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The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

June 23, 2020

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups


Skill 1: Build Safety

Chapter 1

  • “Safety is not mere emotional weather but rather the foundation on which a strong culture is built.” P. 6
  • “When you ask people inside highly successful groups to describe their relationship with one another, they all tend to choose the same word. This word is not friends, or team, or tribe, or any other equally plausible term. The word they use is family. What’s more, they tend to describe the feeling of those relationships in the same way.” P. 7
  • “Pattern of interactions:
    • 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.)” p. 7
  • “The term we use to describe this kind of interaction is chemistry. When you encounter a group with good chemistry, you know it instantly. It’s a paradoxical, powerful sensation, a combination of excitement and deep comfort that sparks mysteriously with certain special groups and not with others.” P. 8
  • “…belonging cues are behaviors that create safe connections 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.” P. 11
  • “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?” p. 11
  • “Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:
    1. Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring
    2. Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued
    3. Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue.” p. 11
  • “Team performance is driven by five measurable factors:
    1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short
    2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic
    3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader
    4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team
    5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others” p. 12
  • “Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.” P. 15


Chapter 2

  • “Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost-invisible cues: we are close, we are safe, we share a future.” P. 26
  • “Cohesion happens not when members of a group are smarter but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of safe connection.” P. 26


Chapter 3

  • “’It turns out that there are a whole bunch of effects that take place when we are pleased to be a part of a group, when we are part of creating an authentic structure for us to be more ourselves. All sorts of beneficial things play out from those first interactions.’” P. 39


Chapter 4

  • “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. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.” P. 55
  • “Belonging cues:
    • Personal, up-close connection (body language, attention, and behavior that translates as I care about you)
    • Performance feedback (relentlessness coaching and criticism that translates as ‘we have high standards here’)
    • Big-picture perspective (larger conversations about politics, history, and food that translates as ‘Life is bigger than basketball’)” p. 57


Chapter 5

  • “Collisions – defined as serendipitous personal encounters – are, he believes, the lifeblood of any organization, the key driver of creativity, community, and cohesion. He has set a goal of having one thousand ‘collisionable hours’ per year for himself.” P. 66
  • “When an idea becomes part of a language, it becomes part of the default way of thinking.” P. 67
  • “Meet people, you’ll figure it out.” P. 68
  • “The most successful projects were those driven by sets of individuals who formed ‘clusters of high communicators’” p. 69
  • “They had a knack for navigating complex problems with dazzling speed.” P. 69
  • “What mattered most in creating a successful team had less to do with where the desks happened to be located.” P. 70
  • “’Something as simple as visual contact is very, very important, more important than you might think, if you can see the other person or even the area where they work, you’re reminded of them, and that brings a whole bunch of effects.’” P. 70
  • “At distances of less than eighth meters, communication frequency rises off the charts.” (see Allen Curve) P. 71
  • “…were far more likely to text, email, and interact virtually with people who are physically close.” P. 72


Chapter 6

  • Overcommunicate Your Listening:
    • “Relatedly, it’s important to avoid interruptions. The smoothness of turn-taking, as we’ve seen, is a powerful indicator of cohesive group performance. Interruptions shatter the smooth interactions at the core of belonging. They are so discohesive.” p. 75
  • Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On – Especially If You’re a Leader:
    • “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?’” p. 76
    • ‘To create safety, leaders need to actively invite input.’ P. 77
  • Embrace the Messenger:
    • “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.” p. 77
  • 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.” P. 78
  • Overdue Thank-Yous:
    • “Thank yous aren’t only expressions of gratitude; they’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.” P. 80
  • 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.” P. 81
  • Eliminate Bad Apples:
    • “The groups I studied had an extremely low tolerance for bad apple behavior and, perhaps more importantly, were skilled at naming those behaviors.” P. 81
  • Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces:
    • “The groups I visited were uniformly obsessed with design as a lever for cohesion and interaction.” P. 81
  • Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice:
  • Pick Up Trash:
    • “…muscular humility – a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group.” P. 85
  • Capitalize On Threshold Moments:
    • “But the successful groups I visited paid attention to moments of arrival. They would pause, take time, and acknowledge the presence of the new person, marking the moment as special: We are together now.” P. 87
  • Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback:
    • “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 ultra-clear bursts of recognition and praise. The leaders I spent time with shared a capacity for radiating delight when they spotted behaviors worth praising.” P. 88


