The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
BY DANIEL COYLE
Why do some teams deliver performances exponentially better than the sum of their counterparts, while other teams add up to be much less? How can one build teams that seamlessly collaborate and act like a single hive-mind? The answer lies in group culture.
New York Times bestselling author Danny Coyle unlocks the secrets of highly effective group cultures by studying the finest teams across various industries in the world, including the Navy SEAL’s, Pixar Studios, and the San Antonio Spurs.
The Culture Code presents the three most important master skills required to transform your organizational culture.
TOP 20 INSIGHTS
Group cultures are extremely powerful. A Harvard study of over two hundred companies shows that strong culture increases net income 765 percent over ten years. Cultures are not predestined. They are a set of living relationships oriented towards a common goal. Group culture has more to do with what teams do than what they are.
The collective feeling of safety is the foundation on which strong cultures are built. Belonging cues are non-verbal signals that humans use to create safe connections in groups. The three basic qualities of belonging cues are 1) the energy invested in the exchange, 2) valuing individuals, and 3) signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future.
Evolution has conditioned our unconscious brain to be obsessed with sensing danger and craving social approval. Belonging cues, when repeated, create psychological safety and help the brain shift into connection mode. Psychological safety is easy to destroy and hard to build.
“Magical Feedback” enables leaders to give uncomfortable feedback without creating resentment. It creates strong belonging cues by doing three things: 1) It tells the person that they are a part of the group, 2) it reminds them that group has high standards, and 3) it assures them that they can reach these standards.
Collisions are serendipitous personal encounters that form community and encourage creativity and cohesion. Designing for physical proximity and collisions creates a whole set of effects including increased connections and a feeling of safety.
When someone joins a group, their brains are deciding whether to connect or not. Successful cultures capitalize on these threshold moments to send powerful belonging cues and bring a sense of ongoing togetherness and collaborative harmony to existing and incoming team members alike.
The key to building trusting cooperation in groups is sharing vulnerability. The best teams intentionally create awkward, painful interactions to discuss hard problems and face uncomfortable questions. It is these interactions that produce the cohesion and trust necessary for fluid, organic cooperation.
Navy SEALs do After Action Reviews(AAR) where each mission in discussed excruciating detail to share vulnerability and model future behavior. When given orders to use helicopters to eliminate Bin Laden, they repeatedly simulated crashes and did AAR’s. When a helicopter crash-landed during the actual mission the teams adapted instantly. The mission was over in 38 minutes.
Vulnerability does not come after trust is established. Instead, exchanges of vulnerability are the pathway through which trust is built. Group cooperation is built by repeated patterns of sharing such moments. In other words, “Being vulnerable together is the only way a team can become invulnerable”.
Moments of concordance happen when a person responds authentically to the emotion projected in the room. This empathetic response establishes a connection. The key moments of concordance happen when a person is actively listening.
“I screwed that up” is among the most important things a leader can say. Sharing of vulnerability as exemplified by a leader makes the team feel it's safe to be honest in this group.
The two most critical moments in group formation are the first vulnerability and the first disagreement. The way these moments are handled sets a clear template that prefaces either divisive competition or constructive collaboration in the future.
Candor-generating practices where the team sits down together to exchange candid feedback help them share vulnerability and understand what works. These practices create a shared mental model for the groups to navigate future challenges.
High-purpose environments create strong narratives that connect the present to a meaningful future. In 1998, Harvard researchers found that the inexperienced team from Mountain Medical Centre learnt a surgical technique much faster than an experienced team from Chelsea Hospital. This Mountain Medical Centre team's narrative constantly reinforced how this technique would help serve patients better.
The value of narratives and signals is not in their information but in their ability to orient the team towards the larger goal. They are less about inspiration and more about being consistent.
High Proficiency Environments have clear tasks that require consistent and effective performance. High Creativity Environments, on the other hand, focus on innovation. These require different types of beacon signals to building purpose.
Leaders of high proficiency groups focus on ordering priorities and creating a clear, simple set of practices that function as a lighthouse aligning everyday behavior with the core organizational purpose.
Pixar's President Ed Catmull says that every creative project starts as a disaster. Building purpose in High Creativity Environments requires systems that consistently churn out ideas. Every Pixar movie is put through multiple BrainTrust meetings where senior producers and directors give frank feedback. This generates fresh ideas while maintaining the creative team’s project ownership.
