Business Leadership Today

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle: A Summary


Muriel Call, Staff Writer

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle: A Summary

In a study conducted by MIT Sloan, it was revealed that toxic culture was the single best predictor of attrition during the first six months of the Great Resignation. It was ten times more powerful a predictor of turnover than compensation. 

While the negative effects of toxic culture seem to have reached a fever pitch and become more visible as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation, it’s been a major contributing factor to turnover for a few years now.

According to research on toxic workplace cultures commissioned by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly one in five employees have left their job in the last five years due to culture, putting the cost of turnover due to workplace culture at more than $223 billion over the past five years. 

Unfortunately, many companies with great ideas and talented employees fail when it comes to culture because they neglect to nurture their teams, fail to provide a cohesive team environment that is conducive to cooperation and collaboration, and fail to address toxic behaviors when they crop up in the workplace. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do as leaders to make sure our organizations succeed where others have failed in cultivating a positive culture. This is the topic of the book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

The Culture Code explores how highly successful groups work together to build cohesive, motivated cultures and achieve greatness. Author Daniel Coyle uses real-life examples and case studies to illustrate the book’s three main lessons: 1) creating belonging, 2) sharing vulnerability, and 3) establishing purpose.

Coyle reveals the elements that make cultures work, with fascinating stories from a variety of successful teams and organizations, including the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six, Internet retailer Zappos, comedy troupe The Upright Citizens Brigade, and the San Antonio Spurs.

In this article, we will review some of Coyle’s insights into how great culture develops, how it can fuel collaboration, and how to sustain it. 

About the Author

Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, The Little Book of Talent, The Secret Race, Lance Armstrong’s War, and Hardball: A Season in the Projects. He works as an advisor to the Cleveland Indians.

The Culture Code Answers The Oldest Question of All

In the book’s introduction, Coyle asks what he considers “might be the oldest question of all.”

Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?

The answer: culture. 

The exchange of culture in groups builds cohesion and helps people maximize their efforts. The Culture Code breaks down the different elements that build strong cultures and explores the ways those elements can be cultivated to help a team achieve a level of greatness that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Coyle doesn’t just provide an outline for what we should do to keep teams motivated and working together; he also provides some eye-opening examples of behaviors that can sabotage a team’s motivation and offers practical advice and action steps to take to boost collaboration and support a winning culture.

What Is Organizational Culture?

To understand what The Culture Code is about and how we can implement its ideas for action in our organizations, let’s unpack what organizational culture is and how it develops over time.

Organizational culture is the most important, yet underappreciated, value driver of an organization. It has a tremendous impact on productivity, innovation, performance, profitability, and long-term success and guides ethical compliance.

Culture is the primary factor for determining how well an organization executes on every other aspect of organizational performance. It is also the most important competitive advantage an organization can have because it’s what makes an organization stand out from its competitors.

Culture can be difficult to define because there isn’t one generally accepted definition or a one-size-fits-all approach to building and managing culture.

At its most basic, workplace culture encompasses the shared attitudes, beliefs, priorities, and values within an organization that guide the behaviors of all employees. Workplace culture provides much-needed context for an organization’s mission, vision, goals, and strategies. It helps employees not just understand the “how” of their jobs, it also helps them understand the “why,” which is essential for building engagement. 

What Is The Culture Code?

Culture isn’t a bullet-point list on the “about us” page of a website. It is embedded in the codes and signals that pepper all our interactions in the workplace. 

The term “culture code” describes the attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, norms, and shared values that exist within a group or organization—a collective personality that guides and influences how group members interact.

An organization’s culture code includes:

Behaviors – the observable actions that are deemed acceptable or encouraged within a group or organization (accountability, collaboration, respect, etc.).

Communication – the formal and informal ways group members communicate can reflect and reinforce the culture of a group or organization. It influences and is influenced by hierarchical structure, inclusivity, openness, and transparency.

Leadership – an organization’s leadership plays a central role in shaping its culture, and the behaviors and values a leader models profoundly impact the culture and how group members perceive it.

Norms – both articulated and unspoken expectations and rules that dictate how group members should behave in the organization (communication styles, dress codes, punctuality, work ethic, etc.).

Traditions – recurring activities or events that hold symbolic meaning within the group or organization and help reinforce culture, create a sense of identity, and foster belonging.

Values – the core principles that guide behaviors and drive decision-making in a group or organization (accountability, integrity, teamwork, etc.).

When all these attributes, codes, and signals present themselves in a positive way, the culture will be positive and support the growth of team members, fostering high levels of engagement and successful collaboration. When these attributes, codes, and signals are negative, culture will turn toxic, team members will experience low morale, performance will suffer, and retention will drop.

Next, we’ll take a look at the three lessons Coyle outlines in The Culture Code that can help leaders effectively manage culture in their organizations: build safety, share vulnerability, and establish purpose. 

Lesson 1: Build Safety

This lesson focuses on our innate need to belong. Building safety is essential for building belonging in any group. 