Skill 2: Share Vulnerability

Chapter 7

  • “…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 were about to learn, involves the willingness to perform a certain behavior that goes against our every instinct: sharing vulnerability.” P. 97
  • “When you watch highly cohesive groups in action, you will see many moments of fluid, trusting cooperation. These moments often happen when the group is confronted with a tough obstacle.” P. 98
  • “If you look closely, however, you will also notice something else. Sprinkled amid the smoothness and fluency are moments that don’t feel so beautiful. These moments are clunky, awkward, and full of hard questions. They contain pulses of profound tension as people deal with hard feedback and struggle together to figure out what is going on. What’s more, these moments don’t happen by accident. They happen by design.” P. 98


Chapter 8

  • “’People tend to think of vulnerability in a touch-feely way, but that’s not what’s happening,’ Polzer says, ‘It’s about sending a really clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help. And if that behavior becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other.” P. 104
  • “Vulnerability is less about the sender than the receiver. ‘The second person is the key,’ he says. ‘Do they pick it up and reveal their own weaknesses, or do they cover up and pretend they don’t have any? It makes a huge difference in the outcome.’” P. 104
  • “We feel like trust is stable, but every single moment your brain is tracking your environment and running a calculation whether you can trust the people around you and bond with them, trust comes down to context. And what drives it is the sense that you’re vulnerable, that you need others and can’t do it on your own.” P. 107
  • “Science shows that when it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk but a psychological requirement.” P. 111
  • “What are groups for? The idea is that we can combine our strengths and use our skills in a complementary way. Being vulnerable gets the static out of the way and lets us do the job together, without worrying or hesitating. It lets us work as one unit.” P. 111


Chapter 9

  • “… the exchange of vulnerability and interconnection is woven into every aspect of SEAL training and enshrined in a set of iron values.” P. 122
  • “…every evolution is a lens to look for teamwork moments, and we believe that if you stitch together a lot of opportunities, you start to know who the good teammates will be. It comes out at the oddest times.” P. 122
  • “These groups are cohesive not because it’s natural but because they’ve built, piece by piece, the shared mental muscles to connect and cooperate.” P. 129


Chapter 10

  • “The problem here is that, as humans, we have an authority bias that’s incredibly strong and unconscious – if a superior tells you to do something, by god we tend to follow it, even when its wrong. Having one person tell other people what to do is not a reliable way to make good decisions.” P. 139
  • “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 towards interdependence and cooperation. ‘Human nature is constantly working against us,’ he says. ‘You have to get around those barriers, and they never go away.” P. 139
  • “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, cold, and miserable together, that makes a team come together.” P. 140
  • “The goal of an AAR is not to excavate truth for truth’s sake or to assign credit and blame, but rather to build a shared mental model that can be applied to future missions. ‘Look, nobody can see it all or know it all, but if you keep getting together and digging out what happened, then after a while everybody can see what’s really happening, not just their small piece of it. People can share their experiences and mistakes. They can see how what they do affects others, and we can start to create a group mind where everybody can work together and perform to the team’s potential.’ Cooper uses the phrase ‘backbone of humility’ to describe the tone of a good AAR” P. 141
  • “When we talk about courage, we think it’s going against an enemy with a machine gun; the real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other. People never want to be the person who says, ‘Wait a second, what’s really going on here?’ But inside the squadron, that is the culture, and that’s why we’re successful.” P. 145


