Review of The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

By Jon Miller Updated on July 29th, 2018

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle examines how groups of various sizes and shapes form into great teams. He offers practical pointers on what we can do to improve our relationships within cooperative environments. Coyle has written a book with a simple, compelling, human-centered message. I recommended this as required reading for anyone serious about lean transformation or building great organizational cultures.

Coyle defines culture as “a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do.” Culture comes from human behavior, in other words. He identifies and organizes his storytelling around three traits.

Cultures that have great teamwork

  1. Build safety to make everyone feel comfortable in working together,
  2. Share vulnerability to show that no one needs to be perfect, and
  3. Establish purpose through a common goal and a clear path toward the goal.

It begins in familiar territory. Dr. Deming called for leaders to remove fear from the workplace. Coyle explains that the basic human need to feel part of a group comes from our desire to survive, rooted in our amygdala. Practically speaking, people in teams won’t let their guard down, speak up and share their ideas or point out problems until they feel safe and confident that they won’t be punished physically, psychologically, financially or socially for doing so. When you don’t have to constantly look over your back for threats, you can focus on the work at hand.

What was interesting is how Coyle presents the second point, that vulnerability comes before trust. Often organizations work on “building trust” in a variety of ways, assuming that once there is trust, or psychological safety, they proceed to being vulnerable and admitting their weaknesses and flaws. The leader of effective groups needs the humility and courage to create safety through vulnerability. This is counterintuitive because we think strong leaders create a sense of safety within a team. This may be true in some situations, such as faced with acute threats. Meeting a bear in a forest, if everyone starts sharing their vulnerabilities, ideas and opinions, they will be eaten. If one person is brave and cool-headed, they could take the lead, calm the group and retreat safely.

Coyle calls the ability of leaders to create safety by being vulnerable, open to the possibility of being wrong, and so forth “muscular humility”. That term speaks to the fact that we still view leadership as a masculine trait, or that we view leaders are being male who need to associate it with “muscle” rather than “finesse” or “compassion” or other positive human qualities.

Sharing our shortcomings must not be an aggressive, one-way act. This can turn into bragging, as in “I made this huge mistake, learned these things from it, and that’s why I’m successful.” When people detect that we are being genuinely vulnerable, it signals that it is okay for them to do the same. Done correctly, this brings people close and they grow to trust each. But this is easier said than done when there is fear present because people will hesitate to open up, thinking the leader’s vulnerable language might be a trick. The book offers a couple of pieces of simple advice in to address this. First, don’t interrupt the person you are listening to. Don’t try to add value to the conversation, or solve the problem. That is counter-intuitive, but consistent with the type of lean coaching recommended by Toyota Kata. After we listen actively, when it’s our turn, we share one of our own flaws. Several repetitions of this sets the tone for the conversation as being one where we can talk about our problems, our weaknesses, what we have done to fix them and why it’s still not working.

Demonstrating vulnerability, building a sense of safety to admit weaknesses, accepting mistakes and failures allows people to pursue a common goal. This requires a shared purpose, or a set of reasons why we are doing now toward the longer-term goal. The third and final section of the book on establishing purpose was solid but offered the fewest ahas or gems. It felt almost like an obligatory nod to prioritization, clarity, measures, focus, catch phrases and other artifacts of modern business.

My only hesitation with this book the rather limited sample size. “I spent the last four years visiting and researching eight of the world’s most successful groups, including a special-ops military unit, an inner-city school, a professional basketball team, a movie studio, a comedy troupe, a gang of jewel thieves, and others. I found that their cultures are created by a specific set of skills.” It is too easy for business authors to select a handful of just-so stories that confirm a set of themes, and build a book around it.

Having worked in the field of helping organizations build great cultures for years, I already believe nearly everything that the author presents. The more interesting book for me would have been to test the null hypothesis. Under what circumstances could teams be high-functioning with the opposites of these three characteristics (a sense of danger or risk, a sense of invulnerability, individual purpose over group purpose)? Under what circumstances do organizations that are safe, vulnerable and working toward a common purpose fail to be great? What are the inherent weaknesses in cultures that are built around these traits, and what unseen factors work to cover up and make these cultures effective? A possible answer is that these three traits are always winning ones, deeply rooted in human nature. The book convincingly argues this case but does not do so scientifically.

Coyle is a very good storyteller who keeps the pages turning. Each section is summarized with an “Ideas for Action” chapter which one can return to again and again. He doesn’t overburden the book with findings from other studies. The book could have used a few more data visualizations such as the Allen Curve, showing how communication skyrockets when people are seated 8 meters or less apart, and nearly halts at 50 meters apart. This may be an area of vulnerability for me, working mainly from home, rarely having colleagues or customers within a 50 meter radius. Hopefully mine is the example that tests the rule. It is an ongoing experiment to redefine “gemba”.

  1. Matt Kellett

    August 3, 2018 - 6:17 am

    I think there is a correlation between niche markets and business success regardless of culture. When you have a captured audience (customer) and you can control the core elements that keep the doors open (revenue vs expenses), then culture is really more about finding a body to execute the play, not finding a soul who cares about making things better (better is irrelevant in this type of scenario). Worse you become how you are treated. Being treated as a body that is replaceable is fertile soil for apathy, fear, anger, stress etc. Now the environment shifts and it is the loudest in the room, the bully, who stands out as a leader. Not the vulnerable, reflective, problem identifier. And with this your culture is further propelled in the wrong direction, while financially the business is doing great! I have seen this in retail, medical packaging, and most recently at a hair salon (of all places). My question is: what questions can be asked to those leaders who feel like they are successful Because of themselves, as opposed to inspite of themselves?
    Questions that will open their minds to a better way: Where everyone prospers?

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