Before the development of modern society, humans used signals long before language to develop the cohesion we need to work well together and achieve goals. These signals, which create safe connections in groups, are called “belonging cues” and include proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn-taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, and consistency of emphasis. 

These belonging cues have three basic qualities:

Energy – they invest in the change that is occurring.

Individualization – they treat the other person as unique and valued.

Future Orientation – they signal that the relationship will continue.

Belonging cues are interpreted in ways that build psychological safety. 

Psychological safety refers to the belief that one will not be punished for asking questions, raising concerns, or voicing ideas. In a psychologically safe environment, team members are encouraged to make contributions, are recognized for their achievements, and feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks. 

This safety creates an open and honest environment where risks are reduced, innovative ideas are generated, and the team can work together to execute on those ideas, which improves outcomes. 

We are hard-wired to worry about what others think of us. At work, we are particularly concerned about what our direct managers and senior leadership think of us. A lack of belonging or a sense of rejection by the group can hinder a team member’s ability to thrive, so organizations have to find ways to maintain that sense of psychological safety for all team members or else performance suffers. 

Coyle illustrates this point in a chapter called “The Good Apples” through an experiment that showed the disruptive effects of a “bad apple” group member on the entire group’s chemistry, collaborative energy, and psychological safety. Through subtle but powerful signals, we protect or destroy psychological safety. 

Coyle includes a series of action steps in the “Ideas for Action” chapter of this lesson, that leaders can take to ensure they are providing a culture that supports a psychologically safe work environment where all employees feel a sense of belonging. 

He suggests that leaders be mindful of how they build their teams. Leaders should be painstaking in the hiring process—they should hire for cultural fit and ensure all employees become well-versed in the organization’s cultural norms through the onboarding process. He also says they should be painstaking in the retention process by eliminating the “bad apples” before they spoil the barrel and negatively impact the group’s chemistry. 

Lesson 2: Share Vulnerability

This lesson focuses on creating cooperation and boosting collaboration within groups and between individuals. 

Of vulnerability, Coyle says: “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.” 

Trust is so important to building strong teams who can achieve great things, but, without vulnerability, team members won’t trust each other. Trust is closely linked to authenticity and grows out of a sense of honesty that is shared between team members. 

When we share vulnerability, we encourage all team members to bring their authentic selves to work every day. A team member who brings their authentic self to work each day brings their whole self to work each day. This empowers and multiplies the efforts of the team. Unfortunately, it can be hard to do because, as Coyle says, sharing vulnerability “goes against our every instinct.” 

Highly cohesive groups are characterized by moments of fluid, trusting cooperation. These groups move and think as one, but, embedded within these fluid movements are less smooth, more awkward moments that can be tense. They reveal shortcomings and missteps. 

But revealing these shortcomings and sharing these less-than-perfect moments with the group sends the signal that it’s not only okay to make mistakes but also unavoidable, so we should embrace and learn from them to move forward and closer to achieving our goals. 

These moments of vulnerability nurture cohesion and bring team members closer together. They also help us establish what’s known as a “vulnerability loop,” where team members signal vulnerability, others detect it, and they signal vulnerability too. This builds trust and demonstrates acceptance. 

Showing vulnerability is hard, but when you can share and exchange vulnerability with others, it’s worth the effort because it builds the trust and belonging that are so important for cohesion, engagement, and motivation. 

In the “Ideas for Action” chapter of this lesson, Coyle says it’s particularly important for leaders to show vulnerability by always engaging in active listening (“listen like a trampoline”) and to always be receptive to the valuable feedback team members provide. 

Lesson 3: Establish Purpose

Purpose unites teams to work well together toward a common goal. It is essential for successful collaboration. 

Purpose makes vulnerability and safety possible because it keeps employees united to not only work together toward a vision but also to support each other in the process. It greases the wheels of collaboration by keeping individuals motivated to work together for a positive outcome.  

According to Coyle, “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.”

To do this, they build what Coyle calls “high-purpose environments” that are filled with small, vivid signals that create links between the present reality and the future ideal—a “where we are” and a “where we’d like to go.”

The three “lessons” in The Culture Code remind me of the three must-haves for motivation that Daniel Pink outlined in Drive. Pink identified purpose as one of the most effective motivators for people. Like Pink, Coyle sees purpose as one of the most effective motivators for teams. Team members need a shared sense of purpose to spark collaboration, build trust, and drive positive change. 

Successful groups have a clear and compelling sense of purpose that is about more than a paycheck, and group members have values that are aligned with the higher purpose of the group, which feeds their motivation.

Leaders play a crucial role in establishing purpose, and they set the tone by reinforcing culture and setting goals and priorities that are tied to the organization’s cultural values. In the “Ideas for Action” chapter in this lesson, Coyle says it’s important to name and rank priorities, and it’s also important to make harmonious in-group relationships one of the top priorities on that list.

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