An employee survey across 600 companies by Inc. magazine revealed that less than 2 percent of employees could name the company’s top three priorities. Leaders of high-performance groups consistently over-communicate priorities painting them on walls, inserting them into speeches and making them a part of everyday language.
Bar-setting behaviors are simple tasks that define group identity and set high standards for the group. They help organizations translate abstract values into concrete everyday tasks that embody and celebrate the purpose of the group.
When we think of culture we usually think of groups as the sum of individual skills. In reality, however, nothing could be more wrong. A cohesive group culture enables teams to create performance far beyond the sum of individual capabilities. Strong cultures are created by a specific set of skills that can be learnt and practiced. In this book, Danny Coyle boils it down to three specific skills: Build Safety, Share Vulnerability, and Establish Purpose.
SKILL 1: BUILD SAFETY
Safety is the foundation on which cultures are built. Humans use a series of subtle gestures called belonging cues to create safe connection in groups. Examples of belonging cues include eye contact, body language, and vocal pitch.
There are three basic qualities of belonging cues: 1) energy invested in the exchange, 2) treating individuals as unique and valuable, and 3) signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future
SWITCHING FROM FEAR TO BELONGING
Our unconscious brain is obsessed with sensing danger and craving social approval from superiors. Belonging cues, when repeated, create psychological safety and help the brain shift from fear to connection. On receiving belonging cues, it switches roles and focuses on creating deeper social bonds with the group. This means that belonging happens from outside in, when the brain receives constant signals that signal closeness, safety, and a shared future.
A SURREAL CHRISTMAS ON THE BATTLEFIELD
On Christmas Eve, something surreal happened at Flanders, one of the bloodiest battlefields in World War 1. Tens of thousands of soldiers across the battlefield spontaneously erupted into Christmas carols. Soldiers even began eating and drinking together. This seemingly magical incident becomes intelligible when we analyze the steady stream of belonging cues exchanged by both sides for weeks before Christmas Eve. The close physical proximity created belonging cues as soldiers could hear the conversations and songs from the others side.
The British and the Germans would deliver rations to the trenches at the same time. During this time the firing would stop. Slowly these micro-truces expanded to include ceasefire during resupplying, latrines, and gathering of casualties. By the time the “spontaneous” ceasefire happened, thousands of belonging cues had been exchanged to create a sense of connection, safety, and trust.
WHY CULTURES FAIL
To understand what makes cultures tick, it's important to see why cultures fail. The Minuteman missileers are nuclear missile launch officers who handle weapons that are twenty times more powerful than Hiroshima. In recent years, however, they have seen a high rate of failure and accidents including missiles lying unattended on a runway for hours. The Air Force treated this as a disciplinary problem and cracked down. Yet, the failures kept happening.
It’s easy to think of the missileers as lazy and selfish. But belonging cues give us a different picture. The missileers spend twenty-four hour shifts inside cramped missile silos with no scope for physical, social or emotional connections. After the Cold War, there is no real mission and few career options. They are expected to conform to near-impossible standards and small failures are severely punished. This creates a perfect cocktail of anti-belonging cues. The missileers fail because they see no safety, no connection, and no shared future.
TECHNIQUES TO BUILD SAFETY
Building safety requires you to recognize small cues, respond quickly, and deliver a targeted signal. This comes with a learning curve and below are some techniques that help:
Show Vulnerability: Instead of hiding weakness to appear competent, leaders must expose fallibility and actively invite feedback. This evokes a connection in the listener who feels “how can I help”?
Embrace the Messenger: Embrace and encourage members who deliver tough feedback or bad news that matters to the team. This creates safety and encourages people to speak the truth fearlessly.
Preview Future Connections: This involves showing the team where they are headed by making a connection between now and the future.
Overdo Thank-Yous: Research shows that a thank-you from one person makes people behave far more generously to others in the group. Thank You's are belonging cues that create safety, connection and motivation.
Hire Meticulously and Eliminate Bad Apples: Who is in and who is out is one of the most powerful signals a group can send. On completing training Zappos offers $2000 to any trainee who seeks to quit. Successful groups display zero tolerance to poor behavior.
Create Collison-Rich Spaces: Collisions, serendipitous personal encounters, are the life of any organization driving community, creativity and cohesion. Design of spaces should be optimized to create more collisions. Designing for physical proximity creates a whole set of effects including increased connections and a feeling of safety. At a distance below 8 meters the frequency of communication increases exponentially.
