On top of that, the author also covers sharing vulnerability and establishing purpose, explaining that only by bringing these three different skills together can we establish a culture code of our own that brings value across the whole of our business. But covering the other two skills would call for two full reviews of their own, and we couldn’t possibly put it better than Coyle did. Because of that, it makes much more sense for you to go out and read the book yourself, and it’s a good idea to take some notes while you’re at it.

Ultimately, the best thing about the Culture Code is the fact that it’s all open for interpretation. Instead of giving you an exact set of rules that you need to follow, Coyle will help you to start thinking a little differently about how you approach company culture. He’ll also help you to understand how the company that you create can have a tangible impact on your company as a whole, including on its bottom line.

The good news is that this is a book that keeps on giving, and it holds up well to a re-read. The point isn’t for you to copy what worked for Google, the Navy Seals or any of the other teams that Coyle talks about. The point is to understand their way of thinking and to apply it to your own business. Coyle teaches you how to think, but he won’t do your thinking for you.

All in all, though, this is one of the better books that we’ve read on the subject of company culture, and it’s the kind of book that’s just as well-suited to employees as it is to heads of human resources and company CEOs. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t actually learn anything, you’ll still go away feeling inspired. What’s not to love?

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