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If you had to bet on whether a group of business students or a group of kindergarteners would win a design challenge, where would you put your money?

Even if that challenge was to build a tower out of uncooked spaghetti, most of us would probably be surprised to find that the kindergarteners almost always come out on top.

So how is it possible that a group of 5-year-olds with zero strategy, no experience, and very low communication skills manage to work together more efficiently than even lawyers?

The answer, as Daniel Coyle explains in his book The Culture Code, is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, but how smartly you work together to face challenges.

The book teaches readers how to build culture—a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal—for stronger, more efficient teams.

The Book in 3 Sentences

The Culture Code analyzes group dynamics (including teams both large and small, formal and informal) to determine what makes a successful team.

Author Daniel Coyle uses a series of case studies, from SEAL Team Six to the San Antonio Spurs and others, in his quest to determine where great culture comes from and how it can be replicated in groups of all kinds.

Based on his studies of these teams and their work cultures, Coyle concludes that successful teams must be able to 1) build psychological safety; 2) share vulnerability; and 3) establish their purpose by working toward a common goal.

Key Takeaways from The Culture Code

The Culture Code offers an in-depth analysis of how humans work together to solve problems by taking a look at some of history’s most successful teams, while also juxtaposing them with some rather epic failures.

From SEAL Team Six to Zappos and Pixar, Coyle demonstrates true dedication as he visits and studies the leaders and members of these highly successful teams, seeking answers to the following questions:

  1. Where does great culture come from?
  2. How can that culture be built and sustained, or improved within a group that needs to be strengthened?

Based on his extensive research and time spent getting to know these teams, Coyle reached the following conclusions about what it takes to build a strong culture:

1. Build a safe environment.

Commenting on the fact that almost half of all Americans do at least part of their job remotely, Coyle points out that the reason for this is simple: people feel safest at home.

Most of us would probably agree that we’re more likely to participate in discussions and team collaborations when we’re in an environment that makes us feel safe, and with people who make us feel safe.

And this makes sense: if we’re not constantly worried about how we look or whether we can behave as we naturally would, we can better focus on the tasks at hand.

So how can you create an environment that feels safe for your team members (and for you)?

As Coyle explains, even the simplest of gestures can make a huge impact. For example, try the following:

  • Make eye contact with the person you’re speaking to.
  • Show you understand and are paying attention with simple affirmations, such as “yes,” “uh-huh,” or “got it.”
  • Don’t interrupt the other person; wait until they’ve finished speaking.
  • Say “thank you” as often as you can.

These gestures may seem like nothing, but they’re actually foundational communication skills that show others you’re listening and that what they say matters.

2. Share vulnerability.

Strong leaders aren’t afraid to admit their shortcomings or show vulnerability, but rather encourage it, because that’s how you make others feel comfortable enough to share ideas.

This step isn’t just important for leaders—it’s equally important for all members of a team, because of what researcher Jeff Polzer calls “vulnerability loops.”

When other people detect vulnerability from you, they show vulnerability in return, which helps to build trust. In fact, Coyle calls these loops “the most basic building blocks of cooperation and trust.”

This can be hard to get used to, especially in our competitive Western work culture, where we’re usually trained to think that strong leaders must appear confident, poised, and powerful all the time.

In reality, Coyle argues, it’s often the person who is first to admit their mistakes who is perceived as a leader. (Which actually makes sense—as anyone who’s ever had to done so knows, admitting mistakes takes a lot of courage.)

Since some mistakes are virtually inevitable when everyone is working together toward a shared goal, it’s important that everyone feels they can acknowledge mistakes without being berated.

Coyle uses the Navy SEALs as an example of vulnerability done right. He explains how the team conducts “After Action Reviews” following each mission, discussing what happened on the mission in excruciating detail. Mistakes are acknowledged, accepted, and used to map out plans for future behavior.

As Coyle concludes, being vulnerable together “is the only way a team can become invulnerable.

3. Establish purpose through a common goal.

In order for everyone to work together and collaborate efficiently, there must be a clear purpose, or reasons for doing what they’re doing.

If team members don’t sense a clear purpose behind all their hard work, it will be harder for them to feel truly dedicated to their tasks.

On the surface level, your team’s purpose might be to sell the most TVs or cars in your region; but ideally, the purpose should be something larger, like adding value to people’s lives in some way.

That’s why it’s important for leaders to paint a “bigger picture” that motivates their team and clearly illustrates what they’re fighting for.

Your established purpose should motivate your team to take actions each day that move all of you closer to your common goal.

Simple mottos, even ones that have become quite cliché, like Nike’s “Just do it!” can actually hav a profound impact when it comes to inspiring others to take action.

Find a short, simple, and memorable slogan that your team can adopt to stay motivated and on course with your goals.

Review of The Culture Code

Many books have been written on what makes a successful team or a good leader, but Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code takes a fresh approach, using real, familiar examples, to prove that you don’t really need expensive retreats or endless team-building exercises to build a successful group.

For example, Coyle uses San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich and his famous team dinners to show how a familiar, safe space can be built.

Even if Popovich can be ruthless in his criticism of certain players, because of the family environment he’s built, the players understand that his feedback is constructive and intended to make them better players.

Although The Culture Code is full of insights that are particularly helpful to leaders, you don’t have to be in a position of leadership to enjoy reading it, or to benefit from the information it shares.

For example, chances are that you’ve experienced working with a few “bad apples,” or people who simply bring a team down and zap their productivity, rather than rallying their success or contributing anything helpful.

Coyle explains just how those bad apples ruin a group’s motivation, and teaches us what any member of a group can do to prevent them from steering your team in a negative direction.

What’s really refreshing about this book is that it’s not just for the aspiring Tony Hsiehs of the the world (in other words, not this reader). Rather, Coyle addresses issues that most of us can relate to, since we’re all part of a large culture, or group.

Even if your work is completely autonomous, the insights to group culture and thinking presented in this book are fascinating and make for a very interesting read.

We’d recommend The Culture Code for:

  • Athletes and members of team sports
  • Coaches
  • Managers/supervisors
  • Members and leaders of remote teams
  • Team leaders
  • Students who work often in groups
  • HR managers involved in hiring
  • Anyone interested in reading about group culture

More Books for Leaders

Books like The Culture Code can help team members and leaders work together productively to achieve better results, while ensuring that everyone has a role to play.

For more insights on leadership strategies, check out our list of the best leadership books to share with your team.

Have you read The Culture Code? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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