Ensure Everyone has a Voice: Leaders must actively seek out connections and make sure everyone is heard. For example, some do this by making a rule that meetings don't end until everyone speaks. Others do this by holding regular open-reviews where anyone can pitch in.
Capitalize on Threshold Moments: When someone joins a group their brains are deciding whether to connect or not. Successful cultures capitalize on these moments to send powerful belonging cues.An OKR culture is an accountable culture, transparent and vision-based. The rulebook tells people what they can or can’t do, but the culture of the organization can tell people what they should do. Or, as business philosopher Dov Seidman puts it, “What we choose to measure is a window into our values, and into what we value.”
SKILL 2: SHARE VULNERABILITY
Teams succeed because they are able to combine the skills to form a collective intelligence. The key to doing this is sharing vulnerability. This creates the cohesion and trust necessary for fluid, organic cooperation.
CREATING VULNERABILITY LOOPS
A vulnerability loop is established when a person responds positively to a group member’s signal of vulnerability. This behavior becomes a model for others who leave their insecurities and begin to trust and collaborate with each other. Group cooperation is built by repeated patterns of sharing vulnerability together.
CREATING COOPERATION IN GROUPS
Navy SEALs training gives teams the remarkable ability to navigate complex and uncertain landscapes in complete silence. The training philosophy can be seen in an exercise called Log PT where teams perform a series of maneuvers with a wooden log. Log PT delivers strong doses of pure agony for extended durations and demands highly coordinated maneuvers. This interplay of vulnerability and interconnectedness is seen throughout the training program generating thousands of microevents that build cooperation and trust.
Dave Cooper carries a reputation for building SEAL teams that collaborate seamlessly. For Cooper the central challenge of creating a hive mind is to develop ways to challenge each other and ask the right questions. To do this, he continually gives signals that nudge them towards active cooperation, use his first name and question his authority. Over time, Cooper has developed tools to improve team cohesion. One of the most effective ones is the After Action Review(AAR) that follows every mission. Cooper creates a safe space for everyone to talk by having “Ranks switched off, humility switched on”. The team puts their guns down and the start discussing the mission in excruciating detail, questioning every single decision. AAR’s enable the team to have a shared mental model of what happened and model future behavior.
Cooper’s methods were tested when his team was asked to fly into Pakistan on stealth helicopters to take down Osama Bin Laden. For the next few weeks, Cooper repeatedly simulated crashed-helicopter scenarios where teams would scramble to figure out how to crash-land and storm the mock compound. This was followed by AAR’s. On May 1, when the actual mission took place, both helicopters faced difficulties and one crash landed. Despite this the mission was over in just 38 minutes. The teams knew exactly what to do.
CREATING COOPERATION WITH INDIVIDUALS
At the award-winning design firm IDEO, Roshi Givechi plays a crucial role making things flow when teams are stuck and opening new possibilities. Roshi is not the center of the room. She quietly listens to understand the design and team-dynamics issues that the team is facing. Then she asks questions that bring out the tensions and help teams gain clarity on both project goals and team dynamics. She calls this surfacing. This isn’t always pleasing. Sometimes it's a nudge to work harder or try a different approach. Moments of concordance happen when a person responds authentically to the emotion projected in the room. This empathetic response establishes a connection. The key moments of concordance happen when a person is actively listening.
TECHNIQUES TO SHARE VULNERABILITY
Building group vulnerability takes time and systematic, repeated effort. These are some techniques that successful teams follow.
The Leader is Vulnerable First and Often “I screwed that up” is among the most important things a leader can say. Sharing of vulnerability makes the team feel it's safe to be honest in this group.
Deliver Clear Signals: The best teams send repeated signals that set expectations for sharing vulnerability and align language and roles to achieve this.
Deliver the smallest of negative feedback in-person: This avoids misunderstandings and reinforces clarity and connection.
Focus on Two Critical Moments: The two most critical moments in group formation are the first vulnerability and the first disagreement. The way these moments are handled sets a clear template that privileges either competition or collaboration.
Practice Engaged Listening: The best listeners add energy to the conversation by responding actively and asking questions from multiple angles. They avoid the temptation to jump in with suggestions until “a scaffold of thoughtfulness” is established.
Create Candor-generating Practices: Practices like the AAR’s help the team share vulnerability and understand what works. These practices create a shared mental model for the groups to navigate future challenges.
Use Flash Mentoring: Members pick a person they wish to learn from and shadow them for a few hours. This breaks down barriers and builds relationships.