Chapter 11

  • “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.” P. 148
  • “I like the word connect; for me, every conversation is the same because it’s about helping people walk away with a greater sense of awareness, excitement, and motivation to make an impact. Because individuals are really different. So, you have to find different ways to make it comfortable and engaging for people to share what they’re really thinking about. It’s not about decisiveness – it’s about discovery.” P. 151
  • “I don’t see myself as the conductor of the music; I’m more of a nudger. I nudge the choreography and try to create the conditions for good things to happen.” P. 152
  • “Roshi has the ability to pause completely, to stop what must be going on in her head, to focus completely on the person and the question at hand, and to see where the question is leading. She isn’t trying to drag you somewhere, ever. She’s truly seeing you from your position, and that’s her power.” P. 153
  • “Concordances happen when one person can react in an authentic way to the emotion being projected in the room, it’s about understanding in an empathic way, then doing something in terms of gesture, comment, or expression that creates a connection.” P. 155
  • “It’s very hard to be empathic when you’re talking. Talking is really complicated because you’re thinking and planning what you’re going to say, and you tend to get stuck in your own head. But not when you are listening. When you’re really listening, you lose time. There’s no sense of yourself because it’s not about you. It’s all about this task – to connect completely to that person.” P. 157
  • Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often:
    • 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?” p. 159
  • Overcommunicate Expectations:
  • Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person:
  • When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments:
    • The first vulnerability
    • The first disagreement
  • Listen Like a Trampoline:
  • 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.” P. 163
  • Use Candor-Generating Practices like AARs, Brain Trusts, and Red Teaming:
    • 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?
    • Before-Action Review:
      • 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?
    • “BrainTrusts, the project-based method pioneered by Pixar, involves assembling a team of experienced leaders who have no formal authority over the project and letting them critique its strengths and weaknesses in a frank and open manner.” P. 165
  • Aim for Candor; 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.” P. 166
  • Embrace the Discomfort:
  • Align Language with Action:
  • Build a wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development:
  • Use Flash Mentoring:
    • “You pick someone you want to learn from and shadow them – except that instead of months or years, it lasts a few hours.” P. 167
  • Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear:
    • “Several leaders of successful groups have the habit of leaving the group alone at key moments.” P. 167


Skill 3: Establish Purpose

Chapter 13

  • “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.” P. 178
  • “Walking around these places, you tend to hear the same catchphrases and mottoes delivered in the same rhythms.” P. 178
  • 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.” P. 180
  • “High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.” P. 180
  • “When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brain light up, translating words and meanings. When we hear a story, however, our brains light up like Las Vegas, tracing the chain of cause, effect, and meaning.” P. 182


Chapter 14

  • “One of the best measures of any group’s culture is its learning velocity – how quickly it improves its performance of a new skill.” P. 193
  • “Real-time signals through which the team members were connected (or not) with the purpose of the work:
    • Framing: Successful teams conceptualized MICS as a learning experience that would benefit patients and the hospital. Unsuccessful teams conceptualized MICS as an add-on to existing practices.
    • Roles: Successful teams were explicitly told by the team leader why their individual and collective skills were important for the team’s success, and why it was important for them to perform as a team. Unsuccessful teams were not.
    • Rehearsal: Successful teams did elaborate dry runs of the procedure, preparing in detail, explaining the new protocols, and talking about communication. Unsuccessful teams took minimal steps to prepare.
    • Explicit encouragement to speak up: Successful teams were told by team leaders to speak up if they saw a problem; they were actively coached through the feedback process. The leaders of unsuccessful teams did little coaching, and as a result, team members were hesitant to speak up.
    • Active reflection: Between surgeries, successful teams went over performance, discussed future cases, and suggested improvements. For example, the team leader at Mountain Medical wore a head-mounted camera during surgery to help facilitate discussion and feedback. Unsuccessful teams tended not to do this.” P. 196
  • “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.’ P. 199


Chapter 15

  • “You have priorities, whether you name them or not, if you want to grow, you’d better name them, and you’d better name the behaviors that support the priorities.” P. 209
  • “Creating engagement around a clear, simple set of priorities can function as a lighthouse, orienting behavior and providing a path toward a goal.” P. 210


Chapter 16

  • “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.” P. 215
  • “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they’ll find a way to screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding.” P. 220
  • “Each gathering brings team members together in a safe, flat, high-candor environment and lets them point out problems and generate ideas that move the team, stepwise, toward a better solution.” P. 221
  • “It’s strange to think that a wave of creativity and innovation can be unleashed by something as mundane as changing systems and learning new ways of interacting. But it’s true because building creative purpose isn’t really about creativity. It’s about building ownership, providing support, and aligning group energy towards the arduous, error-filled, ultimately fulfilling journey of making something new.” P. 226


Chapter 17

  • “It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases. It’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning. High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high; they are dug out of the ground, over and over, as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.” P. 228
  • Name and Rank Your Priorities:
    • “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.” P. 229
  • Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be:
    • “Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities.” P. 229
  • Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where it Aims for Creativity:
    • “Skills of proficiency are about doing a task the same way, every single time.” P. 230
    • “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.” P. 230
    • “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.” P. 231
  • Embrace the Use of Catchphrases:
    • “The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright.” P. 231
  • Measure What Really Matters:
  • Use Artifacts:
  • 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.” P. 233