Make Leaders Disappear: The best leaders occasionally leave their team alone at crucial moments to enable them to make key decisions themselves.
SKILL 3: ESTABLISH PURPOSE
Purpose does not stem from a mystical inspiration but from creating simple ways to focus attention on the shared goal. High-purpose environments provide clear signals that connect the present moment to a meaningful future goal. Stories are the most powerful tool to deliver mental models that drive behavior and remind the group about the organization’s purpose.
CREATING BEACONS OF MEANING
In 1998, Harvard researchers studied the learning velocity of 16 hospitals who went through a three-day training program to learn a new heart surgery technique. At the outset it looked like the team from Chelsea Hospital, an elite institution with a strong organizational commitment to the procedure would win the race. However, the team from Mountain Medical Centre, a small institution with an inexperienced team, overtook Chelsea by the fifth surgery.
The difference lay in a set of small, repeated signals that focused attention on the shared goal. The Mountain Medical Centre team were constantly reminded that the technique is an important learning opportunity that would benefit patients. This created a narrative that linked the current action with the larger goal.
These beacon signals depend on the nature of the tasks the groups perform. High Proficiency Environments have clear tasks that require consistent and effective performance. High Creativity Environments on the other hand focus on innovation. These require different approaches to building purposes.
LEAD FOR HIGH PROFICIENCY: THE LIGHTHOUSE METHOD
Four out of five restaurants in New York vanish within five years. Against these seemingly impossible odds Danny Meyer has successfully built twenty-four unique restaurants ranging from an Italian Cafe to a Barbeque Joint. Every restaurant creates an ambience of warmth and connection.
When Meyer started his first restaurant, he trained the staff himself and created a language that radiated warmth. How the team treated each other became top priority Meyer created catchphrases for favorable behaviors and interactions. For example, Making the Charitable Assumption meant giving the benefit of the doubt when someone behaves poorly.
Creating engagement around a clear, simple set of behaviors can function as a lighthouse aligning behaviors with the core organizational purpose. As the author puts it: Leaders of high proficiency groups focus on creating priorities, naming keystone behaviors and flooding the environment with heuristics that link the two.
LEAD FOR HIGH CREATIVITY
Ed Catmull, President and cofounder of Pixar, is one of the most successful creative leaders of all time. For Catmull, every creative project necessarily starts as a disaster. Teams never get the right set of ideas right away. Building purpose has more to do with building systems that consistently churning out ideas. Creative leadership is getting the team working together, helping them navigate hard choices and see what they are doing right and where they make mistakes.
To do this Catmull created a set of organizational habits. Every movie is put through at least six BrainTrust meetings during development. These meetings are frank and candid, harnessing the ideas of the entire team while maintaining the creative team’s project ownership. As Catmull puts it “All our movies suck at first. The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it's also where they start not to suck.”
These methods are not limited to Pixar alone. When Catmull was asked to lead Walt Disney Animation, a studio several times bigger than Pixar, he was able to recreate the magic. With zero staff turnover, the studio began to generate a string of hits.
TECHNIQUES TO ESTABLISH PURPOSE
High-purpose teams are built through navigating challenges together and reaffirming their common purpose.
Define, Rank and Overcommunicate Priorities: Successful teams have few priorities with group relationship right at the top of the list. An employee survey across 600 companies by Inc. magazine revealed that less than 2 percent of employees could name the company’s top three priorities. Leaders of high-performance groups overcommunicate priorities painting them on walls, inserting them into speeches and making them a part of everyday language.
Identify if you aim for Proficiency or Creativity: Building purpose in high proficiency environments with clearly defined goals requires spotlighting the goal and providing clear checkpoints including repetitive high-feedback training and memorable rules of thumb. Building purpose in creative environments involves providing tools, protecting creative autonomy and make it safe to give feedback. In groups that have a combination of both, it's important to clearly identify the areas to provide effective leadership.
Embrace Catchphrases: Design catchphrases with action-based clarity that serve as clear reminders of the overarching goal.
Reinforce Purpose with Artefacts: Successful cultures flood their environments with artefacts that reinforce what the core organizational purpose.
Create Bar-setting Behaviors: A bar-setting behavior is one simple task that defines group identity and sets high standards for the group. They help organizations translate abstract values into concrete everyday tasks that embody and celebrate the purpose of the group.
Building a cohesive organizational culture focused on core purpose is like building a muscle. It takes time and repeated, focused effort. Ultimately